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Shohei Ohtani is already the most talked-about player in the baseball world and he doesn't even belong to a Major League team. Not yet, at least.

When Giancarlo Stanton is practically an afterthought at the GM meetings, you know you have something big on your hands. The Japanese sensation has dominated headlines lately and is now down to a few select choices for his new home in the States. Wherever that happens to be, Ohtani will bring a skillset unlike anything we've seen since the days of Babe Ruth. As avid fantasy baseball players, we now have to decide what kind of value we are going to assign to this enticing, but still largely unknown commodity.

I'm not going to tell you where to draft Ohtani or what exactly to expect from him in year one, because that would be downright pretentious. I am going to discuss what we know about this tantalizing talent, look at possible landing spots, and determine just how we should begin valuing the most intriguing free agent/rookie of the 2018 season.

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Hype Machine, Begin!

New York Mets GM Sandy Alderson, a man used to being in the big-market spotlight, didn't understate the impact Ohtani could have in the majors. “I can’t remember anybody coming in creating this kind of interest. It will be fascinating to see what happens.’’

Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, now in charge of the team that brought Ichiro Mania to the U.S., was equally impressed. “When you see a guy hit a ball 500 feet, and throw a ball 100-mph, it’s a pretty unique skill set and there's a reason why it's attracted so much attention."

The question on everyone's mind is this: does Ohtani instantly become a dual-threat on the mound and in the batter's box? Some executives are a bit more skeptical (although it isn't stopping them from courting the international star).

"I think it would take a unique skill set, both physical and mental, to allow for those skills to play out, proper health and recovery and all those elements, as well," Rangers GM Jon Daniels said.

If Ohtani keeps the same routine as he had in Japan, he’d become a rotation arm and play in the field until the day before his scheduled start, and the day after his start. The biggest variable is whether he would play in the outfield in the National League or as a DH in the American League. Consequently, a team could choose to use him in the bullpen on a semi-regular basis, while keeping his bat in the lineup five times a week.

Early indications are that Ohtani insists on staying somewhere on the West Coast, but does not care which league he ends up in. Stepping into a winning ballclub doesn't seem to be a consideration either, as the Padres and Giants are in the same mix as the Mariners, who seem to be the front runner currently. At this point, all bets are still on the table in terms of usage, meaning we cannot rightfully predict how many AB or IP he will log as a rookie. In that case, we must look at whatever data we have available and project his value based on how productive he has been on average each time he steps up to the plate or takes the mound. Spoiler: early indicators are pretty good.

 

Just How Good Can Shohei Ohtani Be?

In five seasons playing for Nippon in Japan, Ohtani has posted a 2.52 ERA in 82 starts and three relief appearances, striking out 10.3 batters per nine innings. Offensively, he owns a slash line of .286/.358/.500 with a modest power/speed profile. He certainly is young enough to develop his tools, but we must be realistic and look at a reasonable comparison based on what we know. Let's start with the offensive aspect of his game. Since we only have a five-year data sample so far, let's do a fair compare/contrast of two other Japanese players who made a big impact in the majors.

The first and most obvious comp will be Ichiro, especially if Ohtani does sign with the Mariners. There are actually quite a few similarities in their offensive game, which I'll highlight below, although Ichiro's trademark speed is not one trait that Ohtani will bring with him.

Let's also look at how Ohtani stacks up to Hideki Matsui in their first five seasons in Japan. Matsui, the next most illustrious Japanese import of recent times, arrived in the Bronx at the age of 29, a bit past the typical prime age for professional athletes, but still had a long, prosperous Major League career. He was instantly an All-Star in his first two seasons and led the league in games played through each of his first three seasons, being branded an Iron Man before injuries and aging took their course. These tables represent an average season in the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization.

Note: Ohtani and Ichiro began their career at the age of 18, whereas Matsui was 19 in his first season.

1st five seasons AVG HR RBI R AB
Hideki Matsui .290 25.6 75 73 431
Ichiro Suzuki .349 11 45 66 354
Shohei Ohtani .286 9.6 33 30 234

 

Obviously, Matsui wasn't pitching each week and racked up many more at-bats, but it's still fair to evaluate them side-by-side to get an idea of Ohtani's potential. Even if we are slightly generous and double Ohtani's at-bats to catch up, his power numbers are well below Matsui. On the other hand, his batting average is similar to Matsui but well below Ichiro, who had a knack for reaching base with his unique swing and ability to beat out infield grounders with his speed. Ohtani was well below each in terms of runs scored, although that can fluctuate, depending on the talent surrounding a player.

Ohtani's club, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, improved steadily each year since he arrived until a disappointing 60-83 finish in 2017. They had a winning season in three of his five seasons there, including an 88-52 record in 2016. Overall, the club can be considered a quality team that rose steadily as Ohtani came to prominence as a young player. While his individual offensive numbers don't stand out as extraordinary, it's clear he had a positive impact on his team.

Now, let's look at the same numbers parsed out over a per-at-bat basis since Ohtani's usage is drastically lower than the other two, due to his service as a pitcher.

1st five seasons AVG AB/HR AB/RBI AB/R AB/YR
Hideki Matsui .290  16.8  5.75  5.94 431
Ichiro Suzuki .349 32.2 7.83 5.33 354
Shohei Ohtani .286  21.5  6.23  6.9 234

 

Matsui clearly wins the power battle here as exepcted, while Ohtani does show more pop than Ichiro on an AB/HR basis. Ohtani also drove in runs at a slightly higher rate and seems to sit squarely in between these two former greats in terms of offensive ability.

The big difference between Ichiro and the other two is speed. Ichiro stole 116 bases in those first five seasons in Japan and went on to steal 509 bases in 17 MLB seasons (and still going). Ohtani swiped a grand total of 13 bases in five seasons, which made a statistical comparison completely unnecessary. Ohtani is not really close to Ichiro's tremendous average either, which should make fantasy owners aware that he may not challenge for the batting title in his MLB tenure.

Without Ichiro's speed or Matsui's power, Ohtani profiles as an above-average offensive player, but not an elite one. His true value comes with his versatility, as he shows more promise as a starting pitcher who can hit, rather than a hitter who can step in for relief on occasion.

On the pitching front, two names stand out as Japanese imports who were near-dominant from the beginning. Hideo Nomo also spent exactly five seasons in the Nippon League before coming to L.A., although he began his career at the age of 21.

Yu Darvish is as good a comp as you can get; he began at the age of 18 and actually played for the same club, leaving just a couple of years before Ohtani debuted for Nippon Ham. He also plays in the current era, unlike Nomo who pitched in Japan in the early 90s.

1st five seasons ERA WHIP K/9 K/BB IP
Hideo Nomo 3.15 1.31 10.3 2.04 1051.3
Yu Darvish 2.20 1.02 8.1 3.00 834.1
Shohei Ohtani 2.52 1.07 10.3 3.12 543.0

 

The first takeaway here is that Ohtani's K rate surpasses Darvish and equals Nomo, yet with much better command. As a reminder, Darvish led the AL in strikeouts and nearly won the Cy Young award in 2013. Nomo won NL Rookie of the Year and led his league in strikeouts twice. Ohtani hasn't logged nearly as many innings, but in the current era where relievers are counted on as early as the sixth inning to take over, that doesn't matter. If he becomes a starting rotation piece in the majors, Ohtani won't be called on to go more than five or six innings at a time in order to keep him fresh for lineup duty the rest of the week.

Ohtani has maintained excellent ratios as well, with numbers that line up almost perfectly with Darvish. Despite spending nearly all of his MLB career in a hitter-friendly environment in Texas, Darvish has maintained a 3.42 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. If Ohtani ends up in San Francisco, squaring off against the #3 or #4 starters from NL West opponents, his upside as a starter becomes tantalizing.

As a reliever, he would have far less value unless used as a closer, which is unlikely. Either way, it appears his ratios could stay well above average, but he will be hard-pressed to do much in the counting stat categories because he will be treated carefully by managers and likely held to a pitch count. The paradox thus lies in the fact that Ohtani projects to be far more effective as a pitcher than a hitter, yet will bring fantasy owners less overall value this way.

 

Conclusion

There is no doubt that Shohei Ohtani will be worth a high draft pick no matter where he winds up. Even if he should choose a team like San Francisco or San Diego, who were scraping the bottom of the NL West last season, he lands in a favorable pitcher's park. In Seattle, he would boost an already strong lineup and could benefit from the DH rule by staying fresher between starts. Ohtani brings a great deal of value to a real-life club in terms of dual-threat productivity and even more from a marketing standpoint. It's obvious why so many teams are clamoring for his services.

While Ohtani has everything you could possibly want out of player, including humility and a team-friendly contract, it would be a mistake to count on him being a fantasy baseball league-winner in year one. Until we know how he will be used and how he manages to maintain that pace in the majors, he should be treated as an early risk-reward pick, but not a first or second rounder. Acclimating to the majors should be no problem for him. Finding the best way to translate his skills into stats that matter might be a conundrum that for whichever Major League team signs him. This alone should keep him out of the first round discussion in re-draft leagues. Dynasty league owners, on the other hand, should get ready to pony up for his services; he promises to be one of the most highly skilled players in the game and could be a valuable asset for years to come, even if treated as two separate players on fantasy rosters. While I would value Ohtani the pitcher more than Ohtani the batter, both show great promise. Did I mention yet that he's only 23 years old?

 

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