For Fantasy Baseball, Shohei Ohtani Breaks The Game
Shohei Ohtani landed with the Angels on Friday, but it doesn't mean all the questions surrounding the Japanese two-way star have been resolved. Sure, we know where he's going to play in real life, but how will a player with his unique set of skills affect the world of fantasy baseball? In that regard, Ohtani truly is a game-breaker.
Fantasy baseball rules have been pretty set and static for decades. But fantasy baseball has never dealt with a player like Ohtani.
Pierre Becquey, a deputy editor of content development in charge of ESPN's fantasy games, and Chris Jason, a product manager with the network have been wrestling for months with the puzzles surrounding Ohtani's arrival. They haven't arrived at a single, concrete solution yet, but have certainly narrowed the possibilities. And while a pitcher for whom you might occasionally want hitting stats—think Madison Bumgarner or CC Sabathia—isn't unheard of, there hasn't been a pitcher in the fantasy era who could legitimately be an asset on both sides of the ball.
Now that Ohtani's landed, that's all changed.
"We've been aware of his impending arrival for well over a year," Becquey said. "One of our executives has a league in which you can draft anybody. You could go and draft my son if you wanted to. He doesn't, but he could if he wanted to. And he had asked (ESPN national writer) Keith Law 'Hey, if Ohtani were part of your rookie rankings, where would he rank?' and Law said 'Probably No. 1." So that was our first internal thought of, well, this guy could really be a game-changer."
The first serious discussions about how to adjust the product came in August, once their fantasy football games were squared away and ready to go. Former Red Sox and Padres pitcher Casey Kelly began his pro career by dabbling at shortstop, and Padres catcher Christian Bethancourt made four appearances on the mound last year in an attempt to squeeze more value out of his strong throwing arm, but neither player had particular success playing two ways, so neither provided anything close to a useful blueprint as to how to handle Ohtani.
Ohtani's is sometimes called the Japanese Babe Ruth, but Ruth's playing days obviously stopped long before the advent of fantasy baseball (Ruth would have been a two-way fantasy star in 1918 as he both led the league in home runs and picked up 13 wins, but fantasy baseball wasn't invented for another 60+ years). In real life, Ohtani is the first of his kind in a very long time. In the fantasy world, he represents a whole new ballgame.
"That particular scenario wasn't there," Becquey said. "It was really a question of: What role would he occupy in major league baseball? A pitcher who can pinch-hit a bunch? We've seen that before. There's plenty of pitchers who have shown the ability to hit, not one who has come in and shown the possibility of being a three-to-five-days-a-week hitter and part of a starting rotation. That's not been proposed."
To be clear, ESPN hasn't come up with an answer yet. The process is ongoing, and there are plenty of things to consider both for Ohtani and whatever players may come after him. Take Rays prospect Brendan McKay, for example. He was a two-way threat coming out of the draft, and Tampa Bay let him hit and pitch at short-season Hudson Valley this summer. If that continues as he moves up the minor league ladder, ESPN and other fantasy platforms certainly want to have a rule in place that will cover him, too.
"Whatever rule we come up with for dual players, whether we call it the Ohtani Rule or not, we're doing it with a mindset of, 'Let's set the blueprint and let's make a decision that is viable and repeatable.' We don't want to do something and then change our minds two years down the road," Becquey said. "We don't want to make a decision that is just about Ohtani and then realize we made a mistake because it doesn't apply to other players or anything like that."
That means they have to get this rule right the first time with Ohtani. The answer won't be easy, but there's certainly pressure to make sure it's correct.
"I think the solution that we arrive at here will set a precedent for other, similar types of players who might come along in the future. It's sort of a first go-round, but I don't see it as a one-off," Jason said. "I think we're envisioning it as new capabilities of the game that would be applicable going forward if other players have pitching and batting eligibility."
Once they arrive at the decision, the next step is to make sure their users fully understand their decision. They don't want to spring the decision on the users overnight. Rather, they want to give them time to process the decision and hatch their own strategy. Depending on the final outcome—and Ohtani's level of success on the field, of course—Ohtani could instantly become the most valuable player in fantasy baseball.
Put another way, if Ohtani lives up to the hype, he might create a world in which Mike Trout isn't even the first Angel selected in fantasy drafts. If that's the case, players need to know as quickly as possible.
"It's significant work, for sure. We have a game that's been around for over 20 years, so it's tried and true and it sometimes can make changes like this a little more challenging, but at the same time even if you were building a fantasy game from scratch, the logic and the user-experience consideration about how to manage this player on your team are pretty significant and require a lot of thought and time," Jason said. "I think it's something that has to be done; I think it would make the game better."
2021 Baseball America MLB All-Star Teams
Major league first-team and second-team all-star teams, as selected by Baseball America.
Now, to the part everybody's been waiting for: The solutions. So far, Becquey and Jason say they've come up with a number of ways to handle Ohtani that primarily fall into three categories.
- Ohtani is two different players—a hitter and a pitcher—and can be drafted twice and owned twice in the same league. This would be fascinating for many reasons, the most significant of which is the possibility of Ohtani being traded for himself in the middle of a season.
- Ohtani is one player who can be swapped back and forth between hitting and pitching and only accumulates stats at the position he's placed in the lineup. So if you use Ohtani as a pitcher and he hits a home run, you wouldn't get that home run in your stats. Or if you have him slotted as a hitter and he comes in as a reliever and earns a save, you don't get that save.
- Ohtani is one player who constantly accumulates stats at both positions. If he's a starting pitcher and he homers twice, you get the Ohtani stats bonanza. Homers, strikeouts, wins. You get it all.
No matter the solution, the time for speculation is over. After years of hype and haggling, Ohtani is here. Now the baseball worlds—both real-life and fantasy—get a chance to see just what fun he can be.