Shohei Ohtani has already changed baseball

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He may have to sit on the sidelines for a long time, but his impact is already felt.

Last night, Pedro Gomez of ESPN reported that Shohei Ohtani’s recent Grade II UCL sprain could indeed require Tommy John surgery, which would effectively end both his 2018 and 2019 major league campaigns.

The Angels and general manager Billy Eppler responded to these reports by stating that “We’re hopeful that he can (avoid surgery)… that this is completely treatable with the biologic prescription that the doctors recommend,” but it’s obvious from Gomez’s Angels connections that even if this isn’t some certainty, the organization is worried. Mike Trout is only under contract until 2020, so there isn’t much time before the front office has to look at themselves in the mirror.

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Let’s assume that his 2018 is over or at least severely stunted, though. PRP and stem cell injection therapy takes at least a couple of months for rehab and recovery; Masahiro Tanaka underwent the same procedure in 2014 and missed 75 days. If he followed that exact path, he would return on August 20th.

That’s not why I’m here, though, to talk about his timetable. Mine is a more philosophical discussion. Why do we write about baseball? That’s a pretty big question considering the hundreds and hundreds of hours I’ve poured into the exercise, and if the answer was “for no reason,” then it would look like a lot of wasted time.

But that’s obviously not why. Baseball is a worthy exercise in sketching out a view of the world, a way to solve problems, and it gives yourself the ability to not only make sense of a complicated game, but also apply some of those heuristics into an ever-more-complicated wider reality.

This can get rote, of course. If baseball is just putting numbers into an equation and then spitting out those standard modes of analyses then we’ve failed our job; it’s no longer a critical exercise but something more… masturbatory, to put it bluntly.

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What Ohtani has done is shattered that paradigm in a way no number or metric could ever have done. The common conventional wisdom is that as baseball progressed, specialization was something like a Moore’s Law, and while we know it isn’t a law, it’s definitely a trend. The number of pitchers used has jumped exponentially, and we’re seeing more and more players specially crafted for a particular role.

We’ve seen that shift in the opposite direction mostly because the roster has not expanded with it, and you can blame (or credit) the MLBPA for that one. Having a Ben Zobrist means you gain a roster spot—either a reliever or utility player—that would substitute for a replacement level alternative. That’s probably only worth a half-win or something, but that’s real nonetheless.

Ohtani is Zobrist to an extreme, an extreme so crazy that modern baseball never yielded one. If you were to chart pitcher wRC+’s in the modern era (post-1988), it’s pretty easy to spot Ohtani’s short offensive performance this year:

There are no NFL quarterbacks that can also be a pro-bowl linebacker. There are no hockey players that can be a star goalie and a center in shifts. If baseball established a rule that roles are there to be filled, then Ohtani said that was a rule meant to be broken.

We’ve seen this change in the sport in small ways. Brendan McKay, Hunter Greene, Anthony Siegler, and Josh Breaux are all recent two-way draft picks, while McKay is the only one even tenuously holding on to both roles. The odds are that none of them will be competent at both when or if they hit the big leagues.

Even if Ohtani is irreparably broken by this injury, he will have changed baseball. Even if he returns and is poor on both sides of the ball, he will have changed baseball. If he returns and becomes the true Babe Ruth-esque figure we know him as, then he will have changed sports culture period.

This sounds like a postscript and I don’t intend it to be; I do think he will return at some point and will do spectacular things. It’s more that as analysts, even in a game with a multitude of non-determined outcomes and possibilities, it’s worth sitting down and appreciating the fleeting chance to watch something that we haven’t seen in a century. Ohtani has already proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the traditional rules of Major League Baseball and how players should play it doesn’t always hold. If that’s the case, then what else are we missing?

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