Around the League: Should Astros Fans be Worried about Shohei Ohtani (part one – offense)?

The day is December 8, 2017. The Astros are not much more than one month removed from their first World Series Championship, you’ve rewatched games 2, 5, and (the last out of) 7 so many times that you have every obnoxious Joe Buck comment memorized, you’ve finally mustered up the courage to ask that one girl out, your boss gave you a raise, and all is right in your world.

The MLB offseason is here, and coveted free agent Shohei Ohtani has narrowed his decision down to a number of teams. The Houston Astros aren’t on it, but you’re too busy staring at a beautiful trophy on your phone background and watching every José Altuve interview you can find on YouTube to care too much about that. Just as long as he doesn’t sign with the Rangers. Or any other AL west team.

“He should totally go to the Padres,” you tell your friends with a chuckle. “That would be such a great middle finger to the rest of the league. I can’t believe they’re actually on his list!”

Suddenly, your phone goes off. A single buzz, so you know it’s not one of the many text messages you’ve been receiving from all of the cool friends you have. You wait a bit, then check your phone when you get the chance. It’s the MLB At Bat app. Shohei Ohtani has signed with the Angels. The Angels?!

For a while, you’re actually a little worried. But should you be? I’ve been wondering this question myself. So I figured I’d look into some numbers to get a general idea of who this guy might be in the Majors.

Before we dive into that, I figure I’ll take a second to introduce myself and this concept as briefly as possible. My name is John, and, like you, I’m a die-hard Astros fan, and a huge baseball fan in general. I’ve been following Chris, Jason, and the guys over at TCB for a while now, but never was much of a commenter for reasons I don’t need to mention in this post. Anyways, since I’m a full-time teacher and part-time grad student with somewhat of a social life, I won’t be able to post often, but I thought it would be cool to write about what’s going on around the Majors from the perspective of an Astros fan–hence the title “Around the League.” I’m shooting for once a week, but we’ll see how that goes. I digress, and apologize for the boring interval here. Hopefully you’re still reading.

Shohei Ohtani’s decision to sign with the Angels was one that, to be honest, disappointed me. All offseason long the media had been talking about how this guy from Japan might be the best two-way player the game has seen since Babe Ruth. Hell, he was crowned a Japanese Babe by just about every sports media outlet out there. In Spring Training so far, he’s looked pretty mediocre on the mound, with some nasty, but hittable stuff. Offensively, he’s looked pretty awful, posting a .437 OPS in 17 at-bats. Since this writer belongs to the “Spring-Training-Stats-are-meaningless-I-hate-rainbows-and-sunshine-hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn!” party, those numbers don’t mean much to me at all.

Let’s take a look at some other numbers and make some ridiculous comparisons to other players, shall we?

Ohtani is projected to have a slash line of .261/.339/.464 with a wRC+ of 116 in 2018, according to Steamer Projections. Pretty good, but nothing special. His new teammate, Mike Trout, is projected to post a wRC+ of 176. Five Astros players (Correa – 138, Springer – 135, Altuve – 129, Bregman – 120, and Gurriel – 117) are projected to post a higher wRC+ than Ohtani. Josh Reddick and Evan Gattis, projected at 114 and 110, respectively, are not far behind. Steamer projections obviously don’t tell the full story, however. This is especially true of a guy who’s never had a real Major League at-bat.

Looking at Ohtani’s Japanese stats tells us a little more. Ohtani spent his first five years of professional baseball playing for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japanese League (his age 18-22 seasons). Throughout those five years, he registered 1170 plate appearances (1035 at-bats) and posted a slash line of .286/.358/.500, hitting 48 home runs, drawing 119 walks, and striking out 316 times during that span. Unfortunately, baseball reference doesn’t post advanced stats (to my knowledge) for foreign leagues, so we’ll have to look at the basic numbers like a bunch of cavemen for now. But those are very good numbers in what is a mostly less talented league. Taking a look at two former JPL players in comparison, if not telling, is at least a fun little exercise (to me, but I’m the one writing, so this is what you get). Now, since Ohtani is a pitcher, he had less PA’s and AB’s than most offensive players, so I’ll be looking at two players through their first few seasons until their PA’s and AB’s are close.

Nori Aoki, over his first three seasons in JPCL (ages 22-24): 1,345 PA’s (1,2020 AB’s), .288/.344/.352 slash line, 16 HR, 106 BB, 197 SO.

Ichiro Suzuki, over his first four seasons in JPPL (ages 18-20):  1,395 PA’s (1,229 AB’s), .292/.341/.416 slash line, 39 HR, 124 BB, 123 SO.

(Just for fun: Yuli Gurriel’s slash line for his lone season in Japan [2014, age 31]: .321/.386/.553)

Now this comparison is imperfect for a number of reasons. Obviously the age difference is a factor concerning the Aoki comparison. Furthermore, comparing players this way can be seen as cherrypicking. I get that. I just prefer to compare statistics though plate appearances over seasons played. You’re allowed to disagree. On top of that, I’m sure you could look at tons of Japanese players that no one has ever heard of with similar numbers. Two players is a small sample size. etc. etc. If you want to research for some more comparisons, please do, and include them in the comments! I’m a sixth-grade English teacher, not a statistician, so I am by no means claiming these numbers to tell us everything. But they can give us somewhat of an idea of who Ohtani will be in the Majors.

That being said, here are a few realizations: Batting average is pretty similar for the three, but Ohtani’s OPS is much better. Clearly, Ohtani has more power than both Aoki and Ichiro. You probably didn’t need stats to tell you that. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone expects Ohtani to have the same career, offensively, that Ichiro had. What’s so big to me is the number of times Ohtani struck out in less at-bats than Aoki or Ichiro.

If these numbers are telling, and Ohtani is the kind of guy that strikes out a lot with many HRs, Astros pitchers need not be afraid. Houston pitchers struck out 1,593 batters in 2017 (good for second most behind Cleveland), and, this writer would argue, that number might increase in 2018. The Astros also gave up the 10th least home runs throughout the 2017 season.

In conclusion, the Astros shouldn’t be worried about Ohtani’s bat. He’ll be a good player on a good team, and he might benefit greatly from sharing a lineup with Mike Trout, but I truly don’t think he’ll be amazing. At least not right away. From the highlights I’ve seen (admittedly not enough to make a final decision on this), he has a great swing, and can hit the ball hard, but whiffs quite a bit. Houston’s pitchers can force weak contact and strike out batters with the best of them. I just can’t wait to see them face-off for real.

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you breathe a sigh of relief, thinking to yourself that you’re excited to see how his game transfers over to the show. But right after you have that thought, you’re reminded that Shohei “Babe Ruth” Ohtani isn’t just an offensive player…

(all stats obtained from Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and ESPN)