Shohei Ohtani: The Two Way Star

Early results look promising as the “Japanese Babe Ruth” continues to live up to his lofty moniker.

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April 3—It was an auspicious night in Anaheim. After less than a full inning, the Angels found themselves tied with the Cleveland Indians 2-2. Cleveland’s starting pitcher, Josh Tomlin, was battling against the Angels’ lineup. The Angels loaded the bases with two outs. The powerful voice of Angels’ announcer Victor Rojas then called out, “Designated hitter…number 17…Shohei Oooohtani!” The fans stood and roared for the rookie phenomenon.

Donning the red Angels’ home jersey, armed with a black Asics bat, and protected with arm and ankle guards, a towering but lean 6’3”, 189-pound Ohtani shyly approached the left side of the plate. With his head down, he tapped