The joy of Ohtani, a sleeping giant and MLB's next big thing

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Friday, April 13, 2018

Imagine a world in which Roy Hobbs exists.

This is about inimitable rookie sensation Shohei Ohtani, but let me make my point using the fictional Hobbs, the protagonist of the great baseball movie "The Natural" (Yes, it was a book first. A great book by Bernard Malamud. But the movie works best for our purposes.) Spoiler alert: Let's pretend Hobbs did not get shot by Barbara Hershey and manages to reach the majors, out of nowhere, as a flame-throwing, power-hitting young man.

Given what we know about him -- the unprecedented arm on the mound, the unmatchable power at the plate -- we would have a fictional character doing something similar to what Ohtani is doing right now. Ohtani is not the Japanese Babe Ruth. He's the Japanese Roy Hobbs.

Does that little bit of hype annoy you? If it does, I kind of feel sorry for you.

What we remember about Hobbs is that he was nearly destroyed by the cynical work of those around him. As if driven by a mania induced by a primordial version of social media, sportswriter Max Mercy was fixated on finding out where Hobbs came from, what his flaws were and where his skeletons lie.

The problem was that while the cynical Mercy recognized the beauty of it all, he couldn't accept it at face value: No, this kind of unique greatness does not happen, so there must be something else at work.

Mercy has to dig, spread doubt, amplify the negative and, ultimately, aid those who would corrupt Hobbs. All in search of that something else. Why? So he can prove he was right all along.

When it comes to Ohtani, let's not be Max Mercy.

The range of outcomes for Ohtani remains vast. That's true of all young players, but it's more true for him because only a handful of players have ever possessed his diversity of gifts. Yet, he has faced only one team as a pitcher. He has about a week's worth of plate appearances. We've seen the gifts on display -- the searing fastball, the diving splitter and the explosion off the bat when he barrels up a pitch. But what he has done so far has to be replicated (or at least approached) many times over the span of many, many games before we can say he's the real thing.

Much could go wrong. Ohtani could get hurt, as he was last season in Japan. Teams could learn to lay off his splitter and focus on jumping on his slider. At the plate, he may struggle once a book on how to pitch him is established. Supertalented players have failed at this game before. It's the nature of the endeavor, and it remains far too early to draw any firm conclusions.

Still, there is an aspect to the coverage of Ohtani that is hard to fathom. Ever since he signed with the Los Angeles Angels over the winter, it feels like there has been as much written and said about what he can't, shouldn't and might not be able to do as about his fantastical possibilities. He has been scrutinized like few rookies in recent memory, for good reason. Nevertheless, Ohtani has risen above it all so far.

No matter what happens from here, Ohtani has already done things we have never seen. Even Babe Ruth never had an eight-day stretch when he won two games as a starter and hit three home runs at the plate. Ohtani accomplished that within the first 10 games of his career. He has struck out 18 batters, walked two and leads the majors with a 0.462 WHIP. The WHIP figure ranks fourth all time among players with at least 13 innings pitched. At the plate, he has an OPS+ of 236. No one with a minimum of Ohtani's 29 plate appearances has a better career mark. No one! Chew on that combination of numbers for a minute.

Sure, this can be true only because Ohtani is at the very beginning of his journey, but that's kind of the point. Let's not harp on the fact that this level of production almost certainly won't last. Let's not overscrutinize what might emerge as flaws in his skill set. Let's not worry about whether a big league player in the 21st century can withstand the rigors of pulling double duty for a full season. Can't we just enjoy it while it lasts?

Roy Hobbs was not a real person. But as long as Ohtani is doing what he's doing, let's pretend The Natural has finally come to life.

What the numbers say:

Zeroing in on the cold

The cold weather that has gripped most of the Major League Baseball universe so far this season makes identifying early league-level trends more difficult than usual. One example, from the game notes put out by the Pittsburgh Pirates' media relations staff before their game at the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday: The average game-time temperature for Pittsburgh's first nine games was 39.6 degrees. The temperature at game time at Wrigley Field that day was 43 degrees -- tropical! -- which prompted Pirates starter Ivan Nova to say after the game, "That's the best it's been yet."

