But by baseball standards, the bonus pool amounts were not that big to start with and the difference in what the top three teams could offer was not that substantial. In the end, Ohtani did not opt for the team with the most bonus money.
As an international free agent who is under 25, Ohtani is also limited to a minor league contract and subject to the typical salary restrictions of a player who is not yet eligible for arbitration. As a result, he will start in the major leagues with a salary of $545,000. Tanaka, who came over as an established star at a time of fewer restrictions, earned a rookie salary of $22 million.
Is he a pitcher or a hitter?
The short answer is that he is both. Ohtani was a starting pitcher for the Fighters and also served as the designated hitter. He has had as many as 382 plate appearances in a season and started as many as 20 games as a pitcher in a single season. It was an unusual setup, as the other starting pitchers on Ohtani’s Japanese team had a handful of at-bats each.
So which is he better at, pitching or hitting?
That is where it gets more interesting. In 2016, his last full season, he managed to be named to two different spots on the Pacific League’s “Best 9,” which honors the best player at each position. It is not hard to see why, considering Ohtani’s batting (.322/.416/.588, 22 home runs) and pitching (10-4, 1.86 E.R.A., 174 strikeouts) lines that year. While it is not a perfect measure of his quality at either skill, Ohtani received 190 of the 245 votes at designated hitter and 111 at pitcher.
“If you ask Ohtani, he likes pitching better,” Fighters Manager Hideki Kuriyama told reporters in April. “If you ask me, I would say hitting. At this point, he’s a better hitter than pitcher. He’s still not a complete pitcher yet. He hits very naturally. He throws the ball very hard, but he’s not a complete pitcher yet.”
Despite that, many talent evaluators believe Ohtani’s best bet in the majors is to succeed as a pitcher.
Can he hit for power?
Ohtani had a .500 career slugging percentage in Japan, and 66 of his 171 hits over the last two years went for extra bases, but it would be surprising for him to be much of a power hitter in the majors. For reference, Hideki Matsui’s career slugging percentage went from .582 in Japan to .462 in the United States, and Ichiro Suzuki’s declined from .522 to .403.
Why did he play so much less in 2017?
An ankle injury in the 2016 Japan Series resulted in Ohtani’s missing the World Baseball Classic and helped limit him to five pitching starts in 2017. His workload was also reduced as a batter: He appeared in 65 games at D.H. a season after starting 104.
His pitching was not as sharp. His E.R.A. went up to 3.20 thanks in part to a drastic increase in walks, but it was too small of a sample size to draw any conclusions. His hitting mostly matched up with previous seasons in terms of performance.
What will he do in 2018?
Many possibilities exist should Ohtani prove to be capable of both pitching and hitting at the major league level. He could D.H. on days he does not pitch, and he might be best used as a sixth starting pitcher, which would keep him on a similar workload to the one he had in Japan while also keeping him fresh for batting duties. The possibility does exist, though, that he will require time to adjust to the superior competition in the major leagues since he is younger than the majority of Japanese stars who have come over in the past.
Any talk of Ohtani playing the outfield or truly playing every day is probably just talk. He has appeared in the outfield a total of eight times in the last four seasons, and all eight appearances were in 2014. His typical workweek in Japan consisted of starting a game as a pitcher, being a D.H. for the next few days, then taking two days off before his next start. To think that he could handle more frequent work, and the demands of playing a position in the field, after not doing so against lesser competition in Japan, is a stretch.
How unusual would it be for him to bat and pitch regularly?
It would be extremely unusual. No American League pitcher has had more than 15 plate appearances in a season since the D.H. was introduced in 1973. Only 17 American League pitchers have even had a season of double-digit plate appearances in that time despite the advent of interleague play in 1997, which gave them considerably more opportunities to bat.
Pitchers get more of a chance to hit in the National League, but even in a league with no D.H., pitchers rarely crack 100 plate appearances. Last year, the National League’s leader in plate appearances among pitchers was Jacob deGrom of the Mets, with 77.
In the early part of baseball’s modern era, it was not entirely unheard-of to spend time as both a pitcher and a position player. From 1901 to 1919, a player had 200 plate appearances as a batter and 10 appearances as a pitcher in the same season 12 times. But since then, only Willie Smith of the 1964 Angels managed to pull off such a feat. Despite being an above-average pitcher and outfielder that season, Smith went on to pitch just three more times in his career.
The last player to truly make a go of contributing as a pitcher and a hitter was Brooks Kieschnick, who was a reliever, a pinch-hitter and an outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers. In the 2003 and 2004 seasons, he combined for 74 appearances as a pitcher and 133 plate appearances as a batter.
But what about Babe Ruth?
It’s true that Ruth was an emerging star as a pitcher before he became baseball’s most feared slugger, but for the most part those years did not overlap. The closest he came to excelling at both was with the Boston Red Sox in 1918. That year, as a key player for a World Series-winning team, the 23-year-old Ruth started 19 games as a pitcher and 57 as an outfielder. He led the majors with 11 home runs and had a 2.22 E.R.A. that was 22 percent better than the league average. But Ruth’s best pitching seasons were for the Red Sox in 1916 and 1917, while his best hitting seasons came for the Yankees from 1920 to 1934.
The comparison between Ruth and Ohtani, however, is one that is unfair to Ohtani. It is, quite frankly, ridiculous to include the phrase “but what about Babe Ruth?” in any serious discussion about the two, regardless of how talented Ohtani may be.