TEMPE, Ariz. — Joe Maddon is excited about Shohei Ohtani. And excited means the new Angels manager already is looking at where to bat Ohtani in the lineup when he pitches. And not just in interleague games at NL parks.
Maddon is imagining having Ohtani bat leadoff to maximize the number of at-bats he gets before being removed as a starting pitcher, which in the AL would mean the Angels playing without a DH.
“Once he is well and received medical blessing, I would not run away from that,” Maddon said.
There is a long way from here to the game in which Maddon can ask Ohtani to both pitch and hit. There is still a good distance — even under the best circumstances — in which Ohtani will be allowed to pitch in a major league game. But Ohtani’s talent is such that Maddon cannot restrain his overactive baseball brain from envisioning the possibilities.
“It is not just like he is anybody,” Maddon said. “This could be the best pitcher in the game. This could be the best hitter in the game simultaneously. … It will be a matter of how much his arm can take, which I think it can once he is fully healthy.”
A quick history lesson: The last time a player exceeded 100 innings pitched and 200 plate appearances was Babe Ruth in his final Red Sox season, 1919 (133¹/₃ innings and 543 plate appearances). When Ohtani tried it a century later, as a major league rookie in 2018, he managed 10 starts and 51²/₃ innings before needing Tommy John surgery.
He has not pitched a major league inning since. He served as the primary DH from May through the end of the season in 2019 and will open in that role again in 2020. Major league rules allow Ohtani to stay on the Angels’ active roster as a hitter while doing rehab starts weekly in the minors. The ideal timetable would have him returning to the rotation in mid-May.
In that scenario, there are about 18-20 starts and 350-400 plate appearances plotted for him. But can Ohtani stay sharp at the two disciplines and can he stay healthy?
“From what I have seen, his routines are impeccable; very similar to Ivan Drago from ‘Rocky,’ ” pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. “He has the latest equipment and is prepared to do what he needs to do that day. His challenge is staying as effective as he can because he has to hit one day, pitch the next. But his routines are great. He is a worker. He is incredibly talented. There will be a lack of practice on one skill or another or half the practice other guys get, but he is still going to excel because he is so talented.”
Getting Ohtani back as a regular starter is arguably the most vital issue the Angels face. They do not have anyone else who looks like an ace after trying and failing to sign Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler in free agency. They do not really have a No. 2 or 3 starter, either.
Despite what Maddon envisions, however, the Angels’ plan is one of caution. As in 2018, Ohtani will start just once a week and will not hit the day before and after a start. To maximize his bat, though, the Angels will try to have him start as frequently as possible before an off-day, which makes it most likely he will be a Wednesday starter in the first half.
They also plan to start him in NL cities for interleague games as often as possible, easiest done when the Angels play at Atlanta July 3-5 and then open the second half in Philadelphia July 17-19.
“Where we have the ability to, we will have him start in the National League ballpark,” Angels GM Billy Eppler said. “We have a clear competitive advantage in those games by having an .875 OPS guy hit who also is our starting pitcher.”
As for doing it in an AL game and forfeiting the DH, Maddon said if the team is in playoff contention late and Ohtani is healthy, “Why not?” Maddon would lead off Ohtani, believing having a 26th man this year would leave more position players to pinch-hit when the pitcher’s spot came up after Ohtani was removed. And Maddon thinks Ohtani is worth the juggling.
“He is just different,” Maddon said. “Start at the plate, he is deceivingly, exceptionally strong. He has great hands.The ball comes off the bat hot. You want to talk about exit velocity. Pitching wise, he is a tension-free athlete, like he is at the plate. Not a lot of bump and grind. Pitching, the ball comes out easy and it is hot.”
And the subject is hot again: Can one man regularly do two such different jobs in the majors?