MLB roundtable: Would you rather have Shohei Ohtani the pitcher or Shohei Ohtani the slugger?

The 2021 MLB regular season is now one week old and things are already going haywire. Yermin Mercedes won’t make an out, the Athletics can’t win a game, and the Dodgers are obnoxiously good. I guess that last part isn’t such a surprise.

Throughout the season my fellow CBS Sports MLB scribes and I will bring you a weekly roundtable breaking down, well, pretty much anything. The latest news, a historical question, thoughts about the future of baseball, all sorts of stuff. Last week we discussed our favorite ballparks. This week we’re going to discuss Shohei Ohtani’s best role.

Who would you rather have: Ohtani the pitcher or Ohtani the hitter?

R.J. Anderson: You can’t go wrong either way. Availability tends to be the great separator, however, and that gives Ohtani the hitter an edge for me thus far in his career. It’s an unexpected one, too, since the book on him when he came over was that he was a superior pitcher. If you were to make Ohtani into a full-fledged hitter, you might even discover that he has some additional upside in the form of defensive value provided as an outfielder given his speed and feel for the game. (Of course, if you’re the Angels, you’re correct in still saying: why choose?)

Matt Snyder: On one hand, the starting pitcher is the most important single player in any given game. Yes, even in this day and age when they work fewer innings than further back in the past. 

On the other, pitchers break much more often than other positions — at least anecdotally, when it comes to major, career-altering injuries — and Ohtani’s already had Tommy John surgery. 

I absolutely love his stuff on the mound, but there’s also immense offensive upside there. He still hasn’t gotten consistent at-bats but has been a well-above-average hitter with huge power. Let’s also keep in mind he has blazing speed and if he stopped pitching, has a huge arm that teamed up with his speed can make him into one of the better defensive right fielders in baseball. 

I think there’s more value in him as a right fielder than pitcher, long term. I also think they are fine staying the path with trying both right now. I’d only change course if he suffered another arm injury. 

Dayn Perry: I lean hitter at this point for a number of reasons. He’s been quite productive over his MLB career at the plate thus far despite injuries and heavily divided attention. Ohtani’s tremendous power potential and solid grasp of the strike zone make me think he hasn’t reached his ceiling as a hitter. As well, his elite speed suggests he could be a defensive asset in right field (his arm would, uh, obviously play at the position). If he continues to pitch, then I’ll continue to worry about his health and durability and how that will affect his offensive production, as well. I’d like to see him plugged in as a middle of the order right fielder. If he devotes himself solely to that side of the game, I think he’s an All-Star.  

Mike Axisa: The best ability is availability, and because I have concerns about whether Ohtani can stay healthy as a pitcher, I’m going with position player. He had a rough 2020 (who didn’t?) but he was a legitimate impact hitter from 2018-19 (.286/.351/.532 with 40 homers in 210 games), and I’m willing to bet he’d be even better once he focuses on hitting full-time. Ohtani is a great athlete (duh) and he’s really fast. He’d make a heck of a right fielder with that arm. No need to relegate this guy to DH.

Ohtani the pitcher is awfully tantalizing. He throws 100 mph and his splitter is filthy, and he has a good breaking ball too. You see the stuff and you can’t help but think he has ace upside. The best predictor of future injury is past injury, however, and once already Ohtani’s elbow has said nope, I don’t like this. Because of that, I’ll go with position player. I have more confidence in Ohtani staying healthy in that role, and hey, he would be able to impact the game every day rather than every five days that way.

I badly want the two-way player thing to work and I feel like Ohtani is not just our first real hope for a two-way player, I feel like he’s our last hope for a two-way player too. If a player this talented on both sides of the ball can’t make it work as a two-way player, I don’t think teams will even try with other players in the future. No pressure, Shohei. Only the future of an entire subset of players is is riding on your success.

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