Freak who got away can show Yankees what they’re missing

During his 12 years as a Yankees baseball operations official, Billy Eppler took the time to visit Monument Park in both the old Stadium and the new one. He appreciated the glorious history of the franchise for which he worked.

When he sees his current pitcher/designated hitter Shohei Ohtani impress on both sides of the ball, however, the Angels’ third-year general manager refuses to flash back to his time with Babe Ruth’s monument.

“I haven’t drawn those parallels,” Eppler told The Post, chuckling, earlier this week in a telephone interview. “I know those have been drawn globally, nationally. They’ve been drawn everywhere but inside the Angels, and they’ve been drawn everywhere but inside the Ohtani camp. Those are the two parties that I’ve never heard [do that].”

For the Yankees, this weekend will introduce a painful parallel when they face the rookie Ohtani — who aspires to be a great pitcher and hitter like no one since the Babe — for the first time.

The Yankees wanted Ohtani badly when the Nippon-Ham Fighters posted him this past winter. The unique entity represented the Yankees’ Plan A to improve both their pitching and their offense while staying under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold.

When Ohtani stunned the baseball world first by not even taking a meeting with the Yankees and then by selecting the relatively low-profile Angels, the Yankees pivoted dramatically, trading for the Marlins’ expensive slugger Giancarlo Stanton.

That Ohtani, with a .333/.378/.619 slash line in 11 games and 45 plate appearances as a DH and a 4.43 ERA in 20 ¹/₃ innings pitched, has outperformed Stanton (.237/.318/.454 in 24 games and 110 plate appearances) for a fraction of the price will be fodder for another day if that trend continues. That Ohtani won’t be pitching against the Yankees this weekend, with his next start probably Tuesday night against the Orioles, mitigates a good amount of this weekend encounter’s drama.

So consider this a soft opening for what could be an intriguing, bicoastal rivalry, especially if the Yankees and Angels continue their strong starts to 2018.

“Obviously, it’s a special talent,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Thursday morning. “I’ve seen some of the highlights of him on the mound. He’s one of those guys that leaps off the screen on TV, stuff-wise. And that doesn’t always happen even when a guy does have great stuff. But that fastball-split combination looks like it has a chance to be really special.

“And obviously, I’ve seen the power. I’ve actually been watching some of the games live. When he hit his first couple of home runs … to be able to hit the ball on the opposite side of center field and go over the rocks there in Anaheim, that’s pretty elite power. So it looks like the Angels have a guy that has a chance to be a really good player on both sides of the ball as a pitcher and a hitter.”

Based on the Angels’ usage patterns to date, Ohtani will likely start either one or two games against the Yankees at DH. Friday and Saturday seem like the safest bets, since the Yankees are starting right-handers (Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka, respectively) and Sunday will be the Angels’ last game before Ohtani’s Tuesday appearance on the mound.

Just how to distribute Ohtani’s time has resulted from an unusual collaborative effort.

“There isn’t a lot of familiarity with the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator conversing about how much a particular player was used,” Eppler said, switching to football talk for a moment. “In baseball, the equivalent is your hitting coach and your pitching coach talking about: How much did he do that day? How many pitches did he throw? How much long toss did he play? And then the pitching coach asks, ‘How many swings did he take in the cage?’ That’s new for them. Nobody’s been taught to communicate among the offense and defense.

“So that’s probably been the unique thing, but once you set that up, it’s done. It’s kind of gone smoothly from there.”

Ohtani has slowed down on both sides after a first couple of weeks that managed to somehow surpass the immense hype. On offense, under the supervision of hitting coach (and ex-Yankee) Eric Hinske, he went deep in three straight games April 3, 4 and 6 and hasn’t left the yard since, although he owns a more-than-respectable .292/.346/.417 line in his seven subsequent games.

On the mound, with pitching coach Charles Nagy overseeing his development, his past two starts (7 ¹/₃ innings, 7 runs) — against the dangerous Red Sox on April 17 and the dynamic Astros on April 24 — have underwhelmed after pitching well against the less mighty A’s in his first two starts (13 innings, three runs).

Nevertheless, when you flash back to spring training, when Ohtani performed poorly enough all over to raise questions about whether he should start the season in the minor leagues, the 23-year-old has traveled quite a distance in a month’s time. In Cactus League action, he went 4-for-32 with four singles and posted a 27.00 ERA in two starts totaling 2 ²/₃ innings. No one is questioning now whether he belongs at this level.

“We go to some more processed-base information and kind of let that be our guide, so that we don’t emotionally react to results,” Eppler said. “And so that’s what we did with him, and that’s what we did with all of our players in spring training. And that’s how we drive our decisions. His process information was right in line with everybody else.”

While Eppler wouldn’t say precisely what data he saw that reassured him about Ohtani, he added: “That gave us comfort, as well as the fact that he had dominated at a level that is as high as you can dominate, or as close to the major leagues as you could get. … So what left was there to do? What was left to do was show it in the major leagues.”

He’s showing it, and the revamped Angels, at 16-9, want to get two-time AL Most Valuable Player Mike Trout his first-ever playoff game victory and beyond. And, in the process, if they can make the Yankees further regret losing out on the Ohtani sweepstakes — and prevent them from putting more champions at Monument Park? They’d probably be OK with that.

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