Every year at the Winter Meetings, MLB general managers are scrambling for supremacy. Whether it’s pulling off a blockbuster trade or landing a big free agent, they are constantly looking for a way to gain the upper hand.
Christmas comes early for some. Others board their flight from Orlando wondering what could have been. This year, the stakes are even higher.
Shohei Ohtani is far from your typical free agent. This year’s most coveted prize has yet to play a single Major League Baseball game.
But he is an incredibly rare find — a two-way player who projects as both a pitcher and hitter at the Major League level.
Ohtani, 23, has made his mark in the NPB, Japan’s highest level of professional baseball. In 2016, he posted a 1.86 ERA with 174 strikeouts in 140 innings. He dominated with an arsenal that includes 89 mph sliders and a 94 mph forkball. At the plate, he hit .322 with 18 doubles, 22 home runs, and a .416 on-base percentage.
These numbers are reminiscent of someone who is way above their league’s level of competition. You know, the oversized Little Leaguer who’s father held him back a year so he barely makes the age cut-off.
Sure, professional baseball has seen players make an attempt to play both ways, but this kind of two-way success is unprecedented.
It is downright scary to think of Othani’s potential, given that the NPB is projected between Triple-A and the MLB in terms of competition. The hype surrounding Ohtani has reached mythical proportions.
But will the legend of Shohei Ohtani live up to the hype? At least one general manger thinks so. On a new podcast, Seattle Mariners’ GM Jerry Dipoto said the team is going all out to land Ohtani.
“I’ve seen players hit a ball 500 feet and players throw a ball 100 mph,” Dipoto said, “I’ve just never seen one player do both of those.”
History has shown that hype doesn’t always equal success. Expectations rarely become a reality. Numbers don’t always translate. In the past, pitchers who have come over from Japan have found varying degrees of success.
Masahiro Tanaka posted a 24-0 record with a 1.27 ERA in his final NPB season before signing a seven-year deal with the Yankees. He was an All-Star in his first big league season but struggled in 2017.
Hisashi Iwakuma signed with the Mariners after receiving Japan’s Cy Young equivalent as well as a Pacific League MVP. He has been satisfactory for Seattle through six seasons, finishing third in Cy Young voting in his best year.
Yu Darvish is one pitcher who has actually lived up to lofty expectations. In the NPB, Darvish went 5 straight seasons with a sub-2 ERA and at least 160 strikeouts. He took the strikeout title three times and was named Pacific League MVP twice.
In the MLB, he has been to 4 All-Star games, finished in the top-10 of Cy Young voting twice, and helped lead the Dodgers to the World Series this past season.
For Ohtani to follow suit would be a remarkable feat. Still, scouts would be disappointed if he didn’t show elite hitting ability on top of that. No matter how you spin it, Ohtani is facing massive expectations.
His move to the Majors is unprecedented. We have not seen a two-way player of his ability in a long time. Will he succeed or will he disappoint? Time will tell.
Either way, Ohtani’s arrival will make for a fun 2018 season.