The Sho-Hey Kid
Over the last two seasons, Ohtani has logged 613 plate appearances, approximately equal to a full season’s worth of swings in a Major League season, over which he’s clocked 30 homers and 34 doubles, drawn 78 walks, and struck out 161 times. His .326/.411/.570 slash line between the age of 22 and 23 would make him a top five prospect in any big league farm system.
… At least, that’s how most organizational scouts are characterizing Ohtani’s performance. The Nippon Professional Baseball League is often considered the equivalent of Triple-A baseball in the United States, or perhaps a slight notch above that. However, that’s not necessarily true. In an article for Baseball Prospectus 15 years ago, Clay Davenport did an audit on Nippon baseball, comparing crossover players from Japan and the United States. His conclusion: “By historical standards, the present-day Central and Pacific Leagues are fully deserving of the “major league” label.” This isn’t to say that NPB is the equivalent to MLB, of course; there just aren’t enough Japanese position players who have come over to pin down relative performance levels, just that a terrific Japanese League performer is every bit as good a prospect that an American minor league prospect is.
There are other factors that need to be considered. Ohtani is not, for example, slap-happy 5 feet, 10 inch, 175 pound Ichiro, nor is he 5′ 9″, 180 Nori Aoki. No, Ohtani is a big dude, 6′ 4″, 205 pounds. When he swings, he isn’t looking to hit’em where they ain’t. Instead, Ohtani incorporates a leg kick reminiscent of Josh Donaldson or (dare I say it?) Ken Griffey Jr., loading up on his back foot and generating an incredibly powerful swing. Despite the big swing, Ohtani does an excellent job keeping his hands back, which allows him to wait on breaking balls and pitches away.
The long swing does mean he racks up strikeouts (his 27% K-rate is something to keep an eye on), but when he does make contact, it’s almost always hard. According to MLB tracking data, line drives coming off Ohtani’s bat have an average exit velocity of 96.6 MPH, which would put Ohtani in the top 9% of major leaguers, and fly balls come off at 94.3 MPH, which would be a top-13% number. In other words, Ohtani hits the ball as hard as Freddy Freeman and J.D. Martinez. He’s also topped out at over 110 MPH, numbers only Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton exceeded in 2017.
Given the move to a league with consistently higher-quality pitching, we should expect a lot of early strikeouts, and very possibly a platoon split as Ohtani figures out American pitching and the American strike zone. However, given how terrible the Angels were at 1B and DH last season, they could do a lot worse than give Ohtani time to figure things out. In fact, the Angels had the weakest DH production in the league season — but we’ll get to that later.