Shohei Ohtani Fills Another Glaring Need for Angels

This past Friday, writing even before the actual start of winter (it’s still officially autumn!), this author nevertheless declared the Angels the winners of the offseason.

Their triumph in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes alone might have sealed that distinction, but last week the Angels also added Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler. Earlier in the offseason, they extended Justin Upton. And for good measure, they signed former Braves prospect Kevin Maitan.

They’ve added a number of crucial wins — at a reasonable total cost — to propel themselves from the bubble of the projected standings to a Wild Card favorite.

The Angels have upgraded two infield positions, retained a slugging corner outfielder, and have added perhaps an ace pitcher. I touched on all this in the piece regarding the Angels from the end of last week. What I didn’t examine was another area of need the club has addressed thanks to Ohtani’s dual-threat status.

Not only did the Angels and Albert Pujols finish last in the American League in DH production last season (-2.0 WAR) and second to last in wRC+ (78), but the club also endured a platoon problem.

Eight of the team’s nine projected starting position players are right-handed. The majority of their reserve options are right-handed, too. Before accounting for Ohtani, the Angels project to have 83% plate appearances absorbed by right-handed hitters in 2018. Before accounting for Ohtani, the Angels are forecast to be the first team since at least 2002 to surpass 5,000 plate appearances by right-handed hitters. (For this analysis, I split the club’s switch-hitter plate appearances evenly between lefties and righties.) Even with Ohtani, the 2018 Angels might top FanGraphs’ splits leaderboards for most plate appearances by right-handed batters in a single season.

So Ohtani might be able to help at the top of the rotation and as a platoon bat.

What it means is that, when Ohtani is in the lineup as a hitter, it ought perhaps not just be tied to rest but to the handedness of the opposing pitcher.

Angels’ Projected Right-Handed PAs
Position Starters PAs Reserve PAs
C Martin Maldonado 448 Juan Graterol 96
1B C.J. Cron 595 Carlos Perez 96
2B Ian Kinsler 595 Jefry Marte 112
3B Zack Cozart 567 Kaleb Cowart (B) 49
SS Andrelton Simmons 644 Michael Hermosillo 7
LF Justin Upton 630 Shane Robinson 91
CF Mike Trout 651 Eric Young (B) 21
DH Albert Pujols 595
Total 4724 472

Most Right-Handed Plate Appearances Since 2002
Rank Team Season PA wRC+
1 Florida 2010 4976 96
2 Baltimore 2017 4964 97
3 Detroit 2016 4877 107
4 Milwaukee 2014 4852 95
5 Astros 2005 4772 91
6 Toronto 2009 4762 96
7 Cincinnati 2012 4751 82
8 Detroit 2014 4750 114
9 Houston 2003 4743 101
10 Arizona 2016 4729 93

In his last full NPB season, Ohtani produced a .300/.385/.564 slash line against right-handed pitching and finished seventh in the league with a 164 wRC+ against righties. (Of course, he was even better against lefties.) He produced a 12.8% walk and 27.5% strikeout rate against right-handed pitching.

There are questions, of course, about his strikeout rate and how his contact skills will translate. But the power (93 mph average exit velocity on fly balls, max of 111 mph last season) and plate discipline appear to be very real and capable of translating. By Clay Davenport’s methodology, Ohtani’s 2016 batting line translates to a 133 wRC+ in the majors. And Ohtani produced the aforementioned 2016 NPB slash line as a 21-year-old. Reason suggests he’s still improving as a hitter.

According to Pedro Moura of the L.A. Times, the Angels’ presentation to Ohtani included plans to get his bat into the lineup in a limited fashion.

That was included in the concepts the Angels presented to Ohtani, in laying out the entire 2018 slate and offering estimates of when he could pitch and hit. One plan called for him to alternate rest and designated-hitter days in between starts on the mound. Another plan would have him hit only once per starting cycle. Either way, he will not play the outfield.

“The plans they proposed to me were great, but it’s not automatic,” Ohtani said through interpreter Matt Hidaka. “It’s something we’re gonna have to discuss. I’m gonna talk to the team, and we’ll continue to cement whatever plan we go with.”

It appears Ohtani will not begin the season on a pace to bat more than 250 times. He reached that threshold only once over five years in Japan.

“A lot of what we can do with him is gonna be based on his input,” Eppler said, “and the people who’ve worked with him in the past.”

If the Angels’ plan is to employ Ohtani in a limited manner, such as 250 or fewer plate appearances, then they ought to maximize those opportunities — and that could mean they’d come as a left-handed platoon partner for Pujols at DH.

The Angels ranked near the bottom of the majors in platoon advantage last season and ranked 16th in wRC+ (98) against right-handed pitching.

Moreover, Ohtani could perhaps have his confidence enhanced by gaining the platoon advantage as often as possible as a major-league rookie, by appearing in as many favorable situations as possible.

Ohtani can be more than a novelty as a two-way player. He’s a potential top-of-the-rotation arm and left-handed platoon bat. No team needed two such roles filled more than the Angels, and they might just do it through one player.

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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6 years ago

I’m rooting for Ohtani to hit as much as the next guy, but I can’t help but be apprehensive. We’ve had a really great stretch of impact pitchers make the transition, but in terms of batting – Ichiro, Matsui, and ….. Fukudome? With apologies to Nori Aoki, there really aren’t any impact hitters to come from Japan since Matsui. I’m no scout, but I haven’t read anything about Ohtani’s bat in particular that makes me believe he’s the one to prove NPB hitters can make it in MLB

6 years ago
Reply to  bananas

I wouldn’t put much stock in the small sample size (maybe 10-15 players?) of recent hitters to come over from Japan. Also, the fact that his exit velocities are above MLB average prove that his power is for real. That coupled with his high walk rate is a very encouraging sign (but doesn’t guarantee success).

6 years ago
Reply to  Okra

My point is that there is such a small sample of batters. Why have more of the best hitters from Japan not come to US?

6 years ago
Reply to  bananas

Because players are already reaching their decline phase by the time they are eligible for posting, and pitching skills generally are preserved better with age, with injury risk increasing but performance being more stable.

Hitter performance declines.

You don’t see many Japanese hitters come over because few of they can debut at 20-21 like Ichiro, and even so he got here at 27 which is already on the downslope of the aging curve.

Ohtani is 23 because he has both posted early and debuted at 18 in Japan.

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

This doesn’t add up to me.

(1) There is no service time eligibility to when a player can be posted. An NPB team can post any player it has under contract, but that player is subject to the IFA rules in the CBA which is why most players wait until they can sign an MLB contract before requesting to be posted (still, that age is “only” 25 as of this year – still right when hitters should be entering their primes).

(2) Pitchers also decline? Arguably faster than hitters. Darvish and Tanaka were both 26 when they came to the states. Iwakuma was 31, Kuroda 32, Igawa 28, Dice-K 27. Where are the similarly-aged japanese hitters in MLB?

6 years ago
Reply to  bananas

Actually, since the posting fee was capped at $20 million, Japanese clubs no longer have incentive to post their players early. There have been no significant Japanese players posted since Masahiro Tanaka, batter or pitcher.

6 years ago
Reply to  bananas

1) There are relatively few Japanese power hitters. Look at a list of NPB HR leaders, and half of them are imports.

2) Relatively speaking, NPB teams are much more willing to pay serious money to line-drive hitters.

6 years ago
Reply to  bananas

To be fair, Fukudome was already 31 years old when he came over to MLB. I reckon he’d have hit better here in his prime.