Fantasy Baseball: Are you brave enough to sell high on Shohei Ohtani?

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So there’s this guy they’ve been calling the Japanese Babe Ruth, because he’s trying to be both a pitcher and hitter. Which no one has done regularly in the majors since, ahem, Babe Ruth. 

It’s not supposed to be possible, which is why no one’s done it in so long, but this guy homered in three straight games last week, and then took a perfect game into the seventh inning Sunday, striking at 12.

Stop and let it sink in for a minute. Babe Ruth. Three home runs and the season’s best pitching performance in the same week. A 23-year-old rookie.

I spell it out in those most basic terms because I think those of us who follow baseball on the granular level that many Fantasy owners do may be desensitized to the whole thing and incapable of the appropriate reaction, which is dropped jaws, shortness of breath and fainting, in some cases. 

We’ve been debating for so long the plausibility of Shohei Ohtani’s decision and likelihood of him succeeding at it that we’ve reduced the payoff to assigning winners and losers like it’s any humdrum sports topic.

Folks, this is history. Something truly impressive that everyone inside and out of the game would have declared impossible just a few years ago, before Ohtani was on our radar, is happening. It’s happening as gloriously as anyone could have imagined, and it’s happening in real time. We’re all winners just to witness it.

Of course, the biggest winnerws of all are his Fantasy owners, many of whom capitalized on the spring training letdown by drafting him at a relative discount in the middle rounds – the point where downside should almost always take a backseat to upside. And who has more upside than the one guy who might just be good enough to both pitch and hit against the greatest players in the world?

In retrospect, gambling on the talent of Ohtani seems obvious, regardless of some of dismissive reports (which were bolstered by nonexistent production) in spring training, because now what would you give to have him?

No seriously, what would you give?

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It’s something every Ohtani owner should be willing to hear out, not because they’re eager to rid themselves of a prized asset but because now is a chance to cash in, in a way that’s permanent and risk-free. Interest in Ohtani is at a fever pitch – he’s far and away the most-viewed player in CBS Sports leagues, a spot normally reserved for players with more than 10 percent availability. And, while it’s possible he sustains that level of interest all season long, there’s not much that could make him more interesting than he is today, with the payoff seemingly fulfilled and the best-case scenario seemingly achieved.

A few things to keep in mind …

  • Little has actually been fulfilled or achieved. Ohtani has proven he’s equipped to deliver a best-case scenario, but a week-and-half into the season, he’s only a fraction of the way there. Adjustments will happen on both sides, and health could become a factor. The range of possible outcomes has narrowed a bit, but broadly speaking, it’s still wide. 
  • Because of the complications of implementing a two-way player in Fantasy, Ohtani is almost certainly more valuable in real life than in Fantasy now that we know he may actually be good at both. Which isn’t to say he’s not super duper valuable in Fantasy, but because you have to commit to him as either a pitcher or a hitter at the start of a scoring period in CBS Sports leagues, you’re pretty much always going to make him a pitcher in weekly leagues since his pitching responsibilities prevent him from DHing every day. If, on the other hand, you play in a daily league, you can enjoy the full scope of his contributions, using him wherever the Angels happen to be using him that day.
  • To build in enough rest between starts for Ohtani also to hit, the Angels are basically forced to use a six-man rotation, which will limit Ohtani’s pitching contributions over the long haul. His success hasn’t changed anything there. You still shouldn’t expect 180 innings from the guy, and 180 is about the minimum requirement for a Fantasy ace.

So yeah, there are clear limitations to Ohtani’s utility and upside, including ones that aren’t as pertinent in real life. And this early in the season, before the numbers have normalized at both ends, those who have produced stand out by so much over those who haven’t that these sorts of playing time drawbacks often fall by the wayside.

In other words, you could maybe get Justin Verlander for Ohtani – and should. Or maybe Noah Syndergaard, Jose Ramirez or Corey Seager. Basically, anyone who you could have drafted in the first three rounds of a 12-team league – so in the top 40, I’d say – is an excellent return for Ohtani, because the fourth round is about where I’d draft him today.

Why? It’s where the first pitcher who isn’t definitively an ace – think Chris Archer, Robbie Ray level – would often go off the board, and we’ve already established that Ohtani’s workload limitations will keep him just outside of the ace conversation in Fantasy.

Of course, putting him just outside of the ace conversation is more of an endorsement than not, right?

Oh yes. Other side of the coin, the stuff is unbelievable. His fastball pushes triple digits, which isn’t common for pitchers from Japan, but most make up for it with finely tuned secondary arsenals. Ohtani is like the best of both worlds. He racked up an incredible 25 swinging strikes in Sunday’s start, including 16 on his splitter alone, and control hasn’t been an issue even as he has gotten accustomed to a larger baseball. We’re now seeing why, in his last healthy season in Japan, he had a 1.86 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 11.2 strikeouts per nine over 140 innings.

Start for start, he looks like he’ll be an ace, and I suspect you’ll have no qualms about starting him every week even if he never has the benefit of a two-start week. That sort of reliability – the expectation of pitching deep into games with big strikeout totals – is increasingly rare in today’s game, and you should always be leery of dealing it away no matter the return.

There’s no harm in just sitting back and enjoying the ride, because the destination looks like where we’d all like to find ourselves. But there’s also no harm in exploring the trade market just to see if you could get back similar studliness in a more secure package.*

*Obviously, a keeper scenario would change the equation a bit. Ohtani is only 23, after all, and many of his drawbacks may become less so over time (e.g., he may not always be limited to less than 180 innings). He may require more like second-, it not first-round value in a format where you’d for sure be looking to keep him.

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