Shohei Ohtani, the ultimate reliever?
When Shohei Ohtani was signed by the Angels in December of 2017, excitement in Anaheim was at record highs. For once, the team decided to sign a great young talent over an aging one. He was even going to fill a hole in the rotation and as a lefty power bat in the lineup. Almost a year and a torn UCL later, Ohtani will not be permitted to pitch until 2020. This forces the Angels to answer a very difficult question. What happens when Ohtani returns to pitching?
Ohtani should not be a starter. Period. While it is tempting to have him start 32 games and get 300 at-bats, Ohtani has proven his bat is too valuable to not have in the lineup. This is why the best way to utilize Ohtani would be as a hitter and reliever. Let’s break down his offense first.
The Japanese slugger’s biggest question mark going into the season was if he could handle elite MLB pitching. This year Ohtani has homered off of Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, and Carlos Rodon. Verlander and Kluber are in Cy Young consideration this year and have won a combined three CY Young awards. Clevinger and Rodon are ranked in the top ten in American League ERA. Not only can Ohtani hit well in the MLB, he can handle the league’s best pitchers.
SHO TIME (again)!!
To start the season, Ohtani would not hit against lefty pitchers. The idea was there was no need to put him in a situation to fail. That all changed on September 4. Ohtani hit his first home run off of a lefty that year. Despite struggling against southpaws earlier that year, the home run seemed to fix his problems against lefties. Before the home run, Ohtani hit just .177 against lefties, after it he has hit .375.
Shohei has been the Angels second best hitter. If you give Ohtani as many at-bats as Justin Upton, Ohtani would have more home runs and RBIs. Ohtani has also been the best Angel in high leverage situations. In high leverage situations, Ohtani is hitting .421 with 12 RBI in 24 plate appearances. That is as many plate appearances as Martin Maldonado had in this situation, and Maldonado was traded.
Ohtani is too valuable an offensive asset to not have him in the lineup almost every day. The Angels have been looking for a left-handed bat like this since Josh Hamilton left the team. The organization has finally found a player who can produce behind Trout in the lineup. This means the Angels would be delusional to not try to get him hitting as much as they can.
One of the most dangerous pitch mixes in Major League Baseball.
While his offense is tantalizing, his pitching is nothing to scoff at. In 51.2 innings, Ohtani had a 3.31 ERA with 63 strikeouts. Over a 162 game season, he would average just over 200 strikeouts. While the statistics are impressive, the Angel faithful won’t see Ohtani pitch until 2020. And when he comes back, the Angels should be wary of using him as a starter.
In five of his ten starts, Ohtani was not able to pitch past six innings. In two of his starts, he was not able to get out of the second inning. While I’m confident that with time Ohtani can become truly dominant, the Angels need to win soon. The best role for Ohtani would be as a reliever.
What could happen is Ohtani hits for the first part of the game. Then if it seems like there could be a situation where Ohtani can come in relief, he warms up while the Angels are batting. A pinch hitter would already be announced for Ohtani so he can warm up. While this likely takes Ohtani out of high leverage situations offensively, he is now in high leverage situations pitching.
What could make this experiment thrive is Ohtani’s velocity and movement combination. His fastball averages around 96.8 MPH, making him the fourth hardest throwing starting pitcher. His maximum velocity hovers around 100 MPH. While that is already impressive, his secondary pitches are what make Ohtani elite.
Ohtani utilizes a slider, splitter, and curveball along with his top-notch fastball. While his fastball is the one he uses the most, his secondary pitches are seemingly unhittable. His secondary pitches have a combined .080 batting average against. I will repeat that. A .080 batting average against. In 111 at-bats that ended with a secondary pitch, professional baseball players have nine hits in them. Below is just a taste of the type of movement Ohtani has.
While many will say Ohtani must be a starter because of the Angels need for one in their rotation, it may not be the case. The Angels have the tenth best bullpen ERA and a thin starting rotation. However, they have plenty of pitchers who can get the Angels to the fifth or sixth inning. This is when the bullpen can take over and shut down the opponent.
That is right. I am proposing the Angels go full 2015 Kansas City Royals and make the bullpen the focus of the team. With Ohtani leading that bullpen, the Angels could be a true contender in 2020. It sounds drastic now, but by 2020 the Angels will have most of their good starting pitching back. Not to mention important relievers like Justin Anderson will improve and Keynan Middleton will be healthy.
Ohtani is an important piece in an Angels team that can surprise a lot of people in a few years. But to do that, they need to use him as strategically as possible. With him in the lineup almost every day, and shutting down the later innings, Ohtani can realize his potential as a two-way star.
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