Is Shohei Ohtani The Ghost of Willie Smith?

On April 28, 1964, the Los Angeles Angels traded right-handed relief pitcher Julio Navarro to the Detroit Tigers. Navarro, 28, was coming off a fine first full season in the majors in which he compiled a 2.89 ERA over 57 appearances, with 12 saves. Maybe the Angels knew something about Navarro that influenced the trade, as Navarro never again come close to those numbers, retiring in 1970 having appeared in only 64 more major league games, with five additional saves. In exchange for him, the Angels acquired 25-year old left-handed pitcher Willie Smith, who in Triple-A in 1963 had compiled a 14-2 record with a 2.11 ERA. Manager Bil Rigney immediately found a spot for Smith in the Angels’ bullpen

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(with one start), and over his first few weeks with the Angels Smith appeared on the mound in 15 games, with a 2.84 ERA. But, Smith also came to the plate occasionally, a rarity in today’s game for a relief pitcher, and the results were overwhelming.

Gradually, Rigney began using Smith as a pinch-hitter, even putting him up to bat and then having him remain in the game to pitch. But more and more, Smith was being used in the outfield, in order to get his bat in the lineup. Over the rest of the season, Smith played left, right, and even center field, in 87 games, in addition to his 15 pitching appearances. Unfortunately for Willie and the Angels, this was 1964 and the designed hitter did not make its appearance until the 1973 season, or Willie might well have gotten to bat in far more games. Conversely, had there been a DH in 1964, Willie’s hitting prowess may have gone undiscovered and he might well have remained only a pitcher. But in the games that he did appear in during the 1964 season, the rookie lefty pitcher was amazing at the plate, batting .301 with 11 home runs and 51 RBI in 373 at bats, while striking out only 39 times.

Coming off that remarkable 1964 season, in 1965 Smith no longer pitched, but instead was the Angels’ regular left fielder, appearing in 123 games in the outfield and zero on the mound. But, alas, the magic of 1964 could not be repeated, and in 459 at bats, Smith’s average fell to.261 and his power numbers were far less impressive, at 14 homers and 57 RBI. 1966 saw much more regression, and Smith was limited to only 195 at bats, hitting .185, and after the season, he was dispatched to the Cleveland Indians, with the only return being an undisclosed amount of cash. Willie did poorly in Cleveland over the next couple of seasons, but in mid-1968 he was traded to the Cubs for one-time Dodgers’ hero Lou Johnson, and Willie had a bit of a resurgence at bat, and he remained a part timer in the Cub’s outfield for three seasons, before finishing his career with a few at bats in Cincinnati. During his time in Chicago and with the Indians, Willie also went to the mound three more times, pitching 7-2/3 shutout innings.

For his career, Willie was a .248 hitter with 46 home runs and 211 RBI, while also compiling a 2-4 won-lost record with a 3.10 ERA over 61 innings pitched.

There are some great hitting pitcher in baseball now, including at the top of the list Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta, but also including Travis Wood and Yovani Gallardo, who, unfortunately, after hitting 12 home runs, driving in 42, and batting .196

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over 414 at bats while with Milwaukee, has spent the last three seasons not batting while in the American League. In the 12 at bats he has had over these past three season, he’s gotten five this for a .417 average. Wood began his career as a starter with Cincinnati and then with the Cubs, and over his first five major league seasons he came to bat 221 times and while hitting .188, he hit nine home runs and drove in 28. Pitching in relief since, his at bats have disappeared. Bumgarner over his career and 487 at bats has hit. 185 with 17 home runs and 54 RBI, with a high average of .258 in 2014 while Arrieta, despite a .175 lifetime average, hit a remarkable .262 in 2016.

The best hitting pitcher I ever saw was Rick Rhoden, who in addition to winning 151 games over a 16-year major league career, hit .238 with 17 home runs and 114 RBI in 761 at bats. With the Pirates in 1980 he came to bat 40 times, driving in 11 while batting .375. He had two other seasons where he hit over .300 and four in which he drove in runs in double figures.

