Shohei Otani and the Angels: Putting the Pieces Together

By Robert Peiffle

It’s safe to say that the Los Angeles Angels are having the best offseason that they could have asked for. Let’s review: left fielder Justin Upton signed an incredibly reasonable 5 year, $106 million deal, they bolstered their bullpen by acquiring Jim Johnson, they traded for Ian Kinsler which substantially improves second base for them, and of course they became the envy of the entire league when Japanese superstar Shohei Otani chose the Angels as the place to kickstart his major league career.

All in all, it’s a pretty great time to be an Angels fan.

The question moving forward is: how will Shohei Otani fit into the Angels roster? Otani is truly a one-of-a-kind talent, a two-way player who is only 22, the sort of asset basically any MLB team would be excited to have on their roster. So it might seem a ridiculous question to even ask. But adding any player to a roster is a balancing act and if Otani is going to truly become a superstar the Angels need to consider how he fits into their wider roster

The first place that he will fit in is at pitcher. While it’s tough to make like-for-like comparisons between Nippon Professional Baseball and the MLB, in five years he recorded a 2.52 ERA and 1.076 WHIP over the course of 543 innings. The icing on the cake is that he struck out 624 batters over the course of those innings. His arsenal of pitches is headlined by his slider, a pitch that breaks impossibly late and drops hard at the last second. If you look up a highlight package of Otani’s strikeouts you’ll see batter after batter whiffing at his slider.

But Otani isn’t limited to sliders. He was also the hardest throwing pitcher in Japan, setting the record with a 164 km/h fastball (that’s roughly 102 mph, for those of you who don’t do metric). Realistically, the combination of his slider and fastball should be enough for Otani to excel in the majors. Don’t believe me? Check out this video of Evan Longoria, Carlos Santana and Yasiel Puig whiffing on Otani’s pitches at an MLB exhibition game in Japan, way back in 2014. You could reasonably assume that his pitching has gotten better since then.

So sure, slotting Otani in as a starting pitcher is easy enough. He’ll help anchor a pitching rotation that includes Garrett Richards (coming off a 2.28 ERA, 0.90 WHIP season), Matt Shoemaker (a career 3.87 ERA, 1.20 WHIP pitcher), and Tyler Skaggs (a career 4.59 ERA, 1.35 WHIP pitcher). It wouldn’t be shocking if Otani became the best pitcher in the Angels’ starting rotation.

But so many MLB teams weren’t salivating over Otani just because of his pitching. He also is an incredible batter. In the past two seasons he has topped the .300/.400./500 slash line (A slash line is simply a player’s ERA, On-Base Percentage, and slugging percentage[1] divided by slashes. It’s a way of measuring how good of a hitter a player is. For context, a .300/.400/.500 slash line would make a player well above average in offensive production) while just straight up murdering the ball. Seriously, he has 30 home runs in 164 games and won the NBP home run derby in 2016. You should watch him literally hit the ball into the roof of the Tokyo Dome. Absolutely nuts. It’s no wonder that Otani was named the best pitcher and best DH in the NPB in 2016.

But that hitting ability does pose something of a problem for the Angels. To maximize Otani you’d want to have him play a role similar to the one he played for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (huge fan of the name, by the way), where Otani both pitched and batted DH. But the Angels already have a DH: Albert Pujols. He posted a .241/.286/.386 slash line, which is well below Pujols’ career average. The Angels could play Pujols at 1B, but at this point in his career, Pujols’ fielding ability is best described as limited. That also puts Luis Valbuena’s position in question. Currently listed as the first baseman on their depth chart, Valbuena certainly didn’t have a vintage offensive season (he slashed .199/.294/.432), but is a capable fielder and did have a good back half of the season against righties, slashing for .231/.335/.603 with a comically, absurdly good .372 ISO[2] in that time frame. Valbuena was also dealing with a lingering hamstring problem early in the season, so he if that second half surge continues, Vilbuena should be a good rotation player and probably will go into the season as the starting third baseman.

Maybe maximizing Otani’s potential is simple: Pujols plays first base, Valbuena plays third, and Otani slots in at DH, while also fitting in as the Angels’ ace. But there are still questions surrounding that lineup. Specifically, does Pujols decline at age 37 accelerate when he’s asked to be an everyday fielder and not just hit and can Valbuena be a consistently productive offensive player?

But Otani’s talent makes all of this worth it. If his stats from the NPB can translate over to America, not only will he be maybe the best pitcher on the Angels, but he will be a very, very good offensive player as well. That will make Otani instantly one of the most exciting players in baseball and make the Angels one of the contenders for the American League.


[1] Slugging percentage is simply the total number of bases divided by the number of at bats. It’s a way of quantifying how productive a hitter is, because it weights extra-base hits more heavily. Fun fact: Babe Ruth holds the MLB career slugging percentage record at .690 and Barry Bonds has the single season record at .864.

[2] ISO is a computation used to measure how many bases a player averages per at bat. The best power hitters will have an ISO of around .300 while anyone with an ISO over .200 is getting extra bases at a pretty good clip. The formula for ISO is: slugging percentage minus batting average.

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