Is Ohtani Really More Valuable in the AL?

Today, I bring you more Shohei Ohtani content to satisfy your cravings.

Assuming the final hurdles are cleared and Ohtani makes his way to a major-league team this winter, he’ll almost certainly become the most fascinating story of the offseason — and then the regular season, too. Because Ohtani’s talent and situation are unique, there are all sorts of ancillary storylines attached to whatever decision he makes.

On Monday, when examining what might be the best landing spot for Ohtani and Major League Baseball, I ruled out the National League because the lack of the DH would limit the total number of plate appearances Ohtani receives. Of course, an NL team could promise Ohtani a corner-outfield or first-base job, but the DH seems like a more natural, less risky, pathway to maximize his dual talents.

But there’s a case to be made that Ohtani’s bat is actually more valuable in the NL even if he’s just limited to the plate appearances he’d earn as a starting pitcher and (between starts) pinch-hitter. It’s possible that his offensive production, relative to the average pitcher, might be more valuable than his production over the average DH performance.

Let’s investigate, shall we?

To begin this exercised, I needed an estimate of Ohtani’s true talent as a hitter. For that, I’m using Ohtani’s 2016 NPB performance — recall he was hurt much of this past season, though he produced a similar slash line — translated to major-league production by way of the Rosetta Stone that is Clay Davenport’s web site.

Per Davenport, Ohtani’s 2016 numbers equate to the following MLB performance: 324 at-bats, 14 home runs, 34 walks, 89 strikeouts. The result? A .306/.367/.512 slash line.

I plugged those translations into Lewie Pollis’s WAR calculator, while assuming that Ohtani is an average baserunner. (Pollis, now an analyst with the Phillies, wrote that the calculator “conforms closest to FanGraphs’ WAR, but it should be a reasonable approximation of the other models of value, too.”)

Over 400 plate appearances as a DH, using his NPB translations, Ohtani’s would project to be worth about 1.8 offensive WAR, or just over 17 runs above average. That includes the rather steep positional adjustment for designated hitters, about -17.5 runs per season. Since Ohtani was a DH in the NPB, I’m not including any kind of DH penalty in this analysis.

As a pitcher, Ohtani would obvious receive many fewer plate appearances. But the bar for his offensive performance would also be considerably lower. And that can’t be discounted: as certain performance in recent years illustrate, a pitcher with some talent for hitting can actually add non-negligible value on the offensive side of things.

As a reference point, consider Madison Bumgarner, who averaged about 85 plate appearances per season from 2014 to -16, when he was logging an average of 33 starts and 220 innings per year. Bumgarner produced oWAR totals of 1.3 (2014), 1.1 (2015), and 0.9 (2016) in those years. Again, non-negligible.

Pitchers, naturally, have a larger positional adjustment. Much larger, in fact. A generic projection of Ohtani might forecast about 180 innings for him in 2018. That’s almost precisely the innings totals compiled by Jhoulys Chacin (180.1 IP), Jon Lester (180.2), and Tanner Roark (181.1) in 2017. Those three recorded offensive positional adjustments of 7.3, 7.7, and 7.5 runs, in 61, 65, and 63 plate appearances, respectively. So let’s say 65 plate appearances and +7.5 runs, on average.

Using those numbers, Ohtani would project to be worth about 1.1 offensive WAR over 65 plate appearances, or about 10 runs above replacement.

That’s still less than 400 plate appearances of Ohtani as a DH; however, playing in the NL also means there could be up to 130 or so games in which Ohtani could appear as a pinch-hitter when he’s not employed as a starting pitcher. Let’s say that, in the NL, he would gain 110 pinch-hitting opportunities. (We’ll give him a few days off.) That’s about another 0.5 offensive WAR, although that doesn’t include the relatively mild effect of the pinch-hitter penalty.

While this methodology might not be perfect and is based upon translations from his 2016 foreign-league performance, Ohtani would perhaps be roughly equal in offensive WAR as an American League DH as he would an NL pitcher when adding in NL pinch-hitting opportunities. Either way, his bat projects to produce a value just shy of two wins (1.6 oWAR in NL compared to 1.8 in AL). Jeff Zimmerman found similar values in his model.

He can really hit. Teams will find a place for the bat to play somewhere.

The 6-foot-4 left-handed hitter won the home-run derby in 2016 in the NPB and once launched a ball that never came down from the Tokyo Dome roof:

Jeff Zimmerman pulled some quick recent comps of MLB hitters for me who were within 10 points of on-base and slugging of Ohtani’s translations:

2016 comps:
Adrian Beltre
Hanley Ramirez
Tyler Naquin
Andrew Toles
Corey Seager
Aledmys Diaz

2017 comps:
Robinson Chirinos
Eric Thames
Lonnie Chisenhall
Adam Lind
Domingo Santana
Jorge Alfaro
George Springer

2018 projected comps via Steamer:
Charlie Blackmon
George Springer
Mookie Betts
Carlos Correa
Yasiel Puig
Aaron Judge

Add in his projected pitching performance over 180 innings — based upon his translated rates of 9.2 strikeouts and 2.9 walks per nine innings — and Zimmerman projects 3.1 WAR

In total, we’re perhaps looking at roughly a five-win, two-way player in his age-23 season. (Twenty-five major leaguers were worth five or more wins last season.) The playing-time estimates employed here might even run a little conservative with health, and those translations are based upon his age-21 NPB performance, meaning Ohtani has probably added skills and physically matured as he nears his expected prime years. So this hardly perfect science, but it at least verifies the idea that this is a special talent who can make an impact as a two-way player.

The focus of this post is the bat. And the big catch is this: Ohtani might just want as many plate appearances as possible and doesn’t so much care about the relative value of his bat. The least risky route to accumulate as many plate appearances as possible is in the American League. This is a player who, in coming over before he could maximize his payday, might be thinking about his long-term counting stats — and a Hall of Fame case.

But if Ohtani is ultimately concerned with winning baseball games, then perhaps he’s equally valuable as an all-around package in the NL. Perhaps NL suitors can and will pitch this idea. In fact, if employed as a super reliever of sorts, there are perhaps even further ways to maximize his value. That’s probably a post for another day, though.

What we’ve learned is perhaps Ohtani should at least consider every major-league team, not just those that can employ the DH. What we do know is that, in whatever league he plays, he’s going to hit. What’s perhaps surprising is that his relative value in comparing the AL to the NL might be close to equal in value. It’s just another subplot to consider, but it gives NL teams something else to ponder and pitch.

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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4 years ago

Another factor where he might be the most “valuable” would be in terms of how teams build a roster around him. By having a starter able to fill in as a pinch hitter, the need to keep an Adam Lind goes down. That goes extra if you think he can fill in occasionally in LF or 1B. It won’t show up on his stat line, but being able to carry that 8th reliever or defensive sub in CF might give teams extra value over having the “designated pinch hitter” on the bench.

4 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Excellent point, Matt. And I also think it is a bit presumptive to conclude that an American League Ohtani is necessarily going to be the best DH on whatever team he lands on. He might end up struggling at the plate and maybe only earns 200 or so DH at bat’s splitting the role on a platoon basis. That also narrows the Ohtani value gap between the AL and NL.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
4 years ago
Reply to  Matt

YES! Adding Otani is essentially buying an extra roster spot, which ought to be even more valuable in the NL and with the roster-and-bullpen depth revolution.

Antonio Bananasmember
4 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Me while reading this: “ooo, I have a point about the value of a roster spot. Im going to post something.”

Scrolls down, sees this.

This is why I love fangraphs. Smart people.