Nevertheless, the Pirates have been baseball's best offensive team in the early going, with the Bucs' bats fueling their surprising 9-3 start. The Pirates lead the National League in runs per game and OPS. So much for the correlation between cold temps and cold bats.

Where you do see a possible effect of the weather at the league level is the amazing total of 30 team shutouts already. Overall, one in six games thus far has ended with one team owning a goose egg on the final scoreboard. That puts the majors on pace for 394 shutouts for the season. The record for most shutouts in a season is 359, back in 1915 -- smack in the middle of the dead ball era.

Of course, there were only 16 teams then, but even in terms of shutouts per team per game, this year's total (0.08) ranks 16th all time, per The only non-dead ball era seasons ahead of this one were 1968 (the Year of the Pitcher) and 1972.

Assuming the weather is the prime driver of the shutout spate, it won't last. But if there is something else at play, like the preponderance of tanking teams, then this may be a number to watch.

Since you asked:

Fear the White Sox

The Chicago White Sox have had the most bipolar start of any team in the majors, a fact underscored by their home-road splits. Chicago went 3-2 in five road games to open the season, scoring 29 runs, with 14 homers and a .909 OPS. Then the Sox lost their first five home games, while scoring just 17 runs on two homers and a diabolical .666 OPS.

The strange offensive pattern is nothing compared to the horrific start by the White Sox bullpen. Through Tuesday, Chicago's relievers ranked 29th with a 6.03 ERA and dead last with a 1.689 WHIP before they put up 2 scoreless innings in a streak-breaking win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday.

Perhaps all of this is to be expected for a team very much in transition. Yet, my take on the White Sox is that while expectations for this season needed to be tempered, and they have been, there are still stakes in play for Chicago's South Siders. Chicago entered the season with the fourth-ranked system in all of baseball, per ESPN scouting analyst Keith Law. That ranking did not include prospects who have already reached the majors, such asYoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. Several others are knocking on the door.

Meanwhile, Chicago nearly has a clean slate in terms of future payroll. According to Cots Contracts, the White Sox have just $10.9 million in committed money on the books for 2019, and it drops even lower after that. To me, the combination of Chicago's gaggle of high-ceiling, near-ready prospects and maximum financial flexibility makes the White Sox baseball's sleeping giant. And with an overachieving season -- not playoff contention, or even a run at .500, necessarily -- Chicago could create a perception of forward momentum that might look enticing to premium free agents.

There are other reasons for the White Sox's young players to push for wins, but that perception has to be high on the list. That's what was on my mind when I spoke to White Sox general manager Rick Hahn during spring training:

How is the vibe around the team different this year than last year? You've got a lot of the heavy lifting done in terms of your change in direction, and a number of the pieces you'll be counting on in the future are right here in big league camp already.

Rick Hahn: It's funny, we spent a lot of time talking over the last four or five months of the offseason about how we're going to need some patience here. There is going to be some excitement, whether it's what Eloy [Jimenez] does in camp, or whether it's Dylan Cease. We're going to be patient with these guys and give them the time they need and not force the issue with any of them. We've also said that where we sit as an organization right now, we do conceivably have answers at every position. From inside the organization, [we have] long-term answers for a championship club. But we know that baseball doesn't work that way. The baseball gods can be cruel. Unexpected things are going to happen. So certainly there is a level of optimism, but losing [injured prospect] Jake Berger for the season is a reminder that we have to continue to be diligent in accumulating talent and allowing it the time it needs to develop.

Over the offseason, there was so much written about the slow free-agent market that one of the drivers of that might have been the number of teams that are pulling back right now. Do you feel like you got out in front of that a little bit with the timing on your own decision to pivot?

