Originally Published: April 12, 2017 6:02 a.m.
The Major League Baseball season got underway last week and stars such as Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw will spend the next six months burnishing their reputations as the best in the game. But perhaps the best player on the planet will not be wearing an MLB uniform this year.
Twenty-two year old Shohei Ohtani plays in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), acknowledged as the worlds’ top league outside MLB. After one more season in Japan, Ohtani is expected to cross the Pacific, bringing his dual talents with him. That’s right. Ohtani, 6’4” and 215 pounds, pitches and hits well enough to be considered the Japanese equivalent of Babe Ruth. Whether his accomplishments in Japan will translate to this country remains to be seen. However, scouts, who are known to be fickle and critical by nature, gush over his talent.
The reigning MVP of NPB, Ohtani throws right and bats left. Last year he won the NPB home run derby and also threw the fastest pitch in league history, clocked at 102.5 mph, which eclipsed his own record. Incomprehensible as it may seem, Ohtani has yet to reach his prime, which only heightens the anticipation surrounding his arrival in the Major Leagues.
It’s difficult to compare stats in Japan to those in the U.S. for a number of reasons. Pitchers start once a week in Japan versus every fifth day in MLB. That’s why Ohtani finished last season with only a 10-4 record in 20 starts, modest numbers for an MLB starter. In addition, overall talent in NPB is considered above Triple A, but a notch below the majors. Yet the speed of Ohtani’s fastball suggests his talent on the mound would translate well to MLB. His repertoire also includes a splitter, slider and an occasional off-speed pitch.
As a hitter, Ohtani, who bats cleanup, had an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.004 with 22 home runs in 382 official plate appearances, a rate that puts him in rarified company. However, everyday hitters in MLB accumulate almost double that number of at bats during the season, although in fairness, they don’t have the additional mental and physical stress of pitching. To avoid burnout, Ohtani sits out the day before and the day after he pitches.
Ohtani is determined to try pitching and hitting when he signs with an MLB team, something that has rarely occurred in MLB history. The aforementioned Ruth experienced the most success a century ago, pitching and batting the Red Sox to World Series titles in 1915, 1916, and 1918. In 1919 he was traded to the Yankees where he spent the rest of his career as a hitter, save for a rare relief appearance. A number of players who were dual threats in college never got a chance to do both in the big leagues.
The MLB team that signs Ohtani, for a $20 million posting fee to his current team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, plus potentially tens of millions more in bonus and salary, will be loath to risk their investment. Pitchers who throw 100 mph are rare so that will most likely be where he begins his career. There are too many risks in the batter’s box and in the field for a team to play him both ways.
Still, as a free agent Ohtani will have leverage and if a condition of signing with an MLB team is that he be allowed to continue in his dual role, some team may roll the dice. However, despite the hype, the odds of making an impact in MLB are already against him. Of the more than 100 players who have tried to transition from Japanese baseball to the majors, only 60 have made it, with varying degrees of success.
Part of the charm of baseball is comparing players and projecting their future success. While Ohtani’s upside is unlimited, for now he remains an unproven prospect, albeit one that is about to become filthy rich.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.