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Shohei Ohtani and the Rick Ankiel precedent

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The closest thing to Shohei Ohtani since Babe Ruth was Rick Ankiel. What lessons can be learned from Ankiel’s example?

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St. Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This is a St. Louis Cardinals blog, one staffed by St. Louis Cardinals fans with the intention of discussing the St. Louis Cardinals. And this is a post about Shohei Ohtani.

Ohtani, for those whose baseball attention is focused squarely on the Cardinals and the National League, is a twenty-three year-old soon-to-be rookie for the Los Angeles Angels who is preparing to do something that is essentially unprecedented in modern Major League Baseball—be a true two-way player.

Shohei Ohtani was a superb pitcher for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan’s Pacific League. He broke through in 2014, his age-19 season, with a 2.61 ERA in 155 13 innings. He was an overpowering pitcher, striking out 10.4 batters per nine innings. While he was hobbled by injuries in 2017, 2016 was Ohtani’s best professional season, posting a 1.86 ERA and striking out 11.2 batters per nine. Generally speaking, Japan is considered to have the best professional leagues in the world aside from Major League Baseball, but even if the consensus overestimated it and Ohtani’s league was actually the equivalent of AAA, a sub-2 ERA from a 21 year-old in AAA would cause quite the stir itself.

He also, in 382 plate appearances, led his league in OPS. He hit 22 home runs, exhibited solid plate discipline, and triple-slashed .322/.416/.588. Shohei Ohtani, who turned 22 during July of that season, was the best pitcher and hitter in the league. Although his plate appearances came courtesy of designated hitter appearances in 2016, Ohtani did play in the outfield in previous seasons, accumulating seven assists in 62 games.

Following a brief recruiting frenzy, Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels, a team with need at starting pitcher and with some flexibility to play as a designated hitter. The current Angels DH, Albert Pujols, was disastrous at the plate in 2017—the whole “hitting behind Mike Trout” thing enabled him to clear 100 RBI, but his 78 wRC+ was cause for great concern. ZiPS projections do not expect Pujols to be that bad in 2018, but they do expect him to be a below-average hitter, at an 87 wRC+, thus providing an opportunity for Ohtani.

Shohei Ohtani has played far too little in Spring Training to rush to any sort of extreme judgments on his prospect pedigree from his statistics, but while scouting consensus on his arm has been mostly favorable, or at least nothing so negative that it would cast sincere doubts on his future as a Major League starting pitcher, reviews on his hitting have been far less favorable. In an excellent piece from last Friday, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan details conversations with MLB scouts who believe that Ohtani does not have a viable MLB bat.

Let’s rephrase that: they believe he doesn’t have a viable designated hitter bat. These are two very different things: the consensus best hitting pitcher in baseball prior to this season, San Francisco Giants starter Madison Bumgarner, has a 93 wRC+ since 2014 (admittedly an arbitrary beginning point, starting with “when he got good at hitting”). This is an excellent mark for a pitcher, easily baseball’s best, but it would make him a worse hitter than any of the nineteen DHs with 1000 or more plate appearances in that time. Only a handful of corner outfielders or first basemen were worse at the plate than Bumgarner, none by much, and they were all, aside from Phillies monument to nostalgia Ryan Howard, solid fielders. Bumgarner is excellent relative to pitchers but he couldn’t cut it as a DH and his bat couldn’t cover for presumed deficiencies at the “easy” defensive positions.

Concluding that Shohei Ohtani will be Madison Bumgarner is presumptuous but it’s not totally ludicrous (or even inherently insulting—Bumgarner is a really good pitcher). MLB pitchers are all elite athletes (the average human couldn’t do this off of a MLB pitcher), but they focus almost all of their attention on pitching. Pitchers hitting is something of a punchline but I tend to marvel at just how amazing they are at it—against the best pitchers in the world, guys who were selected for a skill essentially unrelated to hitting come up to the plate after having practiced it minimally and, about one-eighth of the time, succeed.

Rick Ankiel was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1997 as a 17 year-old pitcher, and like most pitchers, he was selected because he was really good at pitching. He made it to the Majors in 1999, a month after his 20th birthday. The story of Rick Ankiel’s career as a Major League pitcher has been told many times before, including at length by Ankiel himself. After an impressive 33 innings in 1999, Ankiel threw 175 MLB innings in 2000, exhibiting some relatively minor control issues but striking out a still-Cardinals record 9.98 batters per nine innings on his way to a second-place Rookie of the Year finish and a start in Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS against the Atlanta Braves. Let’s just get this next part over with.

