Lame-duck manager Mike Scioscia’s "use" – or lack thereof – of star Shohei Ohtani is baffling.
By Stu Matthews | @stumatthews11
ANAHEIM – Mike Scioscia never complains about his problems, but the Angel skipper’s got a 220-pound dilemma that Hideki Kuriyama never had.
Let’s call it POP for short – just to invent a new stat. It stands for Problem Of Pujols.
Kuriyama, you see, was Shohei Ohtani’s manager with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan, before the 23-year-old dual-threat star left the land of the rising sun and cherry blossoms last December for American shores, after having already laid Nippon Professional Baseball to waste.
And Ohtani walked right into the Angels’ warm arms.
Ohtani, as we all know now, has been a sensation, potentially the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year.
What’s emerging, also, as another mind-blowing revelation is Angel skipper Scioscia’s reluctance to use Ohtani to his fullest. I talked to Angels’ podcaster Lucas Sardo about that. Read on, please.
Which leads us back to Kuriyama. Why? Albert Pujols, that’s why. Kuriyama didn’t have to deal with him.
Pujols, the faded slugger with a shiny plaque in Cooperstown some day, can no longer play first base every day at the ripe young age of 83.
(Sorry, a bit of dyslexia there, Pujols is 38. Allegedly).
With Pujols’ gargantuan contract on the books until 2021, the sore-footed legend has no place to play except for first base and DH – designated hitter being the spot where everyone would like to see the non-pitching Ohtani in the lineup.
We’ve seen the Angels’ lineups posted, much to our frustration, only to not see the name of Ohtani – arguably the Angels’ second-best hitter, penciled into Scioscia’s card.
Kuriyama didn’t have to placate an aging superstar like Pujols at DH when he managed Ohtani’s slash-and-burn campaign in Hokkaido a year ago. Then, Kuriyama could use Ohtani as a DH (and even as an outfielder, go figure!) when he wanted to.
So, the Fighters’ skipper managed to get the then 21-year-old Sho-Time’s arm and bat into the lineup regularly in 2016, Ohtani’s final full season in Japan (his 2017 campaign was truncated by an ankle injury).
Scioscia, to his credit, is trying to manage Ohtani and Pujols as best he can. But may be too conservative for the job.
After Ohtani’s signing in December, the Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh tried to be the harbinger of doom for Pujols when he wrote: "As little pleasure as it gives anyone who witnessed his prime to point out, (Pujols) is now among the worst players in baseball."
That was true then, not so much now. Pujols has been a smidge more productive (-1.8 bWAR in 2017, 0.6 bWAR in 2018), but he’s still a huge albatross when nearly any other manager would rather unleash his super-weapon, Ohtani.
And now there’s the bamboozling situation of Scioscia not using Ohtani at designated hitter when he can. Even when Mike Trout – the game’s greatest player, period – was lost for weeks due to a freak injury and then more painful bereavement leave, Scioscia would leave Batman’s Robin on the bench, getting splinters in his skinny ass.
Most recently, this is borne itself out in Scioscia’s reluctance to use Ohtani The Hitter as a DH against left-handed pitchers.
It has been bizarre, to say the least. Because Scioscia apparently feels that left-handed pitchers are Ohtani’s kryptonite.
The numbers make it confusing. In Japan, Ohtani batted better against southpaws – a career NBP .309 mark against lefties, and just .279 against righties.
Is this because of the difference in the way Japanese and MLB lefties attack lefty batters?
Possibly, even though Kazuyuki Shirai, Ohtani’s former coach with the Fighters, didn’t really think so. A "coach" in Japan is equivalent to a "bench coach" Stateside, so Shirai knows of what he speaks. What Kuriyama doesn’t do, Shirai does. He’s the No. 2-san.
Shirai, on a recent visit to Angel Stadium, spoke with Fox Sports West’s Alex Curry and reporters.
"The thing I was most surprised about was that he (Ohtani) was able to adjust things with his swing so quickly in the United States," Shirai said through Angels translator Grace McNamee, the Angels’ senior manager of communications and Ohtani press liaison.
You couldn’t meet a more genteel baseball man than Shirai. There’s no spit and vinegar with Shirai, who has as docile a demeanor as a kindly college professor.
But one thing Shirai said, perhaps diplomatically, took me slightly aback.
"Even though we’re different between Japan and America, as baseball people we’re playing the same game," Shirai said. "So, in that way I was really able to connect with Scioscia."
Hang on, Coach Shirai. You utilized Ohtani to his max. Mike Scioscia does not.
Case in point. Let’s consider the recently completed sweep of the Angels by the defending world champion Houston Astros. In three games, Ohtani was relegated to mostly futile pinch-hitting duties.
In the other game, Ohtani kicked ace Justin Verlander’s ass.
As Marvin Gaye might have said, what’s going on?
On Friday, with lefty Dallas Keuchel on the mound, Ohtani rode pine. He got in the game at long last in the eighth inning, when Scioscia beckoned Ohtani to the on-deck circle to pinch hit.
Astros skipper AJ Hinch outsmarted Scioscia, countering with flame-throwing lefty Tony Sipp. A crowd pleaser, it wasn’t. Sipp gassed Ohtani on four pitches. A Sho-K.
On Saturday, after launching a double then a 431-foot homer off Verlander (a game in which Ohtani paid the price by getting hit by a pitch by headhunting scumbag Roberto Osuna), Ohtani was rewarded with a spot on the bench on Sunday.
Yesterday, against a middling left-hander Framber Valdez, who was making his first major-league start. Say that again, slowly, FRAHM-ber Valdez. This guy isn’t Lefty Grove, but there was Ohtani on the bench again.
