With the conclusion of one guessing game -- Shohei Ohtani's chosen franchise as he begins his career in the United States -- another commences. How many of you, from the start of the process, had the Los Angeles Angels as the victors? Not many, I'm sure.
Now we begin the task of evaluating Ohtani's expectations in his first (and, yes, subsequent) years in the U.S., defining his fantasy value. He's the most prominent potential two-way player we've seen in this game in decades, but we've seen a variety of outcomes from previous players making the leap from Japan to MLB.
Ohtani's success as both a starting pitcher and right fielder during a five-year career in the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization fuels fantasy interest in him as both hitter and pitcher. To the question of eligibility -- I've heard your many questions about it -- ESPN will announce how he'll be used in our game on a later date. In terms of Ohtani's greater fantasy utility, expect it to come on the pitching side, where his role should be more assured and his skills more likely to translate across leagues.
After all, Ohtani's career 2.52 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 28.5 percent strikeout and 9.1 percent walk rates in 85 career games in NPB pop off the page, especially considering he pitched at a high level for three full seasons, plus the fraction of 2017 for which he was healthy. His numbers compare favorably to other Japanese-born pitchers who made the transition from NPB to the major leagues, with one notable exception: He's one of the youngest players in history to make the jump. Assuming Ohtani makes his first big league start in April, he'll be the fifth-youngest Japanese-born pitcher to make a start in the majors, behind Masanori Murakami, Junichi Tazawa, Mac Suzuki and Tomo Ohka.
League translations from overseas can be tricky, due in part to the limited sample sizes of players making such moves and to the difficulty adjusting to different rules, ballparks, roles and even equipment (the baseball itself is slightly smaller in NPB). Depending on whom you ask, you might hear it competitively compared to as high as the major leagues, to a "Quadruple-A" level (between Triple-A and the majors), down to Triple-A ball. I lean toward the middle comparison, especially considering how many pitchers have made near-immediate, effective transitions.
One way to roughly quantify it is to extract the results of the 14 most prominent Japanese-born pitchers with sizable enough samples to come to the U.S. Simply using ERA -- nothing too scientific -- here are their track records:
It reveals a roughly 1.1-run increase in ERA in the first year in the U.S. compared with their final-three-year average in Japan. To expand to other fantasy-relevant categories, their WHIP collectively rose roughly 0.15 in the first year, strikeout rate dropped a little less than 2 percent and walk rate rose about a percent and a half. Applying a similar adjustment to Ohtani, the result is roughly a 3.25 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 29 percent strikeout rate, numbers that would be outstanding and effectively a top-10 fantasy starting pitcher if he gets enough starts (think 28-plus).
However, considering that Ohtani was limited to just five starts for the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2017 due to ankle and hamstring injuries, has to deal with the league adjustment and will be doing so while attempting to do something that few players have attempted in the expansion era, tempered expectations are wise. I think an innings cap around 150 frames is possible, and I'd worry that his walk rate might spike to 10 percent, threatening his WHIP ballooning toward 1.2 or worse.
You're buying Ohtani for his strikeout potential, and an average of 10.5 per nine innings isn't an unrealistic expectation. On the high end, his 2018 numbers could resemble those of Robbie Ray in 2017, a season that earned Ray the No. 9 starting pitching spot on our Player Rater. On the low end, they might not be unlike those of Trevor Bauer, whose 2017 stats placed him 36th. It's for that reason that I'm slotting him as my No. 24 starter for now, in the same general range as Aaron Nola (22nd) and Jose Berrios (26th).
As for Ohtani's bat, his .286/.358/.500 career rates in Japan are sure to capture your attention, especially in comparison to the awful numbers of most U.S. pitchers. There's little doubting his left-handed pop, and you can expect him to contribute more in terms of home runs than batting average initially, but 69.5 percent contact and 27.0 percent strikeout rates suggest a lengthier adjustment on that side of the game. He's probably going to be a streaky hitter, and he's also landing in a ballpark (Angel Stadium) that was 25th in terms of home run factors for lefties in 2017 and 24th over the past five years combined.
A final note on Ohtani's likely streakiness: How he's used by the Angels might have a major say on his first-year fantasy impact with the bat. They're one of the American League teams with the least space for him at his natural positions, as their outfield is set between Justin Upton, Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun and the designated hitter slot is occupied by Albert Pujols, who might not be able to handle first base on even a semi-regular basis at this stage of his career. If Ohtani gets only two or three lineup starts per week, and one is the game he's starting, he might be wildly inconsistent and a liability in head-to-head leagues. It's an answer we might not get until spring training.
I'd guess he accrues about 250 plate appearances of .245/.315/.430 numbers, which could result in 8-10 home runs. Most fantasy owners are going to look at those numbers and react as if they're insultingly low, but I remind that we're always quick to assume the best-case scenarios with experiments such as this. Be realistic.