Sunday Shohei: How the Angels should use their new gift.
My Safe Word is “Pujols”
All of the “OMG how can we use him!” chatter swirling around Ohtani tends to forget one very obvious detail: It’s already been done. In 2016, over the course of the normal 140-game NPB schedule, Hokkaido started Ohtani 20 times as a pitcher, gave him another 84 games at DH, and rested him about a quarter of the time. Except for two weeks when he was out with a minor injury, Ohtani made all of his starts, and never played on days after his turn in the rotation. In return, Ohtani gave the Ham Fighters 140 innings of outstanding pitching (1.86 ERA, 0.957 WHIP). Offensively he posted a .322/.416/.588 line. He was selected as the best pitcher and best DH of the Japan Pacific League, and won the MVP.
For all the folks at home wondering what the Angels should do, that’s what the Angels should do. A “Sunday Shohei” schedule would slot Ohtani for 28 starts in 2018. The Angels would give him a day off every Monday, and since they get more Monday off days than any other day, 11 days off, starting him exclusively on Sunday would guarantee that after 11 of those starts the Angels can rest Ohtani without having to worry about losing his bat for a game offensively. Moreover, since the new schedule calls for more off-day travel days, there are only six weeks in the season where the Angels would not have an off day.
This means that for the vast majority of the season they would have a six-day-per-week schedule that would fit perfectly into a Sunday Shohei rotation schedule, and allow the Angels to run out a six-man rotation without having to worry about skipping starts. With any luck, it could pay off for Ohtani like it did for Sunday Teddy. Liberally sprinkling another 25 to 35 off-days throughout the season for him — resting him against lefty pitching, for example — and the Angels would be recreating the conditions under which Ohtani became the most prodigious talent in Asia.
It could also reap dividends for the rest of the rotation. The only Angel to notch more than 150 innings last season was Ricky Nolasco, and that was most definitely not a good thing for the Angels. Every other starter that opened the season in Anaheim got hurt. Every single one. Right now, the Angels are staring at a starting rotation that would include Ohtani, Garrett Richards, Parker Bridwell, Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, and J.C. Ramirez, and except for Bridwell, everyone else is coming back from major surgery. Shepherding them through an entire season may be more likely if they all got extra rest, and the Angels would be much more likely to succeed getting 150 innings good innings out of Richards, Shoemaker, et al.
However, this particular solution does create other problems for the Angels, the most obvious being that Albert Pujols is going to have to play first base, and anyone who’s seen Pujols the last two seasons knows that may be a very big ask for him. Slowed by age and an endless series of foot injuries, Pujols last season delivered not only the worst offensive season of his wonderful career, but the worst offensive season in the entire league. The hopeful expectation in 2018 is that Pujols’ drop-off was so extreme that he can’t help but bounce back a little. A more realistic approach may be to wait until Pujols gets his 3,000th hit, then start dramatically reducing his playing time in favor of C.J. Cron (if he doesn’t get traded).
There are suggestions that Ohtani play the field, but those aren’t realistic. Ohtani hasn’t played the field in a regular season game in three years, and a prolonged injury to him wouldn’t just be bad, it would be catastrophic. Just as Ohtani gives the Angels essentially an extra roster slot by being both a hitter and a pitcher, losing him means losing two players at once. His health, beginning the moment he signed his contract with the Angels, became the organization’s single most important on-field priority. In this context, Pujols’ ability to play first base on a semi-regular basis becomes vital to the team.