23-year-old Shohei Ohtani came into the league this season with more hype than anyone has in recent memory. I haven’t been around too long so I can’t say “ever,” but since I started watching baseball, he’s probably had the most of anyone I can remember. And it’s hard not to be excited for a guy who can throw 100 mph+ fastballs mixed with a wide-array of filthy secondary offerings, and hit 500-foot bombs. The “Japanese Babe Ruth,” as he’s been termed. And because of it, he was a popular Rookie of the Year pick for many.
He got so much attention that the sport’s best player, and his teammate, Mike Trout, was overshadowed him. But before he ever played a single game for the Angels, there were reports that there was damage to Ohtani’s UCL, that may, or may not have, needed Tommy John surgery. And the franchise elected against surgery, and against him sticking to just hitting. And letting him pitch turned out to be a costly mistake, as Ohtani was put onto the DL towards the beginning of June because of a Grade 2 UCL strain.
But, it’s fair to say he was delivering on the hype, which is saying something because the 23-year-old was facing immense pressure. He made nine starts before getting hurt and threw 49.1 innings, en route to posting a 3.18 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and whiffing 61 batters. But not to be outdone, he had a .907 OPS in 129 plate appearances with six home runs, a 148 wRC+, and .384 wOBA.
But because of the injury, people all over social media were calling him a big bust, even though the numbers contradicted those claims. But you have to take those claims with a grain of salt because they’re all coming from people that are jealous or disappointed that Ohtani did not choose their respective team, or fans that are tired of the hype that was built up around him and just wanted him to be the next overhyped player to fail. Any pitcher can get hurt, so it does not make him any less of a player. When Ohtani has been healthy, he’s been an elite hitter.
The Japanese phenom then returned after almost a month off, but solely as a hitter this time because his future as a pitcher for the rest of the season was cloudy. A Grade 2 UCL strain is nothing to be taken lightly. And he picked up where he left off and continued hitting, but only got better as the season went on, which is surprising considering he is a rookie, and as the season wanes on, your opponents have more and more tape on you.
In his 150 plate appearances (through September 6) since being activated off the DL, Ohtani has a .979 OPS with 12 of his home runs, an elite 165 wRC+, and an equally, if not more, elite .409 wOBA. One noticeable difference is his change in launch angle, as Bleacher Report’s Zachary D. Rymer pointed out. It was a little above seven degrees prior but has been 17 degrees since. And you could see the difference in his batted balls, because, before the injury, he had a flyball rate of 27.2%, according to FanGraphs. But since, he has elevated it to 42.2%, while increasing his home run-per-flyball rate to 32.4%. It’s highly unlikely that he can sustain such a number in the long run, but it’s working right now because of an average exit velocity of 97.5 mph on line drives and fly balls.
On the season (through September 6), Shohei Ohtani has 279 plate appearances spanning 82 games, and in them, he’s hitting .287/.367/.579 with 18 homers. That is about a 36-homer pace over the course of a full season. In addition, the phenom has a 155 OPS+, 157 wRC+, and .397 wOBA, which are amazing for a rookie, let alone one playing with an injured elbow.
But for some reason, the Angels decided to let him pitch again last week, after two months off, and he left the game after two innings into his return. And news came out on Thursday that he will need Tommy John, which is just crushing to hear when talking about any player, but especially the most talented player, arguably, in the game. Not the best, but the most talented. But to only add to his legend, the same day he heard about it, he does this:
News of a damaged UCL, followed by TWO moonshots.
— MLB (@MLB) September 6, 2018
Reports are that he is undecided about wanting to undergo surgery, but that he will finish the season out as a hitter. And if he does that and continues to rake, he will assert himself into the AL Rookie of the Year race. He may not have the plate appearances to win it, but on a rate basis, he is much better than every other rookie, blowing them out of the water in everything from OPS, to OPS+, HR/PA, wOBA, and wRC+ while having a nearly identical fWAR, but a solid lead in bWAR, in much fewer plate appearances. Oh, and he has a 3.31 ERA and 63 Ks in 51.2 innings of work that will only help his case.
If Shohei focused on just hitting, he could legitimately become a 40+ home run guy that posts an OPS north of .900, and establish himself as an MVP-level hitter. That’s the kind of talent he has. But the scary part for hitters is that Ohtani is viewed as a better pitcher than a hitter, and has the makings of a legitimate MLB ace.
It’s on the Angels to stop mismanaging him and let him focus on hitting for now and forget about pitching for at least an entire year. There is a belief that he could DH in 2019 even if he were to get Tommy John this offseason, and if both parties are serious about him being a pitcher down the line, they should consider it. But whatever the case, Shohei Ohtani has been far from a bust, and perhaps has been the best most impressive rookie. He may not win the award, but the truth is that the haters can’t say anything negative about his play.
Featured Image via Flickr/hj_west