Despite his early success, it is worth examining whether the Angels could be doing more with the talent of Ohtani by moving him to the closer role.
For over a year, he (Shohei Ohtani) has been declared the Japanese Babe Ruth, and now, we get to call him the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year. Ohtani has undoubtedly had a huge impact on the Angels, and perhaps even more importantly, the MLB as a whole.
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Ohtani’s talents are rare. He is the ultimate baseball player. He can hit like Mike Trout and pitch like Justin Verlander. It is an embarrassment of riches that any team would love to have. This incredible gift comes with a catch though. As an AL team, except for the occasional interleague game in an NL park, the Angels do not have the ability to use Ohtani’s bat and arm in the same game without foregoing the designated hitter for the entire game. But in 2020, when Ohtani returns to pitching following Tommy John surgery, the Angels could take full advantage of his skills by making him their closer.
In limited plate appearances, due to both injury and being part of the starting rotation, Ohtani’s bat significantly helped the Halos. At 2.7 wins above replacement, a statistic that measures the number of wins that a player adds to a team over a AAA-level replacement player, Ohtani’s value was the fourth highest on the team. The three players in front of him were the strongest hitters on the team in Trout, Andrelton Simmons, and Justin Upton. Those players also had over 200 more plate appearances than Ohtani. Think about what he could do with the bat with more consistent appearances throughout the season.
It sounds simple enough. Make him the everyday DH and all the team’s problems are solved. But hitting is just one of Ohtani’s skills. His pitching is not something the team cannot afford to give up.
In only 10 games, Ohtani recorded 63 strikeouts and gave up 38 hits. Those numbers are better than Jose Alvarez, Cam Bedrosian, and Jim Johnson, who all pitched more innings than Ohtani. At 1.2 WAR, he’s also the fifth most valuable pitcher on the Halos, and with the team’s recent issues in keeping productive pitchers healthy, they need every solid arm they can get.
This is the downside of having a player who is good at so many things. He can’t do them all at once. But if the Angels were to make him their closer, they might be able to have it all.
It has been a few years since the Angels have had a consistent and reliable closer. Troy Percival and Francisco Rodriguez carried the back-end of the bullpen from 1996-2008, but since then the team has seen many closers come and go with mixed results. Ohtani could give them the consistency they need in such a pivotal role, while also filling the DH spot every day. That is an unbeatable value for a team that desperately needs an edge to compete with Houston, Oakland, and Seattle in the west, not to mention Boston and New York for the wild card.
It will take some NL-style lineup maneuvering to make this work, but it should not be too difficult for new Angels manager Brad Ausmus to juggle. Ohtani will start games as the DH and the game will proceed as normal. If it appears that the Angels will be entering a potential save situation around the 7th or 8th inning, Ohtani can begin to warm up in the bullpen or if time is limited, in the batting cages near the clubhouse.
When Ohtani enters the game as a pitcher in the 9th inning, the Angels will lose the DH. If Ohtani converts the save then the game is over and there is nothing to worry about. The issue arises if Ohtani blows the save. In this situation, the team has two options. They could remove Ohtani like any ordinary pitcher and then utilize pinch hitters the rest of the way like an NL team, or if they desire to keep his bat in the lineup, they can make a double switch by moving him to one of the corner outfield positions and putting the new pitcher in that player’s spot in the order.
This switch could not happen until the 2020 season because of Ohtani’s recent Tommy John surgery, but this move has great potential upside. As the old saying goes, “the greater the risk, the greater the reward.”
Former manager Mike Scioscia was asked about this option by Maria Guardado of MLB.com toward the end of the last season. “I would think that would be the wrong path to take with Shohei because he’s shown no issues with being able to get into that 100-110 pitch count and being able to bounce back,” he said.
But now that Scioscia is gone, the Angels can try to innovate their lineup. It is time to change the face of baseball with the league’s first DH/closer. And Shohei Ohtani is the perfect man for the job.
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