But none of these guys were ever put in the outfield or even used as a DH.

But now, during the 2018 season in Angels’ Stadium, where the ghost of Willie Smith permeates the atmosphere, we will be seeing Shohei Ohtani pitching AND hitting. Can it work? Well, maybe. But unlikely. It would seem that a some point, a decision to hit or pitch would have to be made. Even Babe Ruth had to make that decision, and despite record-breaking pitching accomplishments, it came to the point that he gave up pitching to only play the outfield.

Pundits, and apparently Angels’ manager Mike Sciascia, all believe that the league with the DH is the one best suited for Ohtani, but I disagree. First and foremost is the fact that when he pitches the team has a choice of his not batting with the normal use of the DH, or of losing the DH and letting him hit. But if so, then the Angels lose another hitter, the DH, for the entire game.* Scioscia has said that when he is the starting pitcher, that Ohtani will not hit as the team will still use the DH. So, in 30 or so games “off the bat”, Ohtani will play but NOT bat. That leaves him, according to Scioscia, quite humorously, as the DH in other games in which he does not pitch. AND that reverberates down to the fact that 38-year-old Albert Pujols, coming off years of foot injuries and surgeries, will no longer be the DH (at least most of the time) but will be forced to return to the field, playing first base and supplanting C.J. Cron in the lineup. After a poor start, the 27-year-old Cron had a great second half in 2017 and appears to just now be coming into his own as a more than dependable power-hitting, run-producing batter.

But why will Ohtani not play in the field? Why would Scioscia have already have made that decision? According to reports, Ohtani is supposed to be a pretty good outfielder. For the record, over his career in Japan, he played 126 games in the outfield and committed exactly one error in those games. Why not use him him the outfield at least some of the time, leaving Pujols as the DH and Cron at first base?

Looking at the rest of Octani’s record in Japanese baseball is interesting in other respects as well. Over his short career there, he pitched in 85 games and including games as an outfielder and as the DH, he appeared in 403 games overall, hitting .285 with 48 HRS, 166

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RBI and an .859 OPS, and he struck out 316 times in 1035 ABs. Pitching, he was 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and 624 strikeouts vs 200 BBs over 543 IP. Of interest also is the fact that only once has he pitched as many as 160 innings in a season, so that 6-man rotation idea that has been discussed could be good for him, but with the Angels’ continuing history of injured pitchers, could they put together a healthy 6-man rotation?

Is Ohtani the key to the post season for the Angels? Much more so as a pitcher than as a hitter, but for a successful season, the Angels still need Richards, Heaney, Skaggs, Meyer and the rest of their other starters to be healthy and actually pitch, and they need a solid, reliable closer, that that guy, despite the recent trade, is NOT Jim Johnson.

But back to the issue at hand, Shohei Ohtani. He is intriguing, but I do not believe he is a sure thing to become a star, nor does his presence guarantee the team to improve enough to make it to the post season.

*5.11 (6.10) Designated Hitter Rule
Any League may elect to use Rule 5.11(a) (Rule 6.10(b)), which shall be called the Designated Hitter Rule.
(a) (6.10(b)) The Designated Hitter Rule provides as follows:
(1) A hitter may be designated to bat for the starting pitcher and all subsequent pitchers in any game without other- wise affecting the status of the pitcher(s) in the game. A Designated Hitter for the pitcher, if any, must be selected prior to the game and must be included in the lineup cards presented to the Umpire-in-Chief. If a manager lists 10 players in his team’s lineup card, but fails to indicate one as the Designated Hitter, and an umpire or either manager (or designee of either manager who presents his team’s lineup card) notices the error before the umpire-in-chief calls “Play” to start the game, the umpire-in-chief shall direct the manager who had made the omission to designate which of the nine players, other than the pitcher, will be the Designated Hitter.
(2) The Designated Hitter named in the starting lineup must come to bat at least one time, unless the opposing club changes pitchers.
(3) It is not mandatory that a club designate a hitter for the pitcher, but failure to do so prior to the game precludes the use of a Designated Hitter for that club for that game.

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