Year four of the great Shohei Ohtani experiment is reportedly off to a fabulous start after news of returned velocity for the Los Angeles Angels part-DH and part-starting pitching ace.
Spring Training may only be beginning but Ohtani was able to live in the mid to upper 90s in terms of fastball velocity in both throwing sessions that he had this week, most notably topping out at 100 mph during a live batting practice session that he threw in on Saturday.
This is great news for the right-handed throwing Japanese native whose return to the mound in 2020 was quite the disappointment. He managed to only make 2 starts over the truncated season before being shut down as a pitcher. Those starts were brutal as he put performances together that only entailed 1 2/3 innings, and an ERA of 37.80.
So far, Ohtani’s time with the Angels has been a roller coaster of an experience. The peak was a Rookie of the Year Award in 2018 that entailed a .285/.361/.564 slash line as well as a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts before being limited to DHing due to elbow problems that led to Tommy John surgery. There were still a lot of reasons for bright spirits even with his injury troubles, but last year’s two starts coupled with a paltry OPS+ of just 80 work in contrast as his most apparent low point as an Angel.
So, what’s next? We have already spoke at length about the incredibly refreshing trust that Ohtani and the Angels have in one another. This trust is what is allowing both sides to see this experiment through. There is genuine reason to believe that we will ultimately know if Shohei Ohtani will be able to perform as a two-way player in the best baseball league on the planet in only a matter of time. We know that all systems are go for Ohtani to retake a spot in the Angels starting rotation in 2021, a position that could certainly use filling with the lack of depth LA seemingly has when it comes to starters in recent team history. Neither side is wavering in their commitment to their plan at this time, but in the event that Ohtani is merely fresh and healthy here in February and can’t remain in that state come August, this season could be a pivot point.
Ohtani’s talent is indisputable. At the age of 21 he had an OPS over 1.000 (382 Plate Appearances) and an ERA under 2 (140 innings) for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan. Sure, that isn’t the Major Leagues, but it’s the most impressive two-way performance any player has put together at any level since the Great Bambino himself. He posted similar numbers again in Japan in 2017 before coming to America and providing even more evidence of his ability to be successful as Rookie of the Year. If this thing falters, it won’t be for a lack of talent, but rather the incredible stressors that would be put on Ohtani’s body.
With that in mind, if we learn once again that Ohtani will have to be shelved from the mound in 2021, then maybe it will be time to change course. The obvious move would be to remove Ohtani from the mound entirely and place him in right field where his strong arm would still shine when healthy and his athleticism would be useful tracking balls and patrolling the greenery of Angel Stadium (and where he spent 57 games with the Fighters in his first two seasons).
However, even if fate is staring all those involved in the face, even if 2021 is another ailment-filled disaster for Ohtani on the mound, no one, including the sides directly involved are likely to be willing to give up on this improbable dream. But there must be a compromise. How can Ohtani continue to work as a two-way player while lessening the stress of starting pitching on his body?
Well for one thing, a fastball peaking at 100 mph and averaging 97 in the starter’s role in 2018 would look excellent at the back of any bullpen. Include a drop-off-the-table splitter and even a solid slider and you might have the makings of relief dominance. Assuming he can assimilate to the role, having Ohtani shut down games in the ninth inning could put manager Joe Maddon’s mind at ease. The Angels were a bottom-third bullpen in terms of ERA in 2020 and in particular struggled to strike opposing hitters out (19th in K/9). They have added former Red Raisel Iglesias to their bullpen in 2021 and he is a versatile piece that could close or pitch in a different role. Ohtani could really find a welcome home pitching 9th innings for the Angels if push comes to shove and combining him with Iglesias could lead to a lot of late leads being locked up for good.
Still, the importance of the closer’s role is being diminished by teams year after year as they continue to recognize that the most impactful outs in a victory aren’t always the final three. Teams are deploying “fireman” type relief pitchers more and more often and Maddon is known as one of the most forward-thinking managers in the game. Sticking a pitcher of Ohtani’s caliber in the closer’s role might just be a little too uninspired of a move for the Angels organization to actually do.
They could use him as said fireman though. This concept involves reserving (one of) the best relievers for the highest of leverage situations. Rather than saving Ohtani for the final three outs in a harmless ninth inning where the Angels are up two runs and the bottom third is coming up for their opponents, Ohtani could be used in jams and against the other teams’ best hitters in close games regardless of inning. This would ensure that the most capable available pitcher (in this case, Ohtani) appears in the most important moment. At the same time, outings could be long or short. Ohtani could use his starting experience and pitching repertoire to face several batters and carry a lead through multiple innings, or he could be used much more briefly to spot treat a very specific matchup in a game. Shorter stints would naturally mean he could be used more often.