You can feel the exhaustion in Jon Miller’s voice. He knows this is abnormal, and while it might have felt amusing at first, by the fifth wild pitch, it felt scary. The Cardinals went on to win that game, but the wildness continued. Ankiel threw four more wild pitches in 1 13 innings in the NLCS against the New York Mets. In four total innings in the 2000 postseason, Ankiel threw nine wild pitches and walked eleven batters.

Ankiel’s control was only better in 2001 relative to his 2000 postseason, and he was demoted to AAA, where he was even worse. He missed 2002 recovering from Tommy John surgery, was dreadful in 2003 in AA with the Tennessee Smokies, and was excellent in the minors in 2004 before returning to the Majors, in a bullpen role, where he exhibited unprecedented control, walking just one batter in ten innings. While it appeared Ankiel had turned a corner, 2004 was the final season in which Rick Ankiel would pitch professionally.

In Spring Training, following a disastrous outing on the mound, Ankiel announced he was going to switch to the outfield. While Ankiel had been an above-average hitter relative to pitchers, this seemed far-fetched. In 96 plate appearances, hardly a large sample size but not nothing, Ankiel had batted .207/.258/.310, good for a 43 OPS+. Exactly one Cardinal since the first Grover Cleveland administration had a full season with a lower OPS+ (and that was in 1937). He did hit two home runs, but the 6.25% walk rate and 30.2% strikeout rate suggested that the disclaimer “for a pitcher” would always be added to proclamations of Ankiel’s offensive prowess.

But unlike in past seasons, where Ankiel batting was merely a sideshow, it became a primary focus, along with learning the outfield. He began in A-ball and advanced to AA, and after missing the 2006 season with a knee injury, he spent most of 2007 in AAA. And then he came up to the Majors and did this.

Rick Ankiel did something most fans never dreamed they would see: he made Tony LaRussa smile. The next season, as the team’s regular starting center fielder, Rick Ankiel did this.

These highlights tend to create some overestimation of how good Outfielder Rick Ankiel was. He displayed impressive power from 2007 through his 2013 retirement, hitting 22 home runs per 600 plate appearances, but he never developed a ton of plate discipline; his triple-slash line of .242/.304/.427 meant a slightly below-average OPS+ of 95. Defensively, Ankiel’s arm was consistently impressive but his relative lack of range made him below-average in the field by Ultimate Zone Rating.

But this is relative to guys who were position players their entire lives, guys who were outfielders coming up through the minors from the day they were drafted. Ankiel switched to the outfield at 25 as a backup plan. That a pitching washout could turn himself into a serviceable Major League outfielder was inconceivable.

Rick Ankiel bore similarities to an idealized version of Shohei Ohtani. He was a hard-throwing pitcher—translated to the strikeout environment of 2017, 2000 Ankiel struck out 12.75 batters per nine. He displayed impressive power at the plate. His arm made him a viable outfielder.

It just so happens that Rick Ankiel wasn’t all of these things simultaneously. He showed Ohtani’s potential attributes over the course of a whirlwind career. That a player like Ankiel exists at all may lend some optimism to the notion of Shohei Ohtani not being a far-fetched delusion, but that Ankiel was never a MLB-caliber pitcher and position player at the same time shows why Ohtani’s quest to be a two-way player will be so difficult.

Ankiel began as a position player before the 2005 season and it took him until August 23, 2007 to make it to the big leagues. He missed a season due to injury, so saying it took him nearly three seasons to make it to the Majors as an outfielder, though technically true, is misleading, but his preparation was always geared towards becoming an outfielder, so disregarding that year altogether is similarly disingenuous.

Rick Ankiel was able to refine his hitting and fielding on a full-time basis because his pitching career crumbled. Perhaps he would have improved at the plate regardless, though probably not by the leaps and bounds that come from committing years to the craft. While Shohei Ohtani’s results at the plate in Japan suggest that he is coming from a further along starting point than Ankiel, the Angels are expecting him to be a part of their rotation. As an AL pitcher, he will only receive plate appearances from his natural position sporadically, when visiting National League parks.

Ohtani is clearly a natural offensive talent, and if he committed today to being an outfielder, he could probably become a really good one with some time in the minors. But as Rick Ankiel showed, while hard work and determination (in addition to incredible natural talent) can put the same man on a Major League mound and in a Major League outfield, it is a different challenge to expect anyone to do both at the same time.