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Hitter or pitcher? Why Shohei Ohtani's fantasy value is best on the mound

Shohei Ohtani has impressed both on the mound and at the plate so far in his rookie season, but early returns suggest he's still better off as a pitcher in your fantasy lineup. John Cordes/Icon Sportswire

Hey hey, Shohei! You're No. 1 on the Player Rater!

Through one week -- OK, 11 days (or the length of the ESPN first "week") -- no star in fantasy baseball has shined brighter than Shohei Ohtani's, the Los Angeles Angels' hitter/pitcher. And he's worthy of that dual label, having already provided sizable contributions on both sides of the ball: He's tied for fifth in the majors in home runs (3) on the hitting side, and stands alone in third in strikeouts (18) on the pitching side.

Before we begin, the usual-and-necessary caveat: Eleven days' numbers, on only six of which Ohtani actually played (four as a hitter, two as a pitcher), is a perilously small sample from which to draw seasonal conclusions. In Ohtani's case, however, those 11 days represent the first 11 from which we have any "data that counts" from him in the U.S. game. They were our first look at this critical fantasy contributor, and they include actionable findings.

Starting with his pitching exploits, Ohtani's 27 consecutive batters retired spanning his two starts -- he retired the final eight Oakland Athletics he faced on April 1, then the first 19 Athletics he faced on Sunday -- were the headline. Digging deeper, he's fourth in the majors with a 40 percent strikeout rate, fueled by a major league-leading 24 percent swinging-strike rate, and his 43 swings and missed trail only Cole Hamels' 46 (but remember that Hamels has made three starts to Ohtani's two).

If you've been watching, you've seen what's behind it: A splitter that has been positively filthy, one that he has thrown 32 percent of the time overall and 48 percent in two-strike counts, making it his put-away pitch. Ohtani's splitter has been worth 3.7 runs above average per FanGraphs, making it the eighth most-valuable individual pitch thus far, behind only Sean Manaea's four-seam fastball (6.7), Jameson Taillon's four-seam fastball (5.4), Chris Rusin's four-seam fastball (4.9), Ian Kennedy's four-seam fastball (4.8), Luis Severino's slider (4.2), David Price's cutter (4.1) and Gerrit Cole's four-seam fastball (3.8). Ohtani's splitter also generated 16 swings and misses on Sunday, which is tied for the most by any pitcher's splitter in a single game since 2009, which is the first season for which our internal pitch-tracking tool has data.

Ohtani's four-seam fastball is also pretty darned good: He has thrown it 44 percent of the time and averaged 97.1 mph with it, which is the third-fastest average thus far behind only Severino's (97.6 mph) and Noah Syndergaard's (97.5). Ohtani has recorded 13 of his 39 outs, four of them strikeouts, with the four-seamer while affording only three singles and two well-hit balls in play. Toss in an above-average slider (21 percent usage) and curveball (3 percent) and Ohtani's collection of offerings is already one of the most diverse in the game. It's somewhat similar to Masahiro Tanaka's, except that Ohtani throws his fastball considerably harder than the New York Yankees right-hander.

This presents quite the contrast to Ohtani's spring performance, which was probably unfairly panned. Most grasped tightly to the 19 runs (17 earned) and 20 hits he surrendered in 13 innings pitched, counting his numbers from two "B" games and a late-March intrasquad affair, without recognizing his 24 strikeouts compared to eight walks in 72 batters faced (33 percent K rate, 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio). Ohtani was scarcely used in Cactus League action, but he has been unleashed now that the games have begun to count. If your instinct is to "split the difference," a common snap judgment in fantasy baseball, in this case that's probably undercutting his value. Oh, and that's just his pitching value, to be clear.

With the bat, Ohtani hasn't been much less impressive, with his three homers coming in a mere 19 trips to the plate, including one homer hit slightly to the left of center field against defending American League Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber. More importantly, though, Ohtani's 97.3 mph average exit velocity (per Statcast) is second-best in the league among players with at least 10 batted-ball events, he has six well-hit balls in play (including all three of the homers) and his 77.8 percent contact rate thus far exceeds his 69.5 percent rate during his five-year career in Japan.

Credit an adjustment to his stance -- he minimized a leg kick he exhibited during the early stages of spring training and instead is now utilizing more of a toe-tap in his swing -- for Ohtani's improvement, and while his to-date hitting rates are obviously unsustainable, he looks like an unexpectedly handy contributor with the bat. Chances are, his weaknesses will likely be on pitches on the inner third of the plate, especially breaking balls, where his amount of patience will ultimately determine how streaky a hitter he'll be. Ohtani's power, though, sure looks legitimate, and it's probably unfair to assume he'll sport a whiff rate of 30-plus percent come season's end.

I'm not adjusting my Ohtani pitching projections, which were already quite generous: 3.25 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 29 percent K rate over an expected 24 starts. It's his hitting contribution that has taken me by surprise, necessitating an adjustment: I'd now call him capable of a .250-.260 batting average and .210 isolated power, plus anticipate he might come to the plate 325 times, which is enough for him to hit another 13-15 home runs. And that's a significant advantage for fantasy managers in leagues with daily transactions, since the Angels' clarity on his role on a day-to-day basis makes it rather easy to maximize his usage from both sides of the ball.

From a categorical rotisserie head-to-head standpoint, Ohtani is now absolutely worthy of the No. 73 overall ADP (75.5) that represented his preseason high point on March 7, which is roughly where he'll move this week in my rankings. He's a top 20-capable fantasy starting pitcher you should slot in for all of his mound assignments, and assuming you don't have a clearly superior utility option on the dates that he's slotted at DH, he's worth activating at DH, especially against right-handers.

Oh, but if he's pitching in a National League park and therefore slotted into both roles and forcing you to choose, take the pitching stats ... they're still his ticket to stardom.

That applies to weekly leagues as well, where Ohtani's pitching exploits remain considerably more useful. With his typical week probably resulting in one pitching start and roughly three hitter starts at DH, he's not going to provide the volume needed to contribute in the latter. It conceivable that he might draw one pitching assignment with a matchup unfavorable enough -- think Week 6 with the two games at Coors Field, or Week 8 with three apiece at Toronto's Rogers Centre and New York's Yankee Stadium -- that he'd be more useful as a hitter, but it's still highly unlikely that it'd be so much so to tilt the balance (a pitching assignment at Coors where he'd be slotted at hitter, then perhaps draw 2-3 games against Minnesota Twins right-handed starters during the subsequent weekend series being a possible exception).