There are problems to either of these bullpen strategies though. For one, acting as a fireman would bring Ohtani into games mid-inning, something he may not be comfortable with as a long-time starting pitcher. Additionally and probably more importantly, either role lacks predictability. Not taking the bump to start games would mean that Ohtani could DH even more often. But this would suggest that using him as a reliever would occur during those games where he is the DH. Using him as a fireman then becomes treacherous in the sense that in bringing Ohtani to the mound, the Angels would lose their DH and any ensuing pitchers after him would either need to bat or be replaced with pinch hitters. Perhaps having Ohtani take the mound in those big moments is worth it. What is certain is that it will sting in the eventuality that Ohtani has an off night and the Angels need to resort to their bench to cover the pitcher’s spot in the order while trailing late.
With the new extra inning rules, baseball is likely to see fewer and fewer extended games where having to pinch hit for the pitcher would be increasingly problematic. So, the trouble with Ohtani closing is more limited to tie games that somehow make it into the 11th inning and beyond. Even in a blown save, it might be crucial for Ohtani to finish the 9th if it will mean that Maddon can use his bat one more time in the Angels last turn at the plate. In away games where the Angels don’t get the benefit of last ups, this strategy can be thrown out the window. Really, in those instances Ohtani can be used like any other closer because another chance at bat isn’t guaranteed. The point remains though, that the closers role probably isn’t as important as once considered. If closing isn’t important enough, and the fireman role is too unpredictable and risky, what other option do we have? If Ohtani can’t start, then shall he be banished to right field forever more (as if he would still be supremely productive there…)?
There may be one other option. Its not the act of physically being the first pitcher on the mound for the Angels that would be causing Ohtani to fatigue over the season, but rather the greater workload that he would take on as a traditional starting pitcher. Perhaps the best solution for Ohtani to remedy the problems he may have as a starting pitcher would be to continue to make starts, but just make shorter ones. You may have heard of this role before, it’s called an opener and its being employed by teams with shallow starting staffs as another way to get their best pitchers into important situations.
The basic premise here is that Major League offenses tend to put their best hitters at the top of the order in order to maximize their plate appearances. Rather than entrusting your 4th or 5th starter, who might not be very good due to injuries or a general lack of pitching depth, a team can use a top reliever to face those top hitters to start the game. In this situation, the opener, who is typically a rested and trusted relief pitcher, is generally a more productive pitcher than the starter that they are preceding. The opener will face those top hitters, pitch an inning or two and then hand the game over to the traditional starter who gets the benefit of starting his day against the bottom of the opposing order while still being able to provide length. That starter can be sure to face the weak underbelly of the opposing team’s lineup more times than he faces their top hitters since he starts his outing facing the bottom of the order. This also allows managers have a sure-fire way of getting one of their top relievers in the game against the other team’s best hitters while the game is close, since all games start close (unless the manager’s team hits first and scores a lot).
This could be the solution on how to use Ohtani’s unique skillset. It is an opportunity for him to pitch in fairly high leverage situations while staying on a relievers workload but also allowing his pitching schedule to still be planned. The only drawback would be that he would be DH’d for on his pitching days, but that is something that already happens when he pitches anyway. Having a workload that is in smaller increments should also allow him to DH more often, as he won’t likely need to always take the day after his starts off to recuperate like he does now. He could even assume the role more often down the stretch in a playoff race if needed because unlike other relievers who are used in the opener role, he would be used in it exclusively. If the Angels were to have two weaker links in their rotation, they need only make sure to have them split up by a couple of games and/or off days. Doing that and monitoring Ohtani’s pitch count could prove incredibly effective. He could become the key to the Angels getting and sustaining early leads multiple times in a week, and because he is exclusive to the role and the Angels are used to carrying 6 starters when Ohtani is pitching, it wouldn’t cause any additional strain to the remaining bullpen.
Of course, this is all multiple steps ahead of where we are today. A healthy and prosperous 2021 for the Angels and Shohei Ohtani is not something completely out of the bounds of the imagination by any means. He is going to be given every opportunity to fully succeed and that includes being a full-time starting pitcher in 2021. Ohtani continues to be one of the most intriguing stories in baseball even without the “What If” of what may happen if he falters on the mound this season.
It’s my genuine hope that everything that has been written above will become useless. That we as fans will be privy to the type of success that hasn’t occurred in over a century. But if that just isn’t in the cards, it sure seems like Ohtani could make for a greater closer, or perhaps an even better opener.
Feature image: Mainichi