Tigers, fans will get look at Angels' 2-way sensation Shohei Ohtani
Detroit — Shortly after 5 Tuesday night, it became official. The Los Angeles Angels announced, finally, that, yes, Shohei Ohtani, would be their starting pitcher Wednesday night.
If you heard some champagne popping, that probably was coming from the Tigers' box office.
Major League Baseball's latest sensation — Ohtani is the first two-way player since some plump fella named Babe Ruth, who last pitched in Detroit 99 years ago — is expected to provide the rebuilding Tigers their second-largest crowd of the season, after Opening Day.
The Tigers haven't topped 28,000 since Opening Day, but they're bracing for a notable surge of walkups intrigued by this so-called "Sho-time" sensation. Less than a half-hour after the Tuesday announcement from the Angels, Wednesday's Angels-Tigers was among the most viewed MLB tickets on StubHub, and that remained the case for several hours. The Tigers' vice president of communications doesn't tweet often, and when he does it's almost exclusively about the Tigers, but he tweeted the Angels' starting-pitching announcement, with a link to tickets, of course.
That's because, for five of Ohtani's seven pitching starts, there has been an attendance bump — the biggest coming April 17 at home, when 44,822 packed Angel Stadium, compared to the 34,508 who watched the following day. On April 24 at Houston, 36,457 bought tickets, compared to 29,606 the day before and 29,777 the day after.
Ohtani isn't quite on Mark Fidrych-circa-1976 level in terms of a box-office draw, but if he keeps this up — his pitching numbers, by themselves, would make him the runaway American League rookie-of-the-year favorite if voting was today, and so would his hitting numbers — then watch out.
"(A lot) of people still don't know who he is," said Brian Posey, who owns and operates The Ticket Machine, a broker based in mid-Michigan's Okemos. "But certainly, he's gonna be a draw if he keeps doing what he's doing."
As of 8 p.m. Tuesday, the Tigers hadn't responded to requests for comment on how the Ohtani announcement had affected Wednesday's ticket sales.
Being a hitter and a pitcher is common at the grassroots levels of baseball. In Little League, the best player on the team often is the ace pitcher and the starting shortstop. Same in high school. Even in college, occasionally some of the best pitchers are good-enough hitters to take up residency in the lineup. And there are even players taken in the MLB Draft who can do both, and want to do both, and teams give them an early opportunity to do both — before a decision on one or the other comes down from above. Take Hunter Greene, the No. 2 pick in 2017 by the Cincinnati Reds. He did both last year, but has only pitched this year.
In the major leagues, doing both, on a regular basis, is darn near unicorn-esque.
Sure, some hitters flame out, and try turning to pitching to keep their careers alive (think Anthony Gose). Or, it happens in reserve (think Rick Ankiel). There's the rare National League pitcher who can hit a bit, and so might get a pinch-hit shot now and then (Madison Bumgarner, etc.). Then there's the novelty act of position players pitching, usually in blowouts (we see you, Don Kelly!).
But doing both on a regular basis, let alone a high level, well, that just doesn't happen. In fact, the list that comes to mind is short: The Babe, and Ohtani (who still lacks a juicy nickname).
That's why fans from coast to coast want to see for themselves what all the fuss is about — during one Tigers telecast on Fox Sports Detroit this week, they interviewed a young Tigers fan who was wearing an Angels hat, and already called Ohtani one of his favorite players.
We've got news for you, though: The players are fascinated, too.
"I'd love to face him. I'd love to see what it's like facing Ohtani," said Tigers outfielder JaCoby Jones, sporting a wide smile in the Tigers' home clubhouse Tuesday afternoon. It's a smile, truthfully, that might not be there by the end of Wednesday night's game.
"He throws 100 on the mound and hits homers.
"Not too many guys in the big leagues do that."
Ohtani, 23, was the star of the offseason, the most-sought-after free agent, not because of just his skill set, but what that skill set could mean to a franchise's bottom line if it's as advertised. (Think ticket sales, jersey sales, etc.)
After four years playing in Japan, Ohtani, a right-hander on the mound and a left-hander at the dish, signed in December with the Angels, then held a press conference that provided a glimpse into what his presence in Southern California might just mean. The press conference was attended by hundreds of fans. Fans don't typically attend press conferences.
He had a slow start to his major-league career, scuffling both ways in spring training, which, of course, brought out the Doubting Thomases.
Then, he homered in his third regular-season game. And his fourth. And his fifth.
Pitching, he won his first start. And his second, the latter a seven-inning, one-hit eye-opener.
For the season, Ohtani has six homers, 20 RBIs and a .929 OPS in 30 games at the plate, and is 4-1 with a 3.35 ERA and 1.066 WHIP in seven starts. Pick a stat line. Either one would make him the best hitter or the best pitcher on the Tigers' roster, and many other rosters, by an assortment of different metrics.
No kidding, then, that Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire quipped earlier this week, "I would love to have that problem," when asked about the difficulties his Angels counterpart, Mike Scioscia, must have in making the Ohtani thing work.
The Angels have taken to monitoring his workload closely, often pitching on Sundays, with six days' rest instead of the typical five. He'll be 10 days between starts Wednesday. He doesn't start in the batting order the day before or after he pitches, but sometimes pinch-hits. (He didn't bat in Monday afternoon's opener of the four-game Tigers series, though at one point he did grab a bat and was ready for a pinch-hitting assignment.)
Nobody knows what the right protocol is. And you can't exactly phone a friend. Ruth's last manager in Boston, Ed Barrow, has been dead for 65 years.
And in any event, Ruth usually was in the batting lineup on days he pitched.
'I want to see what he's got'
Leonys Martin, another Tigers outfielder, has been around a lot longer than Jones, the second-year player. Martin had faced 558 different major-league pitchers entering Tuesday night.
So he wasn't as enthusiastic about the prospects of facing Ohtani as Jones was.
"He's another guy in the league," Martin said.
A few lockers over, a sly, eavesdropping Miguel Cabrera joked that Ohtani should be the excited one, to face the Detroit Tigers.
Martin wasn't being disrespectful in his "another guy" comment, though. And he made that known, his opinion just might change following Wednesday night's game.
"I want to see what he's got," Martin said. "If he is better than, like, Chris Sale or Yu Darvish, then, he has to be on another planet."
Tigers players not only are marveling at Ohtani's talent, but also how much he must have to prepare. Hitters spend hours going over film to figure out just what the guy will throw in this count, that count, or with runners at the corners. Pitchers spend hours going over scouting reports that get more detailed by the day.
Ohtani, though, he has to know every hitter in the league and every pitcher in the league.
"That's probably a lot of work," Jones said.
"I (wouldn't) know how to handle that situation," Martin said.
And that's to say nothing of the press conferences Ohtani is obligated to do — apparently, every day he plays in a game, in Japanese and English. Only managers, at two a day, do more press conferences than that.
Not that Cabrera seemed overly impressed.
"He has a translator!" Cabrera said, again politely butting in, and letting out a hearty laugh.
The Tigers, meanwhile, are eager to find out just how much Ohtani translates into ticket sales.
Babe Ruth in Detroit
Here's a look at Babe Ruth's starts as a pitcher in Detroit, at what then was Navin Field (research done at Baseball-Reference.com).
May 11, 1915: This was Ruth's first pitching start in Detroit, and he lasted 5.2 innings, allowing three earned runs on nine hits and a whopping eight walks in a game that still only took 1 hour and 59 minutes. He struck out only one (Bobby Veach) as the Tigers beat the Red Sox, 5-1. Ruth had a double in two plate appearances.
July 9, 1915: It was a rough day for the burly southpaw, as Ruth lasted just one-third of an inning in Boston's 15-4 loss to Detroit. He allowed three earned runs on two hits and two walks, and didn't even record a plate appearance. Sam Crawford had three RBIs for the Tigers.
Aug. 25, 1915: Ruth was on his game, going 8.2 innings in a game that the Red Sox eventually won, 2-1, in 13 innings. He allowed four hits and three walks, while striking out five (including legends Ty Cobb, Crawford and Veach once each).
June 9, 1916: Detroit beat Boston, 6-5, in walk-off fashion in the bottom of the ninth inning. George Burns had three hits, including a triple and double, plus five RBIs. Ruth avoided the loss, going eight innings. He allowed two earned runs on eight hits, while walking two and striking out two. Carl Mays took the loss. At the plate, Ruth was 3-for-3 with a homer.
July 29, 1916: Detroit held on in a shootout, 10-8, thanks to a four-run first and a four-run second. Ruth was knocked out of the game after just one-third of an inning, allowing two earned runs on three hits and a walk. Veach had two hits and three RBIs for the Tigers.
July 31, 1916: Because Ruth only lasted one-third of an inning two days earlier, he got another start in the series, with a much better outcome as the Red Sox won, 6-0. Ruth tossed a two-hitter, walking two and striking out six (including Cobb once and Crawford twice). At-bat, he was 2-for-4.
Sept. 21, 1916: Once again, Ruth went the distance, allowing seven hits and four walks while striking out four as the Red Sox won, 10-2. At the plate, Ruth had two hits, including a triple.
May 11, 1917: Boston won, 2-1, with Ruth allowing five hits and two walks while striking out six (including Cobb once) in the complete game. At the plate, Ruth had two hits, with a double.
July 11, 1917: The Red Sox shut out the Tigers, 1-0, with Chick Shorten's RBI triple in the top of the ninth off Hooks Dauss proving the difference. Ruth tossed a one-hitter, walked four and striking out eight (including Cobb once). Ruth also tripled.
June 2, 1918: The Tigers beat the Red Sox, 4-3, with Eric Erickson outdueling Ruth. Ruth threw a complete game, allowing four earned runs on hit hits. He walked three and struck out two. Batting ninth, he also homered.
Aug. 8, 1918: The Red Sox won, 4-1, behind a Ruth gem. He threw a complete game, allowing seven hits and four walks, while striking out three. He also had an RBI single.
Aug. 27, 1917: The Tigers beat the Red Sox, 5-1, thanks to a three-hit day by Cobb, and the first homer of the year for Burns. In the complete game, Ruth was tagged for eight hits, while walking three and striking out two. He also doubled.
July 21, 1919: The Tigers beat the Red Sox, 6-2, thanks to a three-hit afternoon by Cobb. Ruth went the distance, allowing three earned runs on 12 hits, while walking five and striking out five. He did homer, though.
Ruth's career in Detroit: Pitching — 13 starts, 5-6 record, 2.54 ERA, 44 strikeouts, 43 walks in 92 innings. Hitting — In 180 games in Detroit, with Boston and the New York Yankees, Ruth batted .332/.479.735 with 60 home runs and 187 RBIs. He even stole 11 bases.