Shohei Otani will break the mold in fantasy and video games when he gets to MLB
Otani's rare ability to hit and pitch will need to be accounted for in realms beyond real baseball
The World Series hasn't yet started, but the biggest story of baseball's offseason has already been decided -- the fate of Japanese phenom Shohei Otani. For the unaware, Otani is the best player who isn't under big-league employ. At 23 years old, he is perhaps the world's most complete talent: A two-way player with a career 2.56 ERA and .859 OPS whose precociousness has lured comparisons to Yu Darvish, Justin Verlander, and Curtis Granderson -- a proverbial smoothie of all stars at the plate and on the rubber, all at once.
Every indicator has Otani relocating in the coming months to pursue Major League Baseball. Whether or not his next team permits him to play both ways is anyone's guess. If he is granted the opportunity, he will threaten the clean, longstanding demarcation lines between pitchers and hitters. In doing so, he will also challenge conventional wisdom about the viability of a modern-day two-way major-leaguer. It is Otani who could provide the chorus sampled by young two-way hopefuls, such as Tampa Bay Rays first baseman-slash-pitcher Brendan McKay.
Baseball's reputation as an old, stodgy sport unwilling to try new things is mistaken. The sport is old and can be stubborn, but new ideas are co-opted constantly -- normally just as soon as a daring team or individual proves they work. Otani, then, could disrupt baseball -- not only the real thing, but the fantasy and video-game versions, too. Programmers must solve the riddle: How do you account for a player who seems borne from users' wildest imaginations?
At its foundation, fantasy baseball is a straightforward game. Users draft a team, then spend the season slotting their players into lineups and rotations on a day-to-day or week-by-week basis. Part of the process entails weighing where to play so-called multi-position players -- for example, deciding if Jason Kipnis provides more value in center field or at second base.
Otani complicates the calculus in an obvious way. As constructed, most fantasy leagues credit hitters only for their hitting and pitchers only for their pitching. A player who contributes both ways is unheard of, and creates a decision-making predicament. Otani might be preferable to Josh Reddick, but is he even more preferable to Amir Garrett? Whereas diehard users might relish the opportunity for greater difficulty, casual users could come to view Otani's flexibility as a burden. So, how will fantasy league providers avoid a rash of Otani-related crises?
When exploring a potential industry-wide issue, often the best place to start is at home. Everyone knows CBS Sports offers fantasy leagues. What isn't known just yet, even by those in charge, is how Otani will be implemented in those leagues. Fittingly for a player with unusual plasticity, the decision could be left up to each league, according to senior director of product development Brian Huss. "Our fantasy platform is really flexible and customizable," he said, "so we're working on figuring out how we can let leagues who want to value Otani really highly as a two-way player easily do so, while leagues who want to keep hitters and pitchers totally separate and value Otani distinctly as either one or the other can do that, too."
Separating Otani the pitcher and Otani the hitter is but one possible solution. Other suggestions include granting Otani multi-position eligibility and making users declare Otani a hitter or a pitcher before the league's predetermined scoring period. Because of the inherent slippery slope, the worst fix would be counting Otani's hitting and pitching stats regardless of where he was placed in the lineup. "Where do we draw the line?" Huss asked. "Do we then enable all pitchers' hitting stats and all position players' pitching stats to count as well? With a couple of exceptions that's likely not what our players want."
The potential variability in how Otani will be presented complicates the evaluation process, too. "We run into this with players like Buster Posey, who are elite fantasy options as catcher, but just run-of-the-mill guys as first base," CBS Sports fantasy editor Chris Towers said. He believes Otani has "Darvish-like upside" on the mound, and that his offensive numbers could approximate Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez's. "Otani's hitting prowess could make him a top-five pitcher, even if his production as a pitcher is just decent," he said. "His value would be so unconventional, but getting an extra hitter in your lineup could be a game changer."
