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.

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