How Shohei Ohtani Could Help the Angels’ Platoon Problem

Every bit of value counts for the Angels, who share a division with probably the majors’ best team and who possess a 29.9% chance of making the postseason as of right now. Even slight improvement would be more meaningful to the Angels than most teams. And there’s perhaps a way the Angels can better employ the game’s most interesting and only two-way player in Shohei Ohtani to gain a little more value.

The Angels rank dead last in platoon advantage, their batters facing opposite-handed pitchers just 37% of the time, according Baseball Reference. The MLB average is 53%. The Indians, thanks in large part to switch-hitting stars Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, lead baseball in holding the platoon advantage at a 69% clip.

The Angels have recorded the most right-on-right plate appearances (1,207) of any club this year, with the Astros representing the next-closest team (1,075).

Despite their right-handed-heavy lineup, the Angels actually rank second in baseball in right-on-right wRC+ (123) and ranked fifth last season (101). Having Mike Trout helps paper over many cracks — including platoon disadvantages — but there are only three Angels regulars who are better than league average against righties: Trout, Andrelton Simmons, and Justin Upton. As a whole, the Angels rank third against righties with a 109 wRC+, while they ranked in the middle of the pack with a wRC+ of 98 versus them last season.

Simply because the Angels have fared well against right-handers, however, doesn’t mean the club oughtn’t consider some changes to their approach. Addressing weaknesses is one way to improve, but building upon strengths is another — and there is room to improve here. After all, Shoehei Ohtani happens to bat left-handed.

Perhaps the Angels could mitigate their platoon imbalance simply by giving Ohtani more plate appearances against right-handed pitching.

The Angels are limiting Ohtani’s role as a hitter and pitcher to manage his workload. They have gone to a six-man staff, and Ohtani is on pace for only 351 plate appearances this season despite a 155 wRC+. This author would like to put forth a modest proposal in which the Angels employ Ohtani’s dual talents more frequently — and maybe they are on that track, as Ohtani has made 70 plate appearances in May versus 47 between April and March.

But if the club is unwilling to significantly expand his workload, then allocating more of his scarce plate appearances to situations when he has the platoon advantage should be explored. Rather than determine Ohtani’s hitting days mostly tied to when he pitches, the club should more often consider having him avoid left-handed pitching.

Ohtani has already faced left-handed starters J.A. Happ, Matt Moore, and Blake Snell this season. Perhaps those plate appearances would be better utilized against right-handed pitching. Ohtani has faced lefties in 24% of his plate appearances, and he has struggled to the tune of a .174 batting average with a 65 wRC+ in that small sample of exposure.

Conversely, Ohtani has excelled versus right-handed pitching. He ranks eighth in wRC+ among hitters with at least 70 plate appearances against righties.

Top Batters vs. RHP
Name wOBA wRC+
1 Mookie Betts 0.482 208
2 Mike Trout 0.462 201
3 Brandon Nimmo 0.458 200
4 Aaron Judge 0.463 198
5 Mitch Moreland 0.463 195
6 Brandon Belt 0.444 190
7 J.D. Martinez 0.448 185
8 Shohei Ohtani 0.436 183
9 Matt Adams 0.439 181
10 Jose Ramirez 0.435 177
11 Gleyber Torres 0.425 172
12 Travis Shaw 0.424 169
13 J.T. Realmuto 0.413 167
14 Manny Machado 0.415 164

Ohtani might not actually have pronounced platoon splits. He didn’t in Japan. In his last full season in the NPB in 2016, Ohtani had the fourth-best wRC+ mark of 219 against left-handed pitching in 117 plate appearances (164 wRC+ vs. righties). In 2017, in 46 plate appearances, he had a 128 mark against lefties versus a 174 mark against righties (185 plate appearances). But whether Ohtani can hit lefties in the majors should perhaps be a question answered another day, in another season. To combat righties, the Angels have only Luis Valbuena and Kole Calhoun as left-handed bats on their 25-man roster. Calhoun has a wRC+ of 8 — eight! — and Valbuena has a 65 wRC+.

Beyond platoon matters, one reason to give consideration to more Ohtani plate appearances as a hitter — and especially against right-handers — is the improvement Ohtani has made at the dish right before our eyes. As Ben Lindbergh observed recently for The Ringer, Ohtani is already adjusting in positive ways.

While Ohtani wasn’t going to replicate his torrid first two weeks at the plate all season, he has begun to reduce his out-of-zone swings and spike his walk rate.

One of the reasons this author was bullish on Ohtani’s bat this offseason — beyond his conspicuous plus power — was because of the optimistic Davenport Translations of his last full season in the NPB that suggested his bat was worth a 133 wRC+ in the majors, and that was as a 21-year-old. Right now, he’s exceeding that optimistic forecast. With more experience, he ought to continue to mature as a hitter. A potential 23-year-old star bat needs reps, and the Angels should give him more, at least against right-handed pitching.

The game hasn’t seen anything like Ohtani in a century. He’s come through as advertised as a pitcher and is exceeding expectations as a hitter. There are creative opportunities here for the Angels, who could benefit from more left-handed plate appearances and have Ohtani as their best internal option.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

I seldom watch the Angels. Do they never just pinch hit with Ohtani? Or is he totally shut down on his days off? Because pinch hitting even might help solve some of this in a small way.

5 years ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

He’s been used as a PH three times this year – 4/10, 5/8, and 5/9. Two days after a start for the first two PH appearances. Three days after for the third, obviously. So he’s still totally shut down the days before and after starts.

5 years ago
Reply to  Bret

Those games on 5/8 and 5/9 seem reasonable enough–interleague games in an NL park in which Ohtani pinch-hit for the pitcher.

On 4/10, Ohtani pinch-hit for Zack Cozart in the ninth inning of a game the Angels were winning 11-1. I have no earthly idea why.