MLB: Will Shohei Ohtani make the DH obsolete?

The two-way phenom may change the way we look at the polarizing position.

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(Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Chad McMeen)

The way we’ve been talking about Shohei Otani has taken quite the 180, hasn’t it? It was barely two-and-a-half weeks ago that his Spring Training struggles, both at the plate and on the mound caused most people to think the Los Angeles Angels were fools for taking him north from Arizona for Opening Day. But his former teammate in Japan, Anthony Bass, asserted that he always struggled in the spring in Japan before flipping the switch when the season started.

And boy, has he ever.

Ohtani has started two games on the mound this year, going 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA, 18 strikeouts, and an absurd 0.46 WHIP in 13 innings of work. In seven games as a hitter (six starts as DH plus one appearance as a pinch hitter), he’s arguably been even better. In 29 plate appearances, he’s slashing .346/.414/.769 with a triple, three home runs, and 11 RBI.

Those last numbers must have some people thinking. The designated hitter rule is one of the most polarizing subjects amongst baseball fans, but if Ohtani continues to succeed, it may be time to take a new look at that debate.

The debate

The DH debate has two main divides. The first is age. Anyone who remembers baseball before 1973 grumbles over the DH. They criticize the rule for giving a pass to one-dimensional players who can’t effectively play the field.

After the age divide, the argument tends to follow league lines. Fans of American League teams tend to be all for it, saying it produces more exciting offensive baseball and protects pitchers from injury. The likes of Chien-Ming Wang, who was never the same after suffering a Lisfranc injury running the bases during an interleague game in 2008, are often cited as reasons the DH should be the norm.

National League fans decry the lack of strategy in the AL game, as managers of teams that use the DH are hardly ever confronted with the decision to let a hot starting pitcher hit for himself or put in a pinch hitter in a key situation with men on base. “Hit ball far with large stick” simply isn’t as engaging. Pitchers are ballplayers, so they should play ball—all of it. If a pitcher gets injured while hitting, that’s just baseball.

Change in the air?

But there hasn’t been a pitcher like Ohtani in generations. He’s the first AL player to have hit home runs in three consecutive games in the same season he started a game on the mound since Babe Ruth started a game on a lark for the New York Yankees in 1930. His 11 RBI have him tied with Mike Trout for the team lead—and the two-time MVP Trout has played in every game.

This kind of success has some people thinking: if guys like Ohtani are around, do we really need the DH anymore?

Ohtani’s case is somewhat unique. His immense success as a two-way player in Japan gave him the bargaining power to demand to do the same in the US. In the opinion of some, having the DH actually helps him by allowing him to get at-bats while not exposing him to playing in the field on days he doesn’t pitch.

But the idea that pitchers inherently can’t do what Ohtani is doing with the bat is preposterous. Pitchers like Madison Bumgarner and Cole Hamels can more than hold their own. Cliff Lee hit a double in his first game as a National League player when the Phillies first traded for him in 2009.

On the AAU and showcase circuit, the best players are all two-way stars. Specialization tends to start in college, but even then it’s not unusual to see college players going both ways. Take Adam Hasely, the Philadelphia Phillies’ top pick in the 2017 draft (eighth overall), who will be an outfielder in the Phils’ system but was also an effective pitcher at the University of Virginia. And now it’s taken hold in the minor leagues as well.

Two top-10 picks in the 2017 draft have pulled double duty so far in the minors. Hunter Greene, the No. 2 overall selection by the Cincinnati Reds, pitched and played DH in advanced Rookie ball at Billings, although he has since decided of his own volition to focus on pitching. A more interesting watch will be Brendan McKay, who was drafted two picks later by the Tampa Bay Rays and played 36 games at first base/DH with six starts on the mound in his first taste of pro ball.

Two-way players may soon end up becoming the norm. It allows for teams to fill two roles with one roster spot, which can lend a manager a previously unknown level of roster flexibility. And, more to our topic, it could eventually make the DH redundant. If pitchers that can hit like this become the norm, there won’t be any need to replace them for offense.

Of course, there’s a long way to go before this could be a viable option. Ohtani could eventually prove to be a flash in the pan. The economics of the game may also dictate things. Front offices may refuse to allow top pitchers—the most expensive investments in the sport—to expose themselves to injury at the plate.

But if Ohtani sticks and inspires the Brendan McKays of the world to insist on hitting and pitching if they make it to pro ball, there could be a day when pitchers are so good at handling the bat that the DH could be made redundant. So we’ll watch, wait, and see.

It’ll be interesting for sure.

Should MLB revisit the DH debate? Let us know what you think in the comments!

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