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How two video-game designers tried to unravel the Shohei Ohtani problem

Everyone had a similar reaction to the news that Japanese two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani was finally going to join Major League Baseball: How is this going to work?

With hours to go before the start of the 2018 regular season, the answer to that question remains murky. The Los Angeles Angels have played things close to the vest, making it tough for the majority of baseball fans to accurately predict how Ohtani will perform at the highest level until they see him in action.

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Lorne Asuncion and Luis Martinez don’t have that luxury. As senior designers of “MLB: The Show 18,” it’s their job to project every detail surrounding Ohtani’s transition to the major leagues, from his velocity to his power against right-handed pitching to his ability to drop a drag bunt.

While they’ve performed the same exercise with thousands of other players, creating Ohtani is completely unique. No one in recent history has come into the league with the ability to be a standout player at the plate and on the mound. But Asuncion and Martinez weren’t nervous about the task at hand. After some initial surprise, they relished the opportunity to take on the challenge.

“I was in shock,” Asuncion told Yahoo Sports. “Because this was probably the first time we’ve had somebody in the game who didn’t have Major League Baseball experience. With that said, everybody was excited here.”

The next question was where to start? Due to Ohtani’s ability as a two-way player, many have been quick to compare him to New York Yankees legend Babe Ruth. Coincidentally, Ruth is also in this year’s version of “The Show.”

“It’s a really nice coincidence that we also added Babe Ruth to the game in the same year,” Martinez says. “You know how they always say, ‘Well, you know it’s been 100 years since the last two-way player?’ We have both in the game.”

That comparison falls apart when it comes to projections, though. Projecting Ruth is easy. Just toss a bunch of 99s on his attributes and call it a day. No one can argue with it, because Ruth’s numbers speak loudly. That’s not the case with Ohtani. He hasn’t compiled any major-league stats yet.

Shohei Ohtani presented some difficulties to the designers of “MLB: The Show 18.” (AP Photo)

In order to learn more about Ohtani, Asuncion and Martinez started researching every resource available. They consulted his numbers in Nippon Professional Baseball. They read scouting reports from reputable sources. They checked top prospects lists to see where he ranked.

It was similar to their process for projecting other foreign players except, again, Ohtani was much harder. Due to the hype surrounding Ohtani, he would be available in the game at release. That’s not usually the case with other players from Japan or Cuba.

“With the other players, when we get them in the game, they usually have a week or two under their belt in the major leagues,” Asuncion says. “So we’re able to get that small-sample size and think to ourselves ‘is he going to do well in the major leagues?’

You’ll also notice that Ohtani’s face, windup and swing are 100 percent authentic. The team was able to get him in for head and body scans in time for release, which is unprecedented for a rookie.

At the game’s release, Ohtani rated as an 86 overall. Only 16 other pitchers were rated higher than Ohtani initially. That might seem high for a guy who has never played in the majors, but Asuncion and Martinez stood by that initial ranking.

“We’re really comfortable with the overall rating we gave him,” Asuncion says. “With ratings and attributes, I feel like it’s really subjective depending on the person and how they view him. Somebody might be ecstatic to see him at an 86. But if you’re an Angels fan, you’re like, ‘Hey, 86, what is that?’ It’s definitely subjective, but we feel like we have a good number to start with.”

But as the team gathers more information, that number will change. “MLB: The Show 18” tracks player performance throughout the entire season, and constantly issues roster updates with tweaks to player attributes. That way, a player in the middle of an unexpected breakout won’t sit at a low rating all season. He’ll see his attributes improve as his stats get better in real life.

Ohtani’s rough spring has already impacted his rating. When fans boot up “MLB: The Show 18” before opening day, they’ll notice Ohtani now sits at 76 overall after the first roster update.

They’ll also notice that Ohtani can’t technically start games as a position player. Fans who want to use Ohtani as a hitter will have to do so by making sure he pitches in National League parks so he receives at-bats. They can also use him as a pinch-hitter, or in the game’s Diamond Dynasty mode.

You can put Ohtani in the outfield for a full game in “MLB: The Show 18,” but it takes some work. (AP Photo)

There is a workaround if you want to “start” Ohtani in the outfield. In order to do so, you can start up a game with another player pitching. Once the game begins, you can pause it, and then sub in Ohtani for another outfielder. Ohtani is then in the lineup for the rest of the game, but it comes at the expense of another player on the roster.

While that may disappoint some fans, it’s the best solution for now. Ohtani is so unique that trying to put his two-way ability in the “The Show” this season would have broken the game’s code.

“There are a few logic changes that needed to happen that we just didn’t have the time to implement this year, but it’s something that we’re going to look to in the future,” Martinez says.

“Yeah, it’s definitely No. 1 on our list since Ohtani is a big name,” Asuncion added.

That issue extended outside video games. Fantasy sites had a tough time figuring out how to utilize Ohtani for the 2018 season. Some sites made him one player who was usable either as a pitcher or a hitter. On Yahoo Fantasy, two different versions of Ohtani are draftable. One is a pitcher. One is a position player.

Despite Ohtani’s early struggles and lowered rating, Asuncion and Martinez feel optimistic about his outlook. They noted that Ohtani’s fastball averages 97 in the game, and that he’s equipped with a killer splitter and a curveball that comes in 15 mph slower than his fastball. His arsenal allows players to play head games and mix up their opponents.

Those were the qualities they saw in Ohtani right away, and a slow spring isn’t going to change any of that for them.

“He’s had a long track record and that doesn’t unravel after 2 2/3 spring innings,” Martinez says.

“We’re not worried,” Asuncion agrees. “I like the numbers we gave him and we’re hoping he exceeds them.”

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Chris Cwik is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at christophercwik@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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