Such is Shohei Ohtani’s talent, allure and stature within the sport of baseball that getting only half of him constitutes a massive letdown. Or at least that was the takeaway from the Los Angeles Angels’ decision to skip his scheduled start on the mound Sunday at Yankee Stadium, where he would have opposed his countryman, New York Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, on the biggest stage Ohtani has graced on these shores.
Instead, the expected sellout crowd will have to settle, most likely, for Ohtani — the brilliant, two-way rookie sensation who is redefining the sport — facing Tanaka as the Angels’ designated hitter.
“A shame,” read a headline Friday in the New York Daily News about Ohtani’s scratched start. “MLB loses,” said the New York Post.
But we are at a point in the season, roughly two months in, where it is reasonable to start dreaming about an even bigger potential showcase for Ohtani: the one that will take place a little more than seven weeks from now at Nationals Park. We are speaking, of course, about the 89th Major League Baseball All-Star Game, on July 17 — or 12 days after Ohtani’s 24th birthday.
And we are speaking, as well, about the Home Run Derby the night before the midsummer classic.
Both nights would only be enhanced by the presence of the player who to this point has been the biggest story in the game.
On June 1, this year’s all-star ballots will be released online (paper ballots are a relic of the past), and Ohtani will be listed among the choices for the American League’s DH. Although his competition for the starting spot will be stout — expected to include, among others, Boston’s J.D. Martinez and New York’s Giancarlo Stanton — Ohtani’s global popularity and domestic fascination may be enough to push him over the top.
And if not, it seems almost certain he would be picked for the 32-man AL roster one way or another, through one of the various, convoluted means by which pitchers and reserves are selected. But the question is: Would Ohtani make the team as a hitter, or a pitcher — or both?
The Angels’ ultraconservative deployment of Ohtani — he generally pitches just once and serves as DH three to four times per week, and Sunday’s scratched outing on the mound was characterized by the team as a “workload” issue — means he has amassed neither the required plate appearances nor innings pitched to qualify for the batting or ERA titles.
But in somewhat limited action, he has been as good as, if not better than, advertised — which is saying something, considering he was advertised, at least in the American media, as nothing less than “the Babe Ruth of Japan” when he signed with the Angels in December.
Ohtani’s OPS of .991 entering the weekend ranked eighth in the AL among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances, while his 170 OPS+ — adjusted for ballpark and league effects, with 100 representing league-average — ranked fourth, behind only Boston’s Mookie Betts, Angels teammate Mike Trout and Baltimore Orioles shortstop Manny Machado.
As a pitcher, his ERA of 3.35 ranked just 20th in the AL entering the weekend (minimum 40 IP), but his strikeout rate of 32.3 percent of all batters faced ranked fourth behind only Houston’s Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and Boston’s Chris Sale, and his opponents’ OPS of .597 ranked 10th.
It seems safe to say, given his remarkable two-way performance and MLB’s own hand in selecting roster reserves for the game, that Ohtani will be picked for the AL roster in some fashion. (The guess here is that, given the Angels’ caution regarding his pitching usage, Ohtani, regardless of how he makes the team, would only hit in the game, and would not appear on the mound.)
“What he’s doing is extraordinary,” MLB spokesman Mike Teevan said. “And if the All-Star Game becomes in part a celebration of what he’s brought to the game, we would be thrilled with that.”
And if Ohtani receives — and accepts — an all-star roster spot, there will be enormous pressure on him to participate in the Home Run Derby on July 16, the night before the game itself.
While Ohtani’s six homers this season entering Friday left him 10 behind Betts for the major-league lead, his rate of one homer every 15.7 at-bats was better than that of — among others — Stanton (16.6), who led the majors last year with 59.
Ohtani won the home run derby at Japan’s all-star game in 2016, and his batting-practice sessions here have become must-see theater for opposing players, coaches, executives and media members — with one of his blasts last week in Anaheim striking the video board in right field at Angel Stadium, an estimated distance of 519 feet. His longest homer in a game this year, according to Statcast data, traveled 450 feet, tied for the 27th-longest in the majors.
Just imagine Ohtani in the derby, before a packed stadium and a worldwide television audience, with the U.S. Capitol dome sitting in the background, taking aim at the Red Porch in Nationals Park’s center field, or at the upper deck in right. And just imagine an Ohtani/Bryce Harper final-round matchup — and you can understand why MLB is salivating at the possibility.
Some players, believing participation in the derby can have a detrimental effect on one’s swing, have balked at the opportunity in the past — including Ohtani’s teammate Trout, who has never appeared despite being asked annually. The defending champion, Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge, has said he will not participate this year, after falling into a vicious slump almost immediately after his 2017 victory.
When asked by reporters this week about Ohtani’s potential participation in the Derby, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said, “That’s a player’s decision. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of [factors] that come into what a player decides, but it’s always been the prerogative of a player if he wants to participate in something like that.”
Ohtani himself said only, “I’m honored to be in that conversation.”
The Ohtani show is always worth the price of admission, whether he’s on the mound, at the plate or merely in a batting cage whacking 65-mph fastballs thrown by a coach.
And with the Angels not on the Nationals’ schedule this season, Washington has only one chance to see him. It is a spectacle that needs to happen, and if Ohtani is going to come all this way for one or two at-bats on a Tuesday night in mid-July, he might as well come a day early and get in some extra cuts on a Monday night as well.
More from Post Sports: