Two Ohtanis Aren't Better Than One

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Even before Shohei Ohtani made a series of somewhat surprising decisions – forgoing a nine-figure salary by coming to MLB two years early, then signing with the Los Angeles Angels – fantasy owners were consumed by a vital question: How would the major platforms handle Ohtani? Japan’s answer to Babe Ruth presented a logistical quandary. Two-way players have been rare, and rarely successful, at the MLB level since the Babe set the standard almost a century ago. If Ohtani planned to pursue both hitting and pitching in America, as expected, owners would want to be able to accumulate his stats on both sides of the ball.

Of course they would. That’s what made Ohtani so much more fascinating than recent imports like Masahiro Tanaka or Kenta Maeda, themselves both excellent pitchers who have largely translated that excellence stateside. It’s what made him a more interesting discussion topic than, say, new teammate Mike Trout, whose transcendence has consigned any debate over who the first player off the board should be to the realm of the academic. Uncertainty is inherently exciting. We all know at this point what Trout can do. It’s astonishing, and historic.

Ohtani almost certainly isn’t going to hit like Trout. Then again, he doesn’t need to to be historic himself. Trout's never thrown a 100 MPH fastball. Until we see him in action, the anticipation is the allure of Ohtani. There remains a possibility, however remote, that he is a legitimate star both on the mound and at the plate. The hurdles in his way – playing time, endurance concerns, sheer degree of difficulty – have been enumerated elsewhere at length. But the degree of dreaming one could do on Ohtani underlines the “fantasy” in fantasy baseball. Furthermore, it made the question of how he would be valued in the game much more interesting

The recent announcement by Yahoo that they would elect to split Ohtani into two players for purposes of the game – one pitcher, one hitter – splashes a good bit of cold water on the whole enterprise. To be sure, there is and will continue to be vigorous debate over how Ohtani will perform as both a pitcher and hitter. But anyone using that platform who wants to put their money where their mouth is on his performance as both will need to draft him twice – or at least, tie up two roster spots.  Shohit and Throwhei. And regardless of how well he does at either, he won't provide the kind of value he would have as a single player.

The decision essentially boiled down to the amount of back-end work required to create an Ohtani with dual eligibility, which was deemed prohibitive. Even taking that on its face doesn’t make Yahoo’s solution any less satisfying. True, one can’t reasonably blame developers not anticipating a player like Ohtani. But once he appeared – the player who could quite literally break fantasy baseball – there probably ought to have been more of an impetus toward a redesign that accommodated him.

To their credit, Yahoo essentially acknowledges this. Product director Guy Lake, explaining the decision process to Baseball America, said being able to toggle Ohtani between hitting and pitching was a popular idea. “There were a handful of exceptions in a room full of 20 people talking about this who were against this from a user-experience standpoint, but I would say 15 or 16 people in the room were in favor of it, as was I. Why? Because it’s freaking cool.”

Indeed, it would have been. Instead, we’re left disillusioned by sobering realities. Which is most likely how Ohtani’s grand experiment will play out in real life. There’s a reason we haven’t seen a player like Babe Ruth in a century, a reason why he’s the greatest who ever lived. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is insanely difficult to be great at hitting or pitching, let alone both simultaneously. Ohtani might only be great at one (the conventional wisdom is that he’s more likely to succeed on the mound), or neither. He might have a huge hole in his swing or blow out his arm. So it’s possible that in a couple of years, it won’t matter that Yahoo made this choice. In fact, they might even look smart in retrospect for not ripping up the floorboards for a guy who didn’t stick as a two-way player long enough to merit the hassle. There are other potential two-way players on the horizon – Rays prospect Brendan McKay and Reds prospect Hunter Greene – but this decision will apply to them as well, should either reach the majors still trying to do the near-impossible.

Yahoo had their reasons, and one could argue cogently that those reasons are sound ones. Yet as a rule, games should be primarily concerned with maximizing fun – and this doesn’t. Plenty of people out there already played on another platform, and doubtless more will flock to other options, two of which (Ottoneu and Fantrax) have already announced that they will accommodate a dual-eligible Ohtani. The other two major platforms, ESPN and CBS, have not tipped their hand yet, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them reach the same conclusion that Yahoo did. Like Yahoo – and unlike Ottoneu or Fantrax – they’re huge, corporate entities that don’t focus solely on fantasy baseball.

Whatever happens, we already know that at least one of the major fantasy sites has made Shohei Ohtani less compelling, and potentially less valuable. And that’s a damned shame.

 

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