Ohtani popped out of the dugout to pinch hit representing the tying run in a 3-1 loss. Against Osuna, who despite being a wife beater (allegedly) is an elite closer. The smirking Osuna struck Ohtani out to end the game.
Last month, I wrote about the Kondo family of Sapporo who had travelled from Japan partly with the goal of watching their hometown hero hit. They nearly didn’t get the chance to see Ohtani.
But the Kondo family aren’t alone. They’re just representative of any Angels fans who want to see the young star play. And why not, in an already doomed season?
Ohtani The Batter crushed NBP pitching to a .322 average. He was hitting righties and lefties with abandon in Japan.
And while it’s true that he needs to learn to hit MLB lefties (Ohtani is hitting .313 with a 1.038 OPS against RHP and a dreadful .167 and .498 OPS against LHP) you can’t learn by watching from the bench.
"I had holes in my swing against lefties," said Don Mattingly. "Just had to learn. Face them. It’s the only way."
Not everyone can be Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs, who could hit anyone.
Ohtani is in the cleanup spot tonight against the Colorado Rockies’ Jon Gray (who made Ohtani look foolish in spring training), but don’t buy tickets for Tuesday’s game if you want to see more than a glimpse of Ohtani.
Colorado is starting lefty Kyle Freeland, an elite southpaw who would be in Cy Young consideration if not playing in a league with Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.
Freeland is murder on lefty hitters, holding them to a .181 clip (25/138). He also came within two outs of being the first hurler since Hideo Nomo to pitch a no-hitter in Coors Field on July 9.
Unless Scioscia’s tune changes quickly, Tuesday will be a Nohtani night.
So, back to Lucas Sardo. I had a friendly Twitter exchange about Ohtani last week with Lucas, the snappy new host of the excellent Locked On Angels podcast.
Sadly, sometimes, he’s a lonely voice in the wilderness in this long season. On Monday, he had yours truly along for the ride.
Locked On Angels would be the best Angels-only podcast even it wasn’t the only Angels podcast in the pod-o-sphere. (Halos Heaven has no such doubt, being undisputed King of the many blogs in the Angels’ Blog Jungle).
Sardo’s podcast is a breath of fresh air for Angels-red-blooded podsters who go to Buster Olney’s Baseball Tonight on ESPN praying for a minute or two of banter about Ohtani, Mike Trout, or how fast Scioscia needs to leave his wobbly chair in the Angels dugout.
Sardo, like Locked On Angels' previous host Patrick Zajac, tells it like it is, and you won’t have to snooze through 29 minutes of drone about how great the Yankees or Red Sox are.
No thanks, Buster, Karl Ravech and Red Sox honk Josh Macri.
For the always suffering Angels fan, Locked On Angels is like a stiff shot of whiskey in the morning after another long night. Emphasis on the L in long.
The Angels have logged six L’s in a row and aren’t going to sniff the playoffs again. The East Coast media will rant about the Angels wasting Trout’s prime, and we all sigh.
On his podcast, you can almost audibly hear Sardo’s internal clock counting down the days on Scioscia’s tenure in Anaheim. Tick tick tick … BOOM!
Lucas was kind enough to ask this veteran (OK, old) Angels writer to do a guest segment on his show Monday. You can listen to that then get offa muh lawn!
Sardo and I had initially agreed to disagree about the Angels’ plan to return Ohtani to the starting rotation in September. Eventually, we found common ground.
Ohtani will do what Angels GM Billy Eppler directs Scioscia to do, and if that means Eppler wants to pitch next month at the risk of his arm falling off, then that’s what will happen.
That blueprint had Sardo screaming into his microphone: "Noooooooo! Please God, no!"
But the reason I back Eppler’s reasoning for seeing Ohtani pitch again this year is not about winning games – it’s about developing a young talent to next level.
And if not about development (and it should be), and if Ohtani’s conservatively treated right arm explodes in a meaningless game, it’s better for Eppler to know in September, not Spring Training 2019 – in another meaningless game.
I’ve debated this topic in the game threads here, particularly with the razor-wit Mia Parker and others, and my reasoning has been this:
Eppler wants to start building the 2019 Angels as soon as the last out of the World Series – if not before. If his ace starter requires Tommy John surgery, we want to know now.
That helps Eppler construct his team, with or without Shohei The Pitcher. If Ohtani’s arm blows up, then Eppler knows he needs to find a frontline starter to replace the Japanese and he can start thinking now.
More importantly, if Ohtani blows up, Eppler will be able to get TJ surgery done straight away, allowing Ohtani to come back as a full-on DH come spring training. TJ rehab is much shorter for non-pitchers, 6-8 months. So Eppler’s strategy makes sense.
If Ohtani comes out of an estimated three September starts with a sound arm, Eppler can turn off some red alarms ... maybe.
Sure, Garrett Richards’ UCL snapped and the Angels de-facto ace succumbed to TJ in on July 31, after having conservative treatments of PRP and stem cells.
In Richards’ case, it didn’t work. But it has worked for other pitchers – the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka (you can listen about him on Baseball Tonight) has been able to avoid TJ.
Maybe it’s a Japanese thing? We’ll know more when Ohtani The Pitcher takes on the hill on, or about Sept. 3.
And despite Sardo’s reservations about the pitching side, one thing remains clear. The batting side still needs work against lefties.
Let him bat full-time, Sosh.
Let Pujols sit more, and his let Albert’s career number march wait. Let’s call it "scheduled days off."
As for Ohtani – put him in, Coach Sosh.
(You can find Lucas Sardo on twitter at @lucassardo13)