A Japanese trailblazer is poised to change basketball

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The past five years have been a golden age for tactical experimentation in Major League Baseball (MLB). Defensive alignments and bullpen usage patterns that would have been unimaginable a decade ago have become commonplace. But even the clubs most likely to think outside the box have never questioned one of the fundamental truths of the sport: pitchers strike out, hitters hit, and no the two met forever.

In 2018, however, this foundational belief will be put to a long overdue test. On December 8 Shohei Ohtani – an unprecedented two-way star who has a strong claim to be both Japan’s best hitter and its best catcher – announced that he would signed with the Los Angeles Angels. The team quickly announced that they intended to use the 23-year-old player as a battery on the days he would not play. The last player to be used this way with any success was Babe Ruth, the biggest star in baseball history. He started out as a reliever and briefly excelled in both positions, but gave up pitching for good when he joined the New York Yankees in 1920.

On one hand, the potential advantage of a two-way player is so great that they could disappear long ago is amazing. Modern starting pitchers throw only once every five games. They spend the rest of the time sitting on the bench, cheering on their teammates and nursing their sore arms. In theory, players who could contribute to the bat in the 80% of games they don’t contribute could be worth two stars in one. In the early years of the sport, some rare talents got away with this. Bob Caruthers was among the elite of the American Association – a circuit famous for allowing the sale of alcohol to spectators – both pitching and hitting in 1886 and 1887, and the his club to first place in both seasons.

Many of today’s athletes may have the potential to follow in Caruthers’ footsteps. Half of the major leagues play in the National League, where pitchers must bat for themselves rather than being replaced by a designated hitter (DH). And a handful of starters from this group, such as Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants, have attracted attention with occasional displays of batting power on their playing days. Similarly, some catchers have gone on to put together respectable seasons as position players once they stopped pitching: for example, Rick Ankiel reinvented himself as a credible slugger seven years after he lost the ability to throw the ball to home plate. And in the mid-2000s, Brooks Kieschnick of the Milwaukee Brewers briefly alternated between batting and pitching in relief—though in the end, neither the job nor the hitting has enough to warrant a roster spot.

However, no major leaguer has started at least 15 games in both relief and other positions since the forgotten Johnny Cooney in 1924. There are two main reasons why two-way stars went way of the dodo One is that as the level of play in MLB has evolved over the century, teams have come to believe that even the most versatile athletes must give 100% of their effort. focus on one or the other half of the game’s basic gameplay in sequence. to succeed. Every year, dozens of players show up for their high school or college teams as both pitchers and hitters. Once they are drafted, however, MLB teams inevitably force them to pick whichever side they believe is stronger.

Health is the other factor that has derailed the hopes of two-way players. Pitchers are fragile examples: missing a year or two to reconstructive elbow surgery has become an increasingly common pit stop in young pitchers’ careers, and shoulder injuries are still often career-ending. Even so, thinking about squeezing out an extra win or three of offensive value on a starting pitcher’s off days might be the idea of ​​teams betting tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on their star pitchers. stay healthy, they hate to put on extra weight like that. a valuable asset.

All of this logic can be applied to Japan as well, where players specialize in pitching or hitting. However, there are also significant differences between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in Japan, which made the latter a more likely venue for a two-way experiment. First, the Japanese starting rotation runs six pitchers deep instead of five. That increases the share of games each starter sits on the bench, and thus the potential return from using one as a batter. The extra man in the rotation, along with a slightly shorter season, also reduces the overall workload for each pitcher. A small load may be able to make kittens less prone to injury, and also reduce the risk of using them for bats.

In addition, Japan’s league is significantly weaker than MLB. Facing low competition raises the odds that one transgender athlete will be able to comfortably exceed the league average in two different positions. And finally, Mr. Ohtani had long made it clear that he was not long for NPB. In 2012 he announced that he wanted to go straight to MLB after high school, but eventually agreed to spend a few years at home before crossing the Pacific. Since the Nippon Ham Fighters knew that they would only enjoy his services for a few years at least, they were motivated to extract every diminution of value from him. they can during his short work window. If playing on both sides of the ball caused long-term injuries, that was MLB’s problem, not theirs.

Mr. Ohtani did not disappoint. During his last full season in 2016 — he missed much of this year’s campaign with injury — he compiled the best on-base and slugging percentages (a standard measure of hitting performance) and average best earned run and strikeout (similar measures for pitching) in the Japan Pacific League. Among Japanese players who have crossed over to MLB, Mr. Ohtani’s batting record in NPB is most similar to that of Hideki Matsui, the country’s most successful power export to North America. And his NPB performances are more like those of Yu Darvish, Japan’s most artistic exile. Los Angeles would be thrilled to match the achievements of one of these greats. If Mr. Ohtani can do both at the same time, he would easily rival his new teammate, the Angels’ Mike Trout, as the best player on the planet.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia will have an unprecedented challenge in figuring out how to get the most out of his new star. Even though Mr. Ohtani is unlikely to suffer lasting effects from the ankle injury that kept him out of the 2017 World Baseball Classic and most of this year’s NPB season, staying healthy is tough enough. for starting pitchers already familiar with MLB. They follow carefully designed rest and training regimens to minimize the risk of injury, none of which include batting or fielding on off days. Will the Angels keep Mr. Ohtani out of the lineup on his “throwing day,” halfway between starts? Will he still be available to go into the game to beat him if the result hangs in the balance? And will Mr. Scioscia be able to resist the temptation to call the whole thing off the first time Mr. Ohtani complains that his elbow or shoulder strain, or – horror of horrors – needs time on the disabled list? The Angels have already announced that they will move to a six-man rotation to keep Mr. Ohtani comfortable, a decision that could benefit the club’s other sore starters as well. But no one knows what will help the extra to cope with his unprecedented double workload.

Mr. Scioscia also has to figure out how to work Mr. Ohtani into the offensive half of his existing roster. The import has not played a consistent defensive position since 2013, meaning he will likely be limited to DH duty. But the Angels already have a DH in Albert Pujols, who was the best player in baseball a decade ago, and his worst in 2017. Even though Mr. Pujols’ days as a superstar are over long gone, the memory of his glory days and the albatross of his contract – he will earn more than $100m from 2018 to 2021 – ensure the team will give him every chance to turn things around . The Angels have said Mr. Pujols aims to be healthy enough to play first base next season, when he will be 38. But a logjam looms if he doesn’t, and he only played six games at first base last season. Even if Mr. Ohtani could return to the field, where he played as an 18-year-old on days he did not play, the team’s three starting slots are already taken.

The best case for the success of Mr. Ohtani’s two-way experiment is the one that outsiders are not privy to: the pitch the Angels made to convince the best prospect in ball. -base to go with them. As a young player under contract with a foreign club, MLB’s collective bargaining agreement and player transfer agreement with NPB ended a bidding war for Mr. Ohtani: all suitors were limited to offering the league’s moderate signing bonus and salary scale for new arrivals. players. His desire to play on the West Coast and out of the glare of a big market (the Angels play in Anaheim, about 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles) narrowed the field, but he It seems that the team also gave him a practice pattern that he found particularly attractive. . If Mr. Ohtani succeeds as a two-way player, he may end up changing the game more than any player since the sport’s last two-way star – Babe Ruth.

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