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Ohtani’s rare ability

A lot of what drives the “Shohei Ohtani isn’t that great” talk is just some peoples’ desire to be contrary: “Sure he hits home runs, but he doesn’t hit for average and he’s not the best pitcher on the planet.”

This, of course, is a criticism that would eliminate every player other than Shohei Ohtani from a discussion of greatness, so that borderlines on criticizing a player’s baseball value for his eating habits or his relationship with the media.

But eight years ago, the Ohtani two-way experiment was really an experiment and not the successful test we’ve seen in 2016 and again in 2021 that people are still treating as if it’s something he can’t really do.

In 2013, Ohtani didn’t wow people in Japan as a hitter or a pitcher, and while 90 percent of the fans loved the idea of a player being able to do both, 90 percent of Japan’s former players were dead set against it in public.

I didn’t have an opinion about whether Ohtani should pitch or hit or do both. I merely thought that his succeeding at both would be — as non-butt hole MLB fans are discovering this year — about the coolest thing imaginable.

What was interesting was that in 2013, virtually everyone who was against Ohtani splitting his time between the outfield and the pitcher’s mound was convinced that the true future of an 18-year-old with a 100 mph fastball was as a pitcher.

But when I actually looked at Ohtani’s numbers, it occurred to me that while the fastball gave him rare potential as a pitcher in a country where virtually nobody throws 100 mph, his upside as a hitter was far more unique.

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As an 18-year-old rookie, Ohtani batted .238 with three home runs in 204 plate appearances. He went 3-0 with a 4.23 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 61-2/3 innings as primarily as a starting pitcher. And with those numbers, the chorus for pulling the plug on his batting career got really loud.

What sold me on his hitting, was the context, the shape of Japanese pro baseball, where 18-year-old pitchers who can command their secondary pitches and who have decent stuff are not a dime a dozen, but they’re not that rare either.

Japan youth baseball focuses so much on winning, that it kills off entire generations of elite elementary school arms in the search for the next Daisuke Matsuzaka. It is a baseball analogy of the Imperial Japanese Navy making its aviator training so insanely difficult, that its elite corps of pilots was far too small for a prolonged conflict.

Japanese youth baseball ruins so many young arms before they even get to junior high school, that the number of 18-year-olds who can develop elite velocity is close to zero. That was the attraction of a big strong Shohei Ohtani. But the flip side is that, in Japan, a youngster with “B+” velocity and really good stuff and command comes along every few years.

Since Japanese pro baseball expanded and split into two leagues in 1950, 27 pitchers younger than 19 have pitched 50-plus innings with an ERA lower than 5.00 while striking out over six batters per nine innings. Needless to say, a number of them turned out to have tremendous careers.

Nineteen did it before 2000, and three of those are Hall of Famers, six won 100 games in their careers, six won fewer than 50.

What if we do hitters? The most remarkable thing about Ohtani was an 18-year-old hitting 15 doubles in 204 plate appearances.

Just over 10 percent of his plate appearances resulted in an extra-base hit. The only players in NPB history to do that before Ohtani were Kazuhiro Kiyohara, who isn’t in the Hall of Fame because of his drug arrest, and Hall of Famer Kihachi Enomoto, period.

How many 18-year-olds have ever hit 13 doubles in an entire Japanese season? Ohtani was the eighth. In addition to Kiyohara and Enomoto, the other seven before Ohtani were: Hall of Famer Yasumitsu Toyoda,

How many 18-year-olds have ever hit 13 doubles in an entire season? Ohtani was the eighth. In addition to Kiyohara and Enomoto, the other seven before Ohtani were: Hall of Famer Yasumitsu Toyoda, Shoichi Busujima — who should be in the Hall of Fame, catcher Minoru Tanimoto — a two-time all-star, Enomoto, Masahiro Doi– who should be in the Hall of Fame, Kiyohara and Hall of Famer Kazuyoshi Tatsunami.

As a pitcher, Ohtani’s peer group was a few Hall of Famers, a bunch of really good players, and a few more ordinary talents.

On the other hand, the worst member of Ohtani’s hitters’ peer group was a two-time all-star who played over 1,000 games, while the other six all belong in the Hall of Fame.

And though it’s hardly the most rigorous of studies, that’s why when people told me after the 2013 season that Ohtani’s real future was as a hitter, I had to be the contrarian in the crowd.

He’s not the 1st

When Nippon Ham’s Hiromi Ito pitched against the Yomiuri Giants on Sunday, June 6, the announcers talked about the right-hander’s roots as the first Fighters’ top draft pick from Hokkaido. The remarkable thing is that Ito is not the first pro ballplayer from his village in Hokkaido, where all-star reliever Koki Morita grew up.

Morita, who died of cancer at the age of 45, was a classmate of Ito’s father when they were children, and like the younger Ito, Morita was signed after being selected in the first round of NPB’s draft. But unlike Ito, he wasn’t the Taiyo Whales’ (currently the DeNA BayStars) first pick in 1987.

The NPB draft is a strange animal that is constantly evolving and regressing. Since it was introduced in the mid-1960s to rob amateurs of their negotiating rights, one principle has been a guiding factor — that it should not become an engine of competitive balance.

From the mid-1990s until 2006, elite college and corporate league players were free to sell their services to the highest bidders but other than that period, teams have been given an equal shot at signing any player in a given round through a lottery that has nothing to do with the waiver order.

NPB under the table

The way this works now in the first round, and the way it has often worked in the first and other rounds in the past has been to have each team secretly nominate its pick for that round. These are then announced. The rights to each player chosen by more than one team are assigned by lot, with a representative from each team, often the manager, going up to the front of the room and picking a card out of a box.

You can’t always get what you want…

Teams that fail to get their man, then secretly nominate alternate selections, and the rights of players named by more than one team are again assigned by lottery.

I had this discussion with John E. Gibson a couple of weeks ago on the podcast, when I said it was hard for me to say “Hayato Sakamoto was the Giants’ first pick in the 2006 draft,” because the Giants weren’t going after him. Their target that year was Naomichi Donoue, who has never been much more than a utility infielder for the Chunichi Dragons. Sakamoto was their first-round signing, but he wasn’t their first pick. We know this because they said he wasn’t.

Morita’s case has long fascinated me because, like Sakamoto, he wasn’t the first pick, and in Morita’s case, the club could have done much, much worse had they gotten who they wished for, Kazushige Nagashima, the dreadful son of Giants legend Shigeo Nagashima.

One night I watched Kazushige on TV, and he politely told the story about how his preference was to play in Yokohama for the Whales rather than in Tokyo for the Swallows.

Be careful what you wish for

The table below lists the most fortunate draft “failures” in the last 40 years. Hikaru Takano was a useful pitcher for a time. But Hisanobu Watanabe was an ace for a championship team. It may be too early to pronounce Kotaro Kiyomiya a failure, but I’ll bet the Fighters would happily trade him and a half dozen other players to get Munetaka Murakami.

1982YomiuriMasaki SaitoDaisuke Araki (Yak)
1983SeibuHisanobu WatanabeHikaru Takano (Yak)
1987HanshinKoji NodaKen Kawashima (Hir)
1987TaiyoKoki MoritaKazushige Nagashima (Yak)
2005OrixTakahiro OkadaTakanobu Tsujiuchi (Yom)
2006YomiuriHayato SakamotoNaomichi Donoue
2010RakutenTakahiro ShiomiYuki Saito (Nip)
2010YakultTetsuto YamadaTakahiro Shiomi, Yuki Saito
2017YakultMunetaka MurakamiKotaro Kiyomiya (Nip)

With that I’ll leave you with this catchy Sammy Davis Jr. tune.