RH: We timed it not necessarily based on macro-market issues, but more of a combination of knowing that we had one premium talent on hand that was controllable but not enough depth to really contend, or compete, and that we knew that we had to change the way we were approaching things.

The problem on our rosters wasn't Nos. 1 through 7, let's say, but 8 through 40. Every year, we were caught kind of plugging and playing to fill in the gaps and stick our finger in the dike. That wasn't working and there was frustration from myself, Kenny [Williams], Jerry [Reinsdorf] and the fan base.

Based on where the future free-agent market seemed to be headed, and based on when we were moving our talent, there wasn't quite as much traffic around us in terms of other teams doing the same thing. So the timing did make sense from a larger-scale, market-based standpoint. But really, we were motivated by the fact that our whole way of doing things wasn't working.

Obviously, you guys are in a big-picture situation and not looking to skip steps. But how important is it to create a perception or even a reality of forward momentum?

RH: It's funny. We are one year into this. Two offseasons, but one actual season into this process. These things, on average, tend to take roughly five years or so if you look around the game. Having started off with more valuable assets than a typical rebuilding team, initially through the trades we made, we're hoping we can shorten that timeline a little bit. But we are still very aware that we are in the early process of this.

There have been podcasts this offseason suggesting "maybe the White Sox can contend for a wild card this year." It's great that there is that enthusiasm and there is that level of potential expectation of competitiveness one year into a rebuild. I think that speaks to how Ricky [Renteria] has them playing and how people view the prospects that we have acquired.

But around here, we are taking that longer-term view. We know we are one year in. We know there are going to be growing pains. Yes, it's important to show progress with certain guys, but wins and losses aren't necessarily going to be the byproduct of that. If they are, fantastic -- the more wins, the better. We're all competitive and we want to win. But when you're entering the second year of a rebuild, it's more about individuals than the whole.

Coming right up:

New stars are on the way

There is a table on the big roll-up sheet of indicators at the front of MLBPET (my projection and tracking system) that each day shows the 12 best rookies in terms of WAR, prorated for the full season. Ohtani is the runaway leader at this point, which is no surprise. But No. 2 is Tampa Bay's Joey Wendle, a 28-year-old journeyman infielder who likely won't maintain his .934 OPS.

The non-Ohtani rookies likely to generate the most buzz are probably in the minors because of service-time manipulation. This is an aspect of the current working agreement between the teams and the players that I loathe. The practice is entirely defensible and reasonable from the clubs' standpoint given the parameters of the current CBA, but there has to be a better way, and hopefully the subject is addressed in the next round of labor negotiations.

Friday, April 13 is the magical day when many of these players can be recalled without their organizations forfeiting a year of team control. Very soon, we should see the likes of Atlanta's Ronald Acuna and Cincinnati's Nick Senzel in the big leagues.

If Acuna is recalled right away, he'd make his debut at Wrigley Field over the weekend. However, there hasn't been much buzz about this actually happening, and the Braves return to SunTrust Park for a homestand beginning Monday. Acuna is currently plying his trade for Triple-A Gwinnett in the Atlanta suburbs, where he is off to a rough start after tearing through the Grapefruit League in March.

Another prime call-up candidate could have been Washington's Victor Robles. The Nationals are down an outfielder with Adam Eaton back on the disabled list. Unfortunately, Robles is injured as well. Robles hurt his left elbow while attempting a diving catch of a sinking liner in the outfield earlier this week. He was diagnosed with a hyperextended elbow and no timetable has been established for his return.

Of these top prospects, Senzel is the most likely to be immediately promoted because of yet another injury: The broken thumb suffered by starting third baseman Eugenio Suarez last week. Senzel had been working at shortstop since spring training in an effort to increase his versatility. However, he was moved back to third base at Triple-A Louisville earlier this week. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce why that decision was made.

Nothing has been announced, but expect to see Senzel in Cincinnati very soon.

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