According to MLB Network's Jon Heyman, the ongoing negotiations to get Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani to the big leagues next year have hit a bit of a snag, mostly because the MLBPA is (understandably) concerned that Ohtani's Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, will receive more in their posting fee than Ohtani will receive as the actual guy playing games. Clearly, though, Ohtani wants to come here next year, and by all accounts, it's eventually going to happen. By the end of 2017, Ohtani is likely to be on an MLB roster.
Which means we all need to get ready. Because Ohtani is in a unique position to fundamentally change something that has become as big a part of baseball as pine tar and the purpose pitch: Fantasy baseball. Shohei Ohtani is going to be a menace to fantasy baseball. And we need to start figuring out what to do about it right now.
As you all know, Ohtani isn't just a starting pitching phenom who has hit triple digits on the radar gun. He's also a power hitter with the ability to do, say, this:
(That would be Ohtani hitting a ball so high and so hard that it got stuck in the roof of the Tokyo Dome.)
Ohtani is primarily a pitcher, and any team that signs him will think of him as that first. But he wants to hit: He has explicitly said he plans on being a hitter, as well, in America, and with the ability to hit balls off the roof of the Tokyo Dome, why not? There is some debate as to how much Ohtani's new team will actually want him to hit; after all, starting pitchers with Ohtani's stuff are extremely valuable, and you don't want them getting hurt on the base paths or at the plate. But they won't want to upset their new star either. The general consensus is that even though Ohtani is available to all 30 teams -- and because of spending restrictions, they all have a roughly equal shot at him -- it is most likely he will sign with an American League team, which will start him every fifth day and let him DH occasionally on his off days. But either way: Ohtani is about to become MLB's first two-way player since Willie Smith in 1964, but really since Babe Ruth. (Who did it for only two years.)
Which is a serious problem for fantasy baseball.
Fantasy baseball has always operated on a single basic premise: There are hitters, and there are pitchers. Half of your team revolves around hitting (and stealing bases), the other half revolves around pitching, and never the twain shall meet. It's a simple dividing line, and there has never been any reason to cross it.
But Ohtani crosses it. This week, on the invaluable MLB.com Fantasy 411 podcast, hosts Matthew Leach and Fred Zinkie tried to solve this fundamental question: How do you solve a problem like Ohtani? How does Ohtani fit in the world of fantasy baseball?
Leach and Zinkie suggested two ways to handle Ohtani, both of which have their own issues.
Make him available as a hitter and as a pitcher. As two separate players.
If we have decided that the line between hitter and pitcher is truly a Rubicon that can never be crossed, this is the most elegant solution. Make two Ohtanis. One is draftable as a pitcher. The other is draftable as a hitter.
This means that if you want Ohtani the ace starter, you can get him entirely independent of the power hitter; someone else could have that guy. Theoretically, in a head-to-head league, Ohtani could pitch seven shutout innings with 10 strikeouts for your team and then hit a three-run homer in the sixth for your opponent, hurting you in HR and RBIs but giving your team a win. Ohtani could, in these leagues, be playing against himself, at the same time, in the same game.
This is the simplest solution to the issue, but it's still strange and sort of disappointing. First off: It turns Ohtani -- the type of player we haven't seen in a century -- into, alas, just a pitcher. Ohtani is unlikely to play every day when he doesn't pitch, which means he's essentially a utility player and occasional bat off the bench. He would also certainly be only DH eligible. In other words: He's mostly undraftable as a hitter. There isn't much place on anyone's roster for a guy who only fits in a DH slot and plays only two or three days a week. You're taking this truly unique baseball individual and eliminating what makes him most interesting. He's just another guy.
Not to mention, well, Ohtani isn't two separate human beings, one who hits and one who pitches. He's one guy who does both of those things. If you draft Ohtani, you should get everything he does on a baseball field, right? You don't split up anyone else in baseball. No one else gets to play for two fantasy teams? Why would you do it to him?
Combine both his pitching and hitting stats, giving fantasy teams both.
This seems the most fair, right? If you draft Ohtani, you get his wins, his strikeouts and his ERA, and you also get his homers and RBIs and runs scored. This is how every other fantasy sport works. You don't have to draft two separate Kristaps Porzingises, one who scores points and dishes assists and one who grabs defensive rebounds and blocks shots. You draft a guy, and thus you get everything he does.
This would also, immediately, turn Ohtani into a first-round draft pick, even if he's not that great of a hitter. If he's in the top 20 of starting pitchers in the game -- and he'll certainly be expected to be that by the team who signs him -- he already provides a massive value to a team. But then add in, say, 15 homers, or 60 RBIs, all basically free, falling from the sky. If you get everything Ohtani does, he can be a league-average hitter who hits only two or three times a week, and that would turn him into one of the best players in fantasy baseball, if not the best. It's like a quarterback who throws for 450 yards every game and is the goal-line back and kicks field goals and extra points. This also most accurately reflects what is special about Ohtani: He does everything.
But this has its own issues, first of which is: What roster spot does he occupy? Does he have to play in a utility spot? Or can you just plug him as a pitcher and still get all those hitting stats? And that begs the largest question of all: If Ohtani is a pitcher whose hitting stats count, well, jeez, shouldn't every pitcher's hitting stats count? Why does he get to be so special? If we're going to count his stats on the days he pitches, then shouldn't we also count Madison Bumgarner's? How about Ivan Nova's? Ivan Nova had a decent year last year for the Pirates, putting up a 4.14 ERA in 187 innings, notching 11 wins and 131 strikeouts. He has some roster utility for a fantasy team, particularly in a National League-only fantasy league. But what if you have to add in his hitting stats? Nova went 1-for-51 at the plate in 2017, good for a .020 batting average. I'm going to guess a lot of fantasy managers wouldn't appreciate an extra 1-for-51 added to their batting stats.
But if you're going to include everything Ohtani does on a baseball field, it doesn't seem right not to include everything everyone does on a baseball field. He is not a special snowflake, a unicorn. He's just like everybody else. His stats count; so do theirs.
Do you see what I mean? There's no right answer. Fantasy baseball has been invented in the time between Babe Ruth and Ohtani, and it has never had to evolve to deal with anyone like either one of them. But now it does. We always talk about superstar players showing up and changing the game. Well, Ohtani is coming. And he will literally change the game. What's the right answer? As fantasy baseball players, and owners, and even software developers, we better figure it out quickly. Because he's almost here.
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