Could Japanese two-way player be next Babe Ruth?

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By DANIEL CHAVKIN

COLLEGE PARK, Maryland — If Shohei Ohtani can successfully make the transition to Major League Baseball, he has the chance to become the best two-way player since Babe Ruth.

But if Ohtani — a Japanese pitching and hitting phenom — is anything like other stars who jumped from Japan, he will face an adjustment period in the U.S.

Over the last two decades, Japanese standouts have consistently struggled to match their production in Nippon Professional Baseball, the top league in Japan. In almost every case, pitchers gave up more runs and hitters were less effective at the plate.

Hideki Matsui (the New York Yankees and other teams) and Ichiro Suzuki (the Seattle Mariners and other teams) — the two most successful Japanese baseball players in the past 30 years — saw a decline in production, even though they still put up good numbers. Matsui’s OPS (On base percentage plus Slugging) declined 22.94 percent in his first three MLB seasons, while Ichiro’s decreased by 16.33 percent.

Two successful Japanese pitchers, Yu Darvish (the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers) and Masahiro Tanaka (the Yankees), also saw a drop in production. The two allowed 1.65 and 1.61 more runs during their first three seasons in the U.S., respectively, than they did in Japan, while giving up 0.9 and 0.6 more home runs per nine innings.

Ohtani is a very unique player, excelling in both hitting and pitching for the Nippon Ham Fighters, where he both pitches and serves as designated hitter. It’s not clear how a MLB team will use him, but it might depend on which league he ends up in.

An American League team might use him as its designated hitter on days he doesn’t pitch. A National League team could use him as a pinch hitter when he isn’t pitching. In either league, he could also play outfield on non-pitching days, something he did in 62 games in Japan prior to 2015.

What could Ohtani’s performance on the mound and at the plate look like in the U.S.? To develop a rough estimate, Capital News Service adjusted Ohtani’s pitching and hitting stats in Japan to account for the performance drop-off Japanese players experience when entering MLB.

Our best guess: Ohtani will not be as good in the U.S. as he is in Japan. But he’ll still probably be one of the better Japanese pitchers in MLB, with a batting average slightly below the typical Japanese hitter in the U.S. And he’ll probably be the best hitting pitcher in all of baseball.

Here’s how we did it. First, we looked at every Japanese player who played at least two years in the Japanese pro league and at least two years in MLB. For several hitting and pitching statistics, we took the average for each player’s final seasons in Japan and the average of their first few seasons in the U.S. We then calculated the difference, and used that to adjust Ohtani’s Japanese statistics to predict his American performance.

There are several limitations to this method. The sample size here is small, with 11 hitters and 21 pitchers. And we didn’t control for factors like age. At 23, Ohtani would be one of the youngest Japanese players to make the jump.

At the plate, we project Ohtani’s OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) at .708, slightly lower than average for Japanese players in the U.S.. We think he’ll hit around 15 home runs, if he has a full season of at bats.

As a pitcher, Ohtani would sport a 3.14 ERA while giving up an average of 0.72 home runs per nine innings, better than average for Japanese players in the U.S.

By Japanese league standards, Ohtani is great pitcher and a great hitter. By the standard of Japanese hitters who jump to the U.S., Ohtani’s OPS in his last three seasons in Japan is below the average of .895.

In the U.S., we think Ohtani will likely be the best hitting pitcher by a good margin, surpassing Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco Giants) for that honor. Bumgarner, who is considered by many to be the league’s best hitting pitcher, has a .631 OPS over the past five seasons, while we project Otani’s OPS would be .077 points higher.

We also think he’ll be one of the better pitchers in the U.S., with a projected ERA of 3.14 — much better than the league average of 4.31 for all pitchers.

Ohtani is expected to make the jump in 2018. His NPB team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, announced Friday it would make him eligible to move to the U.S. And Ohtani seems eager to play in the U.S. now, instead of waiting until he’s 25, a move that could cost him tens of millions of dollars.

Regardless of when Ohtani comes to America, he is set to shake up MLB norms as an impact player on the mound and at the plate.

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