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Los Angeles Angels win Ohtani sweepstakes

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Los Angeles Angels win Ohtani sweepstakes (AP file photo)

Japanese superstar to attempt to play both ways in MLB

Baseball fans might soon see something they’ve never before witnessed on a big-league field.

Japanese player Shohei Ohtani has become a figure bordering on legend over the course of his brief career in Nippon Professional Baseball. Playing for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of the Pacific League, the 23-year-old has shown flashes of dominance both on the mound and at the plate.

And now he’s going to be coming to Major League Baseball.

To the Los Angeles Angels, to be precise, following a lengthy courtship process that came about largely thanks to MLB’s byzantine rules regarding free agency and the like. Due to his age, Ohtani is subject to the rules covering international free agency, meaning that teams may only offer what is available in their limited financial pool. Had he waited two years to age out of those regulations, Ohtani would likely have seen contract offers of $100 million-plus.

His insistence on coming over now meant that teams couldn’t simply outbid one another for his services, meaning that for the first time in years, literally every team had a realistic shot at a potentially transcendent talent.

How transcendent? Ohtani is considered to be among the best pitchers in NPB. Over the course of his five-year career, he has a record of 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP and 624 strikeouts in 543 innings. His fastball has been clocked at 102 mph; he combines that with a slider and a curve that offer different, but equally nasty break. That’s elite stuff for anyone, let alone a 23-year-old kid.

But then there’s the bat.

Ohtani’s hitting acumen lagged behind his pitching prowess (not that there’s any shame in that). But in his last two seasons, his bat has blossomed in a big way. In 169 games in 2016-17, Ohtani put up a killer slash line – the coveted .300/.400/.500. With 171 hits in just 525 at-bats, he batted .326 while hitting a total of 30 homers. He drove in 98 runs and scored 89.

All this despite being limited by injuries this past season.

One of the caveats that Ohtani reportedly placed on his willingness to sign was that he wanted to have the opportunity to continue to play both ways – something that has been done only rarely in recent years and not at all at the level Ohtani intends. The degree of preparation necessary to perform as an elite pitcher or hitter at the major league level is immense; there are a lot of doubts as to whether anyone – even a talent like Ohtani – can do it.

However, if Angels manager Mike Scioscia and GM Billy Eppler are to believed, Ohtani is absolutely going to be granted the opportunity to try. And if you’re any kind of fan of baseball, you’re dying to see how this plays out.

The granddaddy of MLB two-way stars is Babe Ruth, of course, who began his career as an outstanding pitcher before spending the bulk of his career as the greatest power hitter in the history of the game. Ohtani – dubbed by some as “the Babe Ruth of Japan” – has big cleats to fill.

But even Ruth pitched, then switched to the field. Very few players have attempted to serve as both pitcher and hitter simultaneously in the big leagues. The most recent comparable is probably Brooks Kieschnick, who spent 2003 and 2004 as a relief pitcher/outfielder with the Milwaukee Brewers, but even that comparison has its flaws. Ohtani is far better on both sides than Kieschnick ever was; he wants to essentially be a full-time hitter when not the starting pitcher, while Kieschnick was basically a pinch hitter at the plate and a mop-up guy on the mound.

The odds of this experiment succeeding are slim. Even under ideal circumstances, the move from Japan to America isn’t an easy one for players. Pitchers have seen more success than position players generally, though there’s no disputing that the top Japanese MLBer of all time is outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Still, results have been mixed at best – and Ohtani has the added pressure of trying to make the transition while also attempting something that has been done a scant handful of times in a century or more.

Will it work? No one knows. Honestly? Probably not. But it sure will be fun to watch him try. Between Ohtani and the ho-hum consensus best player in baseball Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels have built what will almost certainly be the most fascinating team of 2018.

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