For all but a few of us – though the few includes Justice John Paul Stevens – Babe Ruth is basically science fiction. No matter how hard we try, it’s difficult to conceive of a single player possessing the ability to be a great pitcher and a historically great hitter in one Major League career.
We chalk it up to the malaise of the game’s early days, when athletes were less athletic, and a lumbering bull of a man might just be able to dominate the competitors around him. But the idea of him is also implanted in our minds in a way that allows us to envision such a phenom in our game, in color.
It allows us to dream on Shohei Otani.
The 22-year-old Japanese superstar has breathed life into the idea of seeing a Ruth-ian protagonist in the majors. Over the past two seasons, he has cemented himself as the Japanese league’s most dominant pitcher – striking out 11 or more batters per nine innings in 2015 and 2016 while posting ERAs of 2.24 and 1.86. If he were just a pitcher, he’d be a highly coveted commodity. But he also hits. Last season, when a blister sidelined him from pitching for a time, Otani carried on playing primarily as a hitter, and in 382 plate appearances, slashed .322/.418/.588 with 22 homers.
Altogether, as Ben Lindbergh pointed out at The Ringer, he was an absurdly good baseball player.
Advanced stats don’t diminish what Otani accomplished. According to Deltagraphs, a Japanese-language subscription site that publishes sabermetric stats for NPB players, Otani led NPB with 10.4 wins above replacement — 4.6 as a hitter and 5.8 as a pitcher. That combined total is roughly equivalent to Mike Trout’s single-season high.
He just got there via a non-traditional formula.
If he were on the open market right now – which, of course, he very much is not – it would be a fascinating feeding frenzy. Even more fascinating? What the victor of that race would choose to do with him.
The thing about science fiction: A lot of dreamed-up things from futuristic books or movies eventually turn up as tangible, real-world things. It’s not a clean line. No one hops on a TV commercial and says, “I have invented the vacuum from The Jetsons,” but they get there eventually. And it isn’t just an idea engine for future inventors. It gives us glimpses of how our increasing control over our environment, over technology and its control over others, might look at the extremes. It forces us to question ourselves.
Otani’s emergence might give us the chance to mold a new Ruth-ian figure, and decide how he is best used within the framework of our modern understanding of the game. So let’s teleport into Otani’s future, Minority Report-style, and try to figure out just how this space-age Babe Ruth could help a team.
Gravity’s Low Blow
If he were just a pitcher …
For a lot of teams, he probably is just a pitcher. It’s the most terrifying scenario in this exercise: A team signs him, highly values his pitching ability, and puts an end to his hitting so he can focus on becoming an ace and avoid unnecessary injury risk.
And sadly, that team might even have good reason for such a decision. Otani’s offense has noticeably fluctuated in Japan. In 2015, he got 119 plate appearances, but posted just a .641 OPS. The picture in 2014 looked brighter, with an .842 OPS, but 2013 looked much like 2015. What’s more is his offense reached its highest high at a time when he was just focusing on offense, providing more anecdotal evidence to the theory that players hit best when unburdened by overly difficult defensive responsibilities (or in Otani’s case, pitching duties).
This reality might see Otani become an ace – he reaches triple-digits as a starter, after all – but relegates his hitting prowess to a novelty or a Rick Ankiel-style backup plan.
Extremely Unscientific Calculations:
Maximum expected PA+BF: 1,000
The most batters a Japanese pitcher has ever faced in a season is 932 (Hideo Nomo), while Dontrelle Willis is the only post-2000 pitcher to eclipse 100 plate appearances in a season.
Dream WAR: 6.5
Barring his ascension into Kershaw territory, Otani still wouldn’t have much hope of reaching Trout-level production. The best pitcher-hitting seasons, like Willis (when he had a .626 OPS) or Madison Bumgarner still top out at a value of about 1 win.
Schafer in a Strange Land
Maybe Otani won’t be the test subject.
Being the second two-way player in our current day and age might just have some benefits. Namely, that someone will have worked some kinks out of the system, and perhaps emboldened at least a couple managers and front offices. If that is to be the case, Otani’s hopes of finding a dual-threat friend rest with Jordan Schafer.
Schafer, last year, began the process of learning to pitch, and this offseason was signed by the Cardinals with the intent of playing both as an outfielder and relief pitcher. Being a bench bat before any of this, it’s unlikely Schafer will burst through any notions of what a player can be, but maybe he at least acts as the forerunner for Otani.
Could Otani start 25 to 28 games and be available as a bench bat and pinch-hitter a few days a week? Why not? That could conceivably keep him in practice as a hitter without too much strain.
Maybe it gets him to 175 or 200 plate appearances. But that increases the likelihood of some hole being exposed in his swing or approach. Even if we give him the benefit of an improved OPS, maybe around .725 (think Mac Williamson or Ryan Rua), it doesn’t inflate his value all that much.
It could, depending on just how much the team is willing to lean on his bat, create an extra roster spot for a reliever that provides some sort of edge if the extra spot can actually be filled with a useful piece.
But you don’t need me to count the ifs in there. It’s unclear if this setup would offset the risk a team takes in asking a star pitcher to run the bases and play demanding defense on a regular basis. The thing about Jordan Schafer is that no one is going to worry about designating him for assignment. That won’t be the case with Otani.
Extremely Unscientific Calculations:
Maximum expected PA+BF: 1,100
A full season of pitching plus a bench bat role equals a remarkably involved player. The ticketing department, at least, would be thrilled.
Dream WAR: 7
So this is where things get tricky. Pitchers who with .626 OPS marks could be worth a win on offense because they are so much better than their positional brethren. That isn’t how the math would work if Otani were taking at bats away from the Chris Heisey or Kirk Nieuwenhuis. His offensive contribution would be less significant when serving as a bench bat, and even if that consistent action proved helpful to his numbers, it isn’t likely to move the WAR needle very much.
One of the most interesting questions about Otani’s prospective MLB career is which league would be more suited to such a player. The instinctive answer for most is the NL. Pitchers hit, duh.
Let’s think, though, about how he could work in the AL. And specifically, let’s think about how he could work on the Cleveland Indians with Terry Francona managing like he just invented the leverage index. This is the vision quest portion of the exercise, but it gets at a larger question that, someday, baseball might confront: What do we actually mean when we look for a player’s maximum impact for his club? How do we measure it? Is it through WAR or WPA or something else?
Consider: Otani has elite velocity, and that would presumably play up and make his per-plate-appearance performance better if he were used in shorter outings, or in other words, in relief. Putting him in the bullpen also allows a trusted manager to choose the most significant moments to deploy his pitcher.
Stay with me here.
Let’s play Otani as an everyday hitter. Assuming he isn’t also a defensive wizard, we’ll play him as the DH on an AL team. His offensive production is not where you’ll catch me betting the over, but there is a world in which he peaks at an All-Star level there, too, and so you’d presume a team that feels that way would win the bidding. So give him three wins there, as a DH. But more importantly: Give him the ability to enter games as a relief pitcher at the manager’s leisure.
If there were a pitcher who could be used as a regular season facsimile of postseason Andrew Miller, it could result in 120 innings, maybe 150. Otani, a man with a starter’s pedigree, would presumably have the capability to pitch longer in each outing than a typical modern reliever. So combine a Goose Gossage-style reliever who’s deployed with contemporary leverage concerns in mind with a good hitter, and you get a very valuable player, as well as whatever benefit you can squeeze out of the resulting roster flexibility. Right?
Drumroll … It depends! This sort of role doesn’t actually gain you much in the way of plate appearances plus batters faced, and in Otani’s case it almost certainly doles them out in suboptimal fashion – more hitting, less pitching. By WAR, if you’re viewing Otani as an asset, this doesn’t move the needle as much as you’d think. By WPA, though, where the effect on the team might be greatest, it could be, if it fits with the rest of the roster.
Extremely Unscientific Calculations:
Maximum expected PA+BF: 1,150
Starting pitchers actually face a lot of batters! Moving Otani to the bullpen almost certainly makes him more effective against each batter, and thus reduces the number, but making him a longer form of reliever makes that effect smaller. Overall, allocating his playing time in this way, where the offense is more heavily weighted, probably doesn’t make the most sense.
Dream WAR: 8
Clubs are going to have some very big reasons not to do this. Risk. The way we value players as assets, not necessarily for their contribution to the win-loss total.
It is both reasonable and sad, but we aren’t going to see this. Probably. So this whole thing? You guessed it, science fiction. But, acknowledging that the alternate realities of our fiction help us find the real way forward, maybe Otani is the hero we need, 100 years from now.
. . .
Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.