Fantasy Baseball: Is Shohei Ohtani a Sell-High Candidate in Season-Long Leagues?
The perception of Shohei Ohtani has been a rollercoaster since December. When he was deciding which team to sign with, Ohtani was billed as the next Babe Ruth, a truly once-in-a-generation player who could pitch as well as hit.
But after a rough spring training, perceptions altered quite quickly. Ohtani allowed a whopping 8 earned runs in 2 2/3 innings pitched, and he wasn't succeeding with the bat in his hands, either, slugging just .125. People wondered whether Ohtani could use some seasoning in the minors.
Amid all this, Ohtani's average draft position (ADP) in season-long fantasy baseball leagues started to fall. He ended draft season as the 90th overall player, per NFBC's ADP data.
If you drafted Ohtani at his discount ADP, you are probably pretty happy. But should you sell-high on him now while the hype continues to build, or hang on to what looks like a budding star? And if you didn't land him in the draft, is now the time to pounce and trade for him while there is still some uncertainty, or should you hold out and wait for his value to drop?
Let's dig a little deeper and see what can expect from Ohtani as both a hitter and a pitcher.
Ohtani as a Hitter
Ohtani's highlights as a hitter have undoubtedly been his three home runs, including one off reigning American League Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. And while that is certainly no small feat, what has arguably been as impressive is they way he's combined that power with the ability to make contact. Ohtani has just an 8.7% swinging-strike rate on the season (current league average is 10.7%).
But while the ability to make contact appears legitimate, there are questions about his power. Not that he can't square up the ball, as indicated by his 42.9% hard-hit rate and 0.0% soft-hit rate so far on the season. However, he almost certainly won't keep up the power spree he has been on in the past few days. He has just a 28.6% fly-ball rate, and it's pretty hard to consistently produce home runs if you hit twice as many groundballs as fly balls. Looking back at Ohtani's numbers in Japan, he hit a home run once every 21.56 at-bats. Given a full season's worth of about 600 at-bats, this would translate to about 28 home runs, so not nearly the massive power he has been flashing early on.
But there are still two major flaws with assuming he will simply hit right around 30 home runs. First of all, he will not get that many at bats, as he won't be in the lineup three days a week due to his pitching duties and the way the Angels are handling him. Moreover, this assumes that the pitching Ohtani saw in the Japan Pacific League translates directly to Major League Baseball, which obviously isn't the case.
More likely, Ohtani will be a hitter who, with his ability to make contact consistently and hit the ball well, will carry a decent average but will struggle to replicate the power "sho" he has put on early in the season. Our projections have him pegged for a .265 average and 9 home runs in 359 plate appearances for the rest of the season. While that feels like more like his floor, based on his peripherals and stats from Japan, it is hard to expect too much more than that, and he'll likely contribute next to nothing in terms of stolen bases.
While this is a useful part-time player in real-life baseball, it isn't worth holding on to Ohtani the hitter except in AL-only or very deep mixed leagues. This makes Ohtani the hitter a sell-high in leagues in which he is rosterable separately as just a hitter.
However, in leagues in which Ohtani's hitting and pitching stats can be counted for one individual player, his value is drastically different.
Ohtani as a Pitcher
I don't think it is hyperbole to say that we are witnessing the makings of one of the best pitchers in baseball. While Ohtani may not fully realize that full potential in his rookie season as he adjusts to life in the major leagues (after all, he's still only pitched against one MLB team, the Oakland Athletics), the early returns on Ohtani the pitcher have been truly extraordinary.
Even when he was struggling in spring training, Ohtani dazzled with his stuff. His fastball sits in the upper 90s, and his splitter is an absolutely devastating pitch. And while all too often we see guys flash superb pitches but fail to produce them consistently in game action, that clearly has not been the case for Ohtani.
Pretty electric MLB debut for Mr. Ohtani. Consistently plus-plus with his fastball and split-finger today. Six strikeouts, six groundball outs and a 68.47% strike rate. #Angels pic.twitter.com/vTgiEilzjs
— Brent Maguire (@bmags94) April 1, 2018
Ohtani leads the majors in swinging-strike rate with a 23.5% mark. He leads by a wide margin, as second place Gerrit Cole sits at 19.6%. Ohtani has combined this swing-and-miss stuff with impressive control, issuing two walks in as many starts. Batters have also had trouble squaring up the ball against him, as he has surrendered just a 20.0% hard-hit rate.
All of this adds up to an absurd 1.57 SIERA, a top-five clip in MLB early on in 2018.
The one concern for Ohtani, at least in his rookie season, will be usage. The Angels are committed to starting Ohtani only once a week, and so far he has been limited to 91 and 92 pitches in his two starts. While there is certainly the possibility that the Los Angeles Angels ramp up his usage as the season progresses, the most likely scenario is that they continue to protect their prized investment. Ohtani's career high in innings pitched is 160 2/3, and that came all the way back in 2015. Ohtani pitched only 25 1/3 innings last season due to injury, so don't expect the Angels to suddenly let Ohtani ramp his way up to 200 innings this season.
But 125 to 150 innings of Ohtani will carry great value for the rest of the season. Our projections have Ohtani recording 156 strikeouts in 129 innings, forecasting him for a 3.56 ERA and 1.19 WHIP with 11 wins. These projections are relatively similar to what we expect from countryman Masahiro Tanaka, so that's a good comparable for valuing Ohtani the pitcher in 2018.
Despite what we have seen so far, all of which has obviously been excellent this regular season, there are still some usage trends that we covered in the offseason that still hold true today.
The Angels are using a six-man rotation, so Ohtani won't see more than one start a week and the Angels could skip his start at various times throughout the season in an effort to ease his workload, and that's something that could burn owners in weekly leagues. He also will not be in the lineup on the days before or after he starts, or on the day he pitches.
That means Ohtani is a player who will pitch once a week and serve as a designated hitter about three of four times a week. This is especially important for Yahoo leagues in which he is rostered separately -- there are two of him, one hitter and one pitcher -- and also for leagues in which you can't change your lineup every day.
But if your league's hosting site allows you to use Ohtani both as a hitter and pitcher, which is the case on ESPN, then you struck gold in drafting him. If you can use Ohtani to buy low on a star that has gotten off to a slow start like Jose Ramirez or Anthony Rizzo, it is in your best interest to explore those type of deals -- just because Ohtani simply won't get the innings to be as productive as elite-level pitchers like Luis Severino, Max Scherzer or Corey Kluber, and he's unlikely to continue putting up big-time power numbers.
If you can't get a superb return, however, there's nothing wrong with holding Ohtani and enjoying the "sho."