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Shohei NO-htani: Why you should avoid 2018’s most hyped player

There are so many uncertainties surrounding the Japanese ‘Babe Ruth’ that it’s not worth paying the price.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels-Press Conference Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s only fair to you, the reader, that I tell you that I’m one of the most risk-averse managers you’ll find when it comes to drafting hyped players or breakouts. Mike Trout in 2013? Pass. Jose Bautista in 2011? No way, Jose. Carlos Correa in 2016? Nope. Jose Ramirez in 2018? Probably not. All four of those guys had major breakouts the year prior and had (or will have in JoRam’s case) astronomical ADPs the following year. I didn’t buy in because I needed to see them do it one more time.

I’m far from the first manager to have ever played it safe in the early rounds of a draft, but I make it a point to avoid the hype because the floor is still not as high until they can repeat. This is why I’m saying no to Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani. Call me a wet blanket, a Debbie Downer, or Buzz Killington: Ohtani is not worth it in 2018.

Limited Mound Work

Ohtani is not going to pitch more than 150 innings this year, if that. The most innings Ohtani has pitched in a season has been 160.2 in 2015 with the Nippon Ham Fighters. He followed that up with 140 innings the next year and in 2017 he pitched only 25.1 innings thanks to injuries. Be objective: if a pitcher only pitched 25 innings the year prior, is it wise for a team to push him? Now, if you’re the Angels and you just landed this generational pitcher who’s supposed to lead you to the World Series, are you really going to push your limits here knowing you have his rights for a few more years?

But that’s not all. Japanese baseball employs six-man rotations. That’s a pretty major difference when comparing baseball here vs. baseball there. The extra day of rest is crucial to limiting injuries. But wait, you say, the Angels are thinking of going to a six-man rotation! First off, kudos to them. Their rotation as a whole is pretty delicate and they’d benefit and not just for Ohtani’s sake. But a six-man rotation isn’t a panacea. In Japan, keeping pitchers healthy goes beyond that. Here’s an excerpt from a 2014 Sports on Earth piece written by Eno Sarris on employing a six-man rotation.

Former major league pitcher Brian Bannister does agree that the "extended recovery cycle" of a six-man rotation would be helpful, but he points out that there are many differences in Japan that could teach us some best practice. "The standard practice/pregame dynamic warmup is extremely thorough in both duration and number of unique motions… this makes sure the body is warm and stretched out prior to throwing," says Bannister. He also thinks that their approach to weight lifting might be more suited to the act of pitching: "The overall attitude towards weightlifting is making sure the body is strong but not in the beach muscle kind of way. I believe this keeps muscles in balance and one muscle group does not overwhelm the connective tissue of a smaller muscle group." Even the recovery phase is a little different in Japan: "the recovery process in Japan is very deliberate with massage and soaking in alternating hot/cold water common."

I’m not going to pretend to know the Angels pre-game regimen for pitchers, but Bannister made it seem like the routines differ drastically in each country.

UCL Damage

Do you want to know why else he won’t pitch that more than 150 innings in 2018? Ohtani has a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. This was a surprise to us, but not to teams, as the information became known to all teams once he was officially posted. In late October he received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection, the same choice his new teammate Garrett Richards made this past April in lieu of Tommy John. The good news is Richards came back for 27 innings, didn’t lose a tick on his fastball, had an even better SwStr% rate and though ERA doesn’t matter with a sample size that small, it’s still nice to see a 2.28 in that department. Masahiro Tanaka has defied all Tommy John expectations with a damaged UCL as well.

The Angels have come out and said there will be no restrictions on Ohtani and they will treat him as if he’s 100 percent. They know his medical records best, so we must give them the benefit of the doubt. But know that at any sign of minor soreness, whether it’s playing catch or in a game, they will place him on the DL and handle him with kid gloves. The UCL cloud hanging over his head won’t be disappearing any time soon.

Limited At The Plate

Your concern about his production at the plate may vary greatly depending on the format you use him. Two of the big three sites, Yahoo and CBS, are planning splitting him. ESPN hasn’t disclosed their plan yet. (Feb.26 EDIT: CBS, ESPN and Fantrax have him as one player with dual-eligibility.)

If you’re going to play in a league where he’s split, Ohtani the Batter becomes less appealing. At the time of this post, no one from the organization hasn’t come out and said how many at bats they plan to give him. Baseball Twitter seems to be setting the O/U at 250 and I think that’s fair given how he was used in Japan.

Ohtani’s Usage in Japan

Year At Bats Innings Pitched
Year At Bats Innings Pitched
2013 189 61.2
2014 212 155.1
2015 109 160.2
2016 323 140
2017 202 25.1

I’m assuming 250 at bats for 2018. Ohtani carries a career .859 OPS in 1,170 PA with the Nippon Ham Fighters. Traditionally, the NPB’s talent level has been compared to a little bit better than Triple-A but not as good as the Major League level. Here’s a full breakdown of that if you’re interested.

Former MLB’ers that have faced Ohtani cede that his raw power is incredible, translating to something like 70 grade in the 20-80 scouting scale. But those same pitchers talk about how he may not excel immediately at the plate. Here’s an excerpt from an excellent Baseball America article. Note: I removed two grafs. Speaking below is former major league reliever Dennis Sarfate and former infielder Brent Morel.

"I think I faced him 11 times and I think I gave up a single and triple, and the single was actually a squiggler down the third-base line that he beat out." Sarfate said. "He's got decent plate awareness, the only problem I see him having issues with early on—and he can make the adjustment—is fastballs in. Japanese guys tend to stay away from him, I think it's a lot of respect and they don't want to throw a fastball in and break his arm or hit him in the elbow. I think he's aware of that, that no one pitches him in. I pitch him in and have had good success going in.

"Big league pitchers aren't afraid to go in, they don't care who you are. And that's going to be his one adjustment he's going to have to make."

Morel, from his vantage point playing the infield, sees the same potential shortcoming on fastballs in.

"He just has unbelievable pop to the opposite field, center field (but) it didn't seem like he pulled too many balls unless they were offspeed," Morel said. "I think he'll get pounded in like any young hitter going to the big leagues. He'll have to make the adjustment. He was so big and strong he didn't have to worry about it too much over there. I'm not saying he can't make the adjustment, he just hasn't had to yet."

An acclimation to major league style pitching, plus some long levers that scouts say he has in his swing, lead me to believe that Ohtani the Batter isn’t going to be anything spectacular in 2018. It’s almost a shot in the dark, but I’m predicting something in the neighborhood of .260/.330/.430. How does Evan Longoria’s 2017 sound to you for about 250 AB?

Astronomical ADP

The previous 1,300 words wouldn’t have mattered if his ADP wasn’t as high as it currently is. Consider that in First Pitch Arizona, where among other activities industry experts gather to do a NFBC-style draft in the first week of November, Ohtani went in the 14th-round of a 15-team league. Granted, there were real concerns he wouldn’t come over at the time. A month later, his ADP is in the 80s, but in the drafts I’ve seen, he’s going inside the top 60 because managers know they have to reach if they want him. (Feb.26 EDIT: His NFBC ADP is now 72nd overall).

Can there be valuable seasons of a pitcher who pitches 130-150 innings in a season? Yes. James Paxton, Rich Hill, Brad Peacock, Chase Anderson and J.A. Happ all pitched less than 150 innings last season and we can all reasonably agree they had good to great seasons. But all suffered through injuries or in Peacock’s case, getting yanked (heh) around the bullpen and starting rotation. Are you drafting any of these guys inside the top 80? No way. Paxton comes closest with an average ADP of exactly 80 according to Fantrax. Hill is in the 130s. Peacock in the 190s.

Ohtani’s hype is carrying him to the tier of Aaron Nola, Yu Darvish, Carlos Martinez and Robbie Ray. All of them are expected to pitch more innings next year and have flashed ace-level talent. Ohtani might match up in talent, but not in production. In an age where fewer pitchers are producing innings, simply having quantity is a skill within itself, and it’s not one Ohtani will immediately.

A bad elbow, limited production at the plate, limited appearances in a potential six-man rotation and an absurd ADP are why I’m avoiding Shohei Ohtani in 2018 and so should you.