Still, Towers warned about letting the sauce overwhelm the meat -- or getting too caught up in the Otani hype amid the media frenzy that's certain to carry over into spring, when most drafts are held. "He's easy to get excited about as a real-life prospect because of how unique he is, but most pitching prospects don't live up to expectations," said Towers. "Remove the hype, and analyze the prospect -- is this guy someone to invest a ton in as a rookie? It may be easy to overrate him."
It may be easy to overrate a virtual Otani in a video game like "Out of the Park Baseball" or "MLB The Show," too. Each series relies upon attribute systems that grade players across various skill categories in order to provide an overall score. A reasonable question is whether Otani, whose proficiency encompasses a wider range than most, will break the ratings systems. Experts say no.
"It is functionally impossible for a player to 'break' the ratings system of a game," said Owen S. Good, a member of Polygon who has been writing about sports video games since 2008. "What usually happens is the newcomer's supreme talent becomes the 100 or 99 mark in the rating system and other performers are graded relative to that." Good referenced Bo Jackson in "NCAA Football '13" and Stephen Curry in "NBA 2K13" as pertinent examples.
Rating systems aside, there are other programming kinks to smooth out -- mostly as it pertains to the artificial intelligence. To use an example, "Out of the Park" features Otani and the rest of Nippon Professional Baseball. Yet any user who simulates a full season expecting Otani and his two-way goodness will be disappointed when the computer deploys him almost exclusively as a pitcher. The good news, for "Out of the Park" fans, is that developers are aware of the issue.
"Right now [the game] handles pitchers and position players different in many places, and even disregards pitchers in certain routines in order to speed things up," said Markus Heinsohn, the series' creator. Heinsohn says the development team will wait and see how Otani is used in the majors before making sweeping changes. He is confident about how the game will stand up in other areas. "Fortunately, our player development code (aging, development, etc.) already handles two-way players perfectly fine."
"The Show" developers weren't willing to divulge much about their Otani plans. Unlike "Out of the Park," they'll be starting from a clean slate -- Otani has never appeared, since the game includes only active players in the MLBPA. They'll also be dealing with gameplay differences that necessitate more creative solutions. Consider that "Out of the Park" is a pure simulation -- users don't control the individual avatars during gameplay, as they do in "The Show" -- meaning, in theory, users could exploit a player of Otani's ilk in "The Show" more so than in "Out of the Park," where the action is by and large determined by forces beyond a user's control.
Some fans of "The Show" believe the game already has a base from which to build upon. Paul Sporer, who writes for RotoGraphs and streams his "The Show" matches via Twitch, cited the game's online Diamond Dynasty create-a-player feature as a building block. "You can evolve that player into a mega Babe Ruth and slot him into the rotation, bullpen, or lineup," he said. Alas, some tweaks could be in store. "The [created player] isn't completely interchangeable in-game, meaning you can't bring him off the bench to pinch-hit and then close out the game with him on the mound. But if he's slotted as a pitcher on the team, his hitting prowess is intact."
Possibly the most challenging aspect for the development teams could be figuring out how to model Otani's durability. Assuming he'll fatigue and heal at a normal rate seems unrealistic given the potential demands placed upon his body, yet there aren't many cases to study from. "Where Otani presents a change to 'The Show' is in his ability to play elsewhere in the field on days when he doesn't pitch," Good said. "To my mind, this is a problem for the game's rest and recovery logic, as pitchers typically take four or five days to recharge in the regular season."
Coincidentally, big-league front offices will decide whether Otani can pitch and hit after they ascertain the added injury risk. He's seldom played outfield in recent years, and barely pitched this season due to injuries: He missed the World Baseball Classic with a bum ankle (an injury recently addressed through surgery), and later missed time due to a thigh issue. How many seasons can a body endure a starter's workload while serving as the most-days DH? Dreamers will have to hope a while longer. After all, Otani can't break every kind of baseball if he's broke himself.
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