NL teams have strong case to make to Ohtani

Despite lack of DH, chance to hit while pitching matters

December 1st, 2017

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Shohei Otani may be more likely to select an American League team as he prepares to enter Major League Baseball, because the presence of the designated hitter would allow him opportunities to hit as well as pitch, and he's made it quite clear he wants to do both.

But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if National League teams not only still have a chance, but potentially an edge when it comes to guaranteeing Ohtani plate appearances?

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The argument basically comes down to a few simple facts:

1) While the DH would give Ohtani at-bats when he's not pitching, it could cost them when he is pitching in certain scenarios.

2) There's many, many more chances to be a pinch-hitter in the National League. In each of the last two years, 74 percent of all pinch-hitting appearances came in the NL, or about 2,500 more each season.

3) It's really, really hard to be a two-way player. If it doesn't work out, Ohtani in the AL would be left as a full-time pitcher who almost never gets an opportunity to hit. In 2017, the AL pitcher who hit the most was Minnesota's ... who got all of 10 plate appearances. In the NL, 41 pitchers got at least 50 plate appearances, led by 's 77.

We'll admit that it's doesn't sound like a terribly effective sales pitch to go into the room and tell Ohtani "we think your future is primarily a pitcher, so sign with our NL team," but there's also value in zagging while everyone else is zigging. If you can make the case that going to the AL causes significant risk that plate appearances may dry up entirely, you might just be able to convince him the DH-free NL is a safer bet. (To say nothing of the easier competition a pitcher gets to face in the league without the DH.)

It's important to remember that despite the undeniable talent Ohtani is expected to bring to America, there is risk. In his five seasons in Japan, just once did he receive more than 240 plate appearances. The scouting reports are stellar, but they don't guarantee success.

The obvious power also comes with a big strikeout rate, because against pitching generally considered to be of lesser quality than in the Majors, Ohtani struck out in 27 percent of his plate appearances. Even in the whiff-forgiving climate of today's MLB, that's a lot, as the Major League average for non-pitchers was just 21.2 percent. In the Pacific League of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, where Ohtani's Nippon Ham Fighters reside, the average was a lower 19.5 percent. It's not difficult to envision a 30 percent rate for him in the Majors, which would place him among the top 10 whiff-happy hitters.

Plus, hitting (or fielding, though he hasn't actually played any outfield since 2014), comes with some amount of added injury risk. To pick just a single team in 2017, we saw Milwaukee pitchers Jimmy Nelson (shoulder), Chase Anderson (oblique), and (calf) all injure themselves while batting. We've seen and do the same in the past. Ohtani himself made just five starts in 2017, thanks to right ankle surgery meant to repair an injury first suffered running the bases in late 2016. 

None of this is to suggest that he's incapable of succeeding on both sides of the ball in the Majors; just because it hasn't been done doesn't mean it can't be done. It's just that it's not at all unfair to suggest that a young hitter coming to a new league and country, against improved competition, in a situation where he'd get far fewer plate appearances than a typical everyday player, and has to try to be a successful pitcher at the same time, might struggle to succeed. What does an AL team do if he's struggling in June as a part-time DH? It's not a choice an NL team has to make.

Let's play with some of the numbers, and see how this might work out, and as we do, remember two important points about his time in Japan. First, we know that he often pitched just once a week, as pitchers get five days of rest and teams get a day off each week. Second, he didn't simply step in to DH in every non-pitching game. Like all players, rest is required.

In an interview with prior to the 2017 season, Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama said that Ohtani's typical week in 2016 consisted of one start on the mound and three games at DH. In 2016, his Nippon Ham team played 140 games. He started 20 as a pitcher (plus one in relief), and he got into 83 more as a designated hitter or pinch-hitter.

Assuming something similar, what could teams in each league offer in terms of playing time?

In the American League…

Let's make some assumptions. We'll assume Ohtani is healthy all year. We'll assume he's successful enough to remain in the rotation all year. We'll assume he's a productive enough hitter to earn regular DH time all year. We'll assume he gets one seven-inning start a week (26) and 2.5 DH starts each week (down slightly from three in Japan given the compressed and longer MLB schedule) and can pinch-hit in one more game. And we'll also assume Ohtani were to forgo the DH and hit for himself when he pitched, as has sometimes done.

In this "everything works as well as it possibly could" scenario, the math would look like this:

26 pitcher starts x 3 plate appearances: 78 PA

65 DH starts x 4.2 plate appearances (2017 MLB average): 273 PA

26 PH chances x 1 plate appearance: 26 PA

45 rest games x 0 plate appearances: 0 PA

Estimated total: 377 plate appearances

But again, the big assumption there is that Ohtani would actually hit enough to DH several times per a week all year over an established big league hitter, and there's tons of risk for him that doesn't happen. If it doesn't, due to injury, underperformance, that his team has a strong regular DH like , or that it affects his pitching, suddenly all that's left is pinch-hitting

As we noted above, that's far less likely in the AL. In the "he doesn't DH often" scenario, now we're talking about something like 25-50 plate appearances. Here's where NL teams step in.

In the National League…

For the NL, we'll say that the same pitching idea applies, but that Ohtani gains plate appearances on the mound and in additional pinch-hitting chances (we'll say four per week), while losing them as a DH. But NL teams do get 10 Interleague road games, where the DH is in play. We can't assume Ohtani starts all 10, because he might be pitching or resting. We'll take a best-case guess and say five. Since he's converting a ton of DH games into "easier" pinch-hit games, he gets fewer total days off.

We also need to give him a slight boost in times he'd hit as a starter; while the average Major League starter hit 2.2 times per start, the entire point is that he's not "average," right? Rather than hitting ninth, let's hypothetically say Ohtani would hit fifth, which may allow him to get that third plate appearance before being relieved, especially since he'd be less likely than a regular pitcher to be hit for. This is all back of the envelope, but we'll call it three times up per start.

26 pitcher starts x 3 plate appearances: 78 PA

5 DH starts x 4.2 plate appearances: 21 PA

104 PH chances x 1 plate appearance: 104 PA

27 rest games x 0 plate appearances: 0 PA

Estimated total: 203 plate appearances

It's not more, but it's close, and that's the point. Being in the NL doesn't guarantee Ohtani more batting time, it just offers him far more protection. He's definitely going to get to hit while he's pitching and pinch-hitting in the NL; he has less of a fallback plan if DH doesn't work out in the AL. Something like 200 plate appearances in the NL is all but guaranteed, while the variance in the AL is huge. Is it 350? Is it 50? 

What this means is that the NL teams in the mix have an interesting path to make their pitch. It means a team like the Padres can pitch him on more than just a great ballpark, sunny weather and a West Coast location. (While they are relatively limited in only being able to offer a $300,000 bonus, they did add Seiichiro Nakagaki, Ohtani's former strength coach earlier this year, and have recently hired Japanese stars Hideo Nomo and Takashi Saito in the front office.)

Maybe they'll get creative and say they'd plan to lead Ohtani off each game he starts, adding more hitting chances. Maybe an AL team will commit to letting him DH no matter what the stat line says. There's so many ways teams could pitch him to come to their town. But NL teams shouldn't give up, not yet. They still have very strong case to make.