The Los Angeles Angels may be entering their fourth year of the great Shohei Ohtani experiment, but they don’t seem to find themselves any closer to its conclusion than they were on the December day in 2017 when it began.
Sure, there have been flashes of brilliance. The ensuing 2018 season would see Ohtani, the Japanese two-way marvel with ambitions to both pitch in the starting rotation and DH on off days, win Rookie of the Year for the Angels after they won the posting sweepstakes that brought him to Anaheim. That award would be achieved despite an ulnar collateral ligament sprain that Ohtani sustained in July. The ailment would halt Ohtani’s pitching, but not his appearances at the plate. And with those at bats, he had shown that the hype was real all season long. His OPS raised from .887 in the first half of the season to .953 in the second half all while nursing that sprained ligament that would require Tommy John surgery in the off-season. That injury and subsequent surgery would keep the budding and most prominent 2-way star in over a century off the mound not just for the remainder of 2018, but for all of 2019. This fate was a shame. Ohtani had come out of the gate with guns blazing on the mound in his rookie season. In 10 starts he had procured a 3.31 ERA, striking out 63 batters in nearly 52 innings. That first half effort along with over 100 games worth of a .285/.361/.564 slash line and 22 home runs were good enough to receive that Rookie of the Year accolade.
While Ohtani’s 2019 production would be limited to the plate, it was still a strong year for the then 24-year-old. He was the Angels’ designated hitter in 106 games and hit .286 with 18 home runs. A season long adjusted OPS+ of 121 might have been lower than the 151 he posted in his rookie year, but he was still the most productive Angel at the plate not named Mike Trout (minimum 350 plate appearances).
However, in 2020 the wheels did completely fall off. The Angels had hoped to return the fully healed Ohtani to their starting rotation during the course of the season. They felt even more comfortable when the season was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, thinking that the extra time should help with the fireballing righty’s recuperation and help him miss a lesser percentage of possible starts.
Unfortunately, the opposite was the case. Ohtani made 2 starts on the mound in 2020 and faced a grand total of 16 batters. He walked half of them and only pitched 1 2/3 innings while having an ERA of 37.80 and a WHIP of 6.600. The Angels announced that Ohtani would be shut down from pitching after that second start. There were more arm problems. This time a forearm strain. His 4-seam fastball in 2018 averaged a blistering 96.7 mph in 2018. In 2020 it was nearly 3 mph slower (93.8).
One injury can be considered happenstance. The type of immediate health problems and poor results that followed in 2020 can suggest that the doubters that believe that the stress placed on Ohtani’s body while trying to both pitch and DH on his off days could really be too much. Maybe the great ambitions that Ohtani has to take baseball’s biggest stage by storm are just too grand.
This context brings us to this week. Where the Angels not only avoided arbitration with Ohtani but signed him to a 2-year extension that will pay out a total of $8.5 million over those two seasons. This move is likely a savvy one on both sides. The Angels could get supreme value for their Swiss-army knife of a player. Yes, Ohtani struggled on both sides of the baseball in 2020, having a poor offensive season (OPS+ of just 80) that he attributed to mechanical issues at the plate.
On the other hand, the Washington Nationals will sink $5 million into the 37-year-old starting pitcher Jon Lester in 2021. Lester had a 5.16 ERA with the Cubs in 2020 and projections place his 2021 ERA somewhere around a very similar 5.15. Additionally, the Texas Rangers received OF/DH Khris Davis in a trade with the Oakland Athletics just in the past week. Over the past three seasons, among players with at least a total of 750 plate appearances at DH, Davis harbors a weighted Runs Created+ of 109, which is 11th best. Ohtani comes in 5th with a wRC+ of 125. Davis will make more than four times what Ohtani will in 2021.
If Ohtani is only his regular self at the plate in 2021, he is a valuable player at a really good price. On the mound, even if he is just better than Lester, a full-time pitcher with a career wRC+ in the negatives who will make more than him, his contract suddenly turns into a highway robbery.
And while the Angels must feel pretty good about their position, I have doubts that Ohtani feels exploited. For all intents and purposes, he seems to be happy to stick with the Angels, even if his going rate may be suppressed compared to his potential. Most players may feel slighted by his situation or at the very least not want to sign away their opportunity to make more money through arbitration next year like Ohtani has in signing a 2-year extension. Some would even be combative and try to force their worth through the arbitration process, like St. Louis Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty. This isn’t Ohtani’s way though. The man trying to break baseball orthodoxy on the field also broke it with his negotiations. The question is why.
The answer may resemble the reason he chose the Angels in the first place. Frankly, that has always been nebulous. In his introduction to the team there were continual statements by Ohtani and his people of “building a bond” and “wanting a connection”. This is only speculation, but I am trying to read between the lines. This could be very simple. Ohtani is cooperative with the Angels because the Angels are cooperative with him. They are willing to go along with this great experiment, have and continue to support it at every step. Ohtani at this point is a proven entity at the plate at the Major League level. It would be very easy for the Angels at any point in time to look at his general athleticism and strong throwing arm and say “Mō iya” (that’s Japanese for “No más”, or at least that’s what Google tells me). He would be perfect to start penciling into the lineup as a right fielder every day, a position that seems to be slated for Dexter Fowler in 2021 after his receipt from the Cardinals in a trade this winter. Fowler slashed a mere .223/.319/.377 in 2020 for St. Louis.
But the Angels are sticking this out with their man. They have every intention of allowing Ohtani to pitch in 2021 despite the mounting two and a half years of evidence. Despite it possibly not even being the best course of action for their team. In a way this is beautiful. Baseball has become so clinical. Most teams today will never stray from strategy that will give them a mere 0.01% better chance of upping their victory expectancy. Play the percentages. Go with the choice most likely to succeed on average. But the Angels are rolling the dice and not choosing seven. Seven may be the most likely win, but snake eyes are the bigger payoff. And as a fan, snake eyes are just more fun to see come up.
Ohtani and the Angels think they can roll snake eyes, and as a baseball public, we are all better for it.
Feature image: MLB Daily Dish