By Tony Massarotti
The Babe Ruth of Japan, as he is known, is listed at 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds, which physically makes him more akin to, say, Yu Darvish than it does to the Bambino. But then, Ruth is not a fair comparison for Shohei Otani, at least in the American historical sense, because we tend to think of Ruth almost exclusively as a power, as the very first home run king.
The truth, of course, is that Ruth was so much more than that.
Which brings us back to the case of Otani and the idea that he could be baseball’s first two-way player since … well … who? Roy Hobbs?
Okay, call me a sucker. But here’s what I know: for all of the talk this baseball offseason about Giancarlo Stanton — the Babe Ruth of the major leagues at the moment — Otani interests me as much as any baseball talent in some time. Now 23, Otani has spent all or parts of the last five years playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese Pacific League. In 2016, Otani went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings, all while batting .322 with 22 home runs and 67 RBI. His OPS was 1.004. Otani pitched one day a week and played as a positional player on three others, offering the kind of production and versatility that must have baseball analysts and innovators running around naked in a sabermetric orgy.
Can you imagine the possibilities? What is the WAR for a player like this? The possibilities are endless.
Maybe Otani can pull that trick in the big leagues, and maybe he can’t.
But admit it: you want to find out as badly as I do.
Okay, let’s back up for a second and give you some of the particulars. Otani throws right-handed and bats from the left side. He is among the players who will join the big leagues this offseason through the Japanese posting process. Whoever bids on Otani will do so knowing that Otani wants to both pitch and hit in the big leagues — at the same time. That does not necessarily mean he wants to play in the National League. In fact, Otani may be more suited for the American League, where he can pitch and still have the option of being the designated hitter on the days between starts.
Seriously, why couldn’t Madison Bumgarner be afforded an opportunity like this? Over two seasons from 2014-2015, Bumgarner went a combined 36-19 with a 2.95 ERA for the San Francisco Giants. At the same time, he batted .252 with nine home runs, 24 RBI and a .749 OPS over 143 at-bats. Over 500 at-bats, Bumgarner’s production numbers would have translated to 31 home runs and 84 RBI, which makes him better than a large majority of the sludge that major league teams trot out onto the field on a regular basis.
And that doesn’t even begin to get into the Otani’s potential place as a barrier breaker, particularly in a game now being overmanaged to the point of absurdity. Between the overwhelming number of defensive shifts and the absurd reliance on pitch data, well, nobody wants to take a chance anymore. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled starter Rich Hill after four good innings in Game 2 of the World Series because of Hill’s numbers on his third time through the batting order.
And now, here comes Otani, the ultimate risk with the high reward. Baseball history is littered with prospects who could pitch and hit, and big-league organizations always require the player to ultimately choose. Rick Ankiel wasn’t allowed to both pitch and hit (as a positional player) at the same time. Former Los Angeles Angels closer Troy Percival was a converted catcher. But baseball has always thumbed its nose at the idea of someone pitching one day and playing in the lineup the next because, well, that’s so high school.
But that hardly means it cannot be done.
Again, let’s be honest. Baseball needs some modifications, not to the way it is played, but to the way it thinks. Managers have become so cookie-cutter than every game is effectively painted by numbers. What the game needs is some true creativity, some risk-taking, some trend-bucking and some innovation. What it needs is a successful Shohei Otani, wherever he ends up, because we all know what will happen if someone has the guts to try it — and succeeds.
The others will all fall into line and look for the next Shohei.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.