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The Angels (!) and Signing the Japanese Babe Ruth

December 9th, 2017 · No Comments · Angels, Baseball

The story of Shohei Ohtani just got a bit more fantastical.

The 23-year-old Japanese star who seems to be channeling the spirit of Babe Ruth with his demonstrated star quality as both a pitcher and hitter, has signed with a Major League Baseball team.

And it is not the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox that Ohtani has chosen to join. Not the Los Angeles Dodgers or Chicago Cubs.

It is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who in recent seasons had been fading into anonymity among the L.A. market’s glut of major sports franchises, and their coup suggests they may be ready to aspire to be the competitive club they were in the first decade of this century.

Until they signed Justin Upton, a standout during the stretch run last year, to a five-year, $106 million contract last month, the Angels were a team no quality free agent had joined since Albert Pujols in 2012.

Pujols, then 32, signed a $250 million, 10-year deal … which always looked as if it would include five years of decline for the former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman.

And so it has. The deal turned into a poison pill. Pujols, who will be 38 before the 2018 season begins, now ranks as one of the weakest regulars in MLB. He can hardly run, can barely play first base and has four more years of club owner Arte Moreno’s money due to him.

The Upton signing helped, but a week ago it still looked as if the the Angels were on a treadmill to nowhere, a team seemingly doomed to surround the greatest all-round player in the game, two-time MVP outfielder Mike Trout, with players so ordinary (or worse) that he had no reasonable hope of reaching the playoffs. Year by year, the question, “Is Mike Trout wasting his career with the Angels?” became asked more often and at greater volume.

In part, the Angels, led by Moreno, seemed intent on keeping salaries under control in the wake of the big money given to Pujols (who was, at least, useful for a few seasons) and, ahead of the 2013 season, to  outfielder Josh Hamilton (five years, $125 million), whose personal problems and lack of availability made the contract a disaster and seemed to sour Moreno on competing in the middle of this decade.

But with Trout, Upton and Ohtani in the fold the Angels suddenly seem a lot more interesting. And worth following internationally, now that they have Japan’s Ohtani.

And it gets better, for the Angels: They are bringing in Ohtani on the cheap. After the Angels paid a $20 million fee to Ohtani’s club in Japan (the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters), they get an extremely friendly deal with the rising star: Six years of club control and three seasons of the MLB minimum salary ($545,000), according to the Los Angeles Times.

The club introduced Ohtani to fans today, and about 2,000 of them turned up, along with perhaps 100 Japanese journalists who will cover Ohtani’s big adventure.

Back to the Babe Ruth thing.

The man universally considered one of the greatest hitters in baseball history was, early in his career, a very fine pitcher, for the Boston Red Sox. He was primarily a pitcher in 1915, 1916 and 1917 and in 1918 he began making regular appearances in the field, as well. By 1920, after he joined the Yankees, he pretty much gave up pitching.

Ohtani, a slender 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, who hits left and pitches right, has similar eclectic skills.

His fastball has been clocked at 102 miles per hour and he has three breaking pitches he can throw for strikes.

Barring injury, his numbers in Japan suggest he is instantly the Angels’ ace pitcher. In five seasons in Japan’s Pacific League, he went 42-15 in 85 games, with an ERA of 2.52 and 624 strikeouts in 543 innings.

But he also is a fine hitter, and he wants to get a significant number of at-bats, presumably as a designated hitter.

His five-season Japan numbers include a .286 batting average, a .358 on-base percentage, 48 home runs and 156 RBI in 1,170 plate appearances. (Remember, this goes back to win he was 18.)

He joined the Angels, it seems, because he felt most comfortable about their plans for him, which take seriously his yearning to both pitch and hit. They say they will let him play as a hitter more than occasionally and will look into the idea of a six-man rotation, which is what Ohtani knew in Japan.

One suggestion has him out of the lineup the day before and after he pitches, and available as a DH or outfielder perhaps three days a week — or however often he can play and get to around 250 at-bats.

Ohtani seems intent on demonstrating his competence in both areas, and the Angels convinced him they are OK with that.

After years of the club not being a serious player in the pursuit of free agents and, indeed, in pursuit of being a contender (as they were in the Oughties, when they won their only championship, in 2002) the recent work of Moreno and general manager Billy Eppler give the Angels at least three strong players heading in to the 2018 season — Trout, Upton and Ohtani.

The establishment of that trio brings new energy to the team and higher visibility in a very crowded sports market and suggests the owner is fully engaged again.

The Angels certainly were no one’s first pick to land the Japanese unicorn, but they apparently prepared well and perhaps were a little lucky — and now that they have him, they are one of the most interesting teams in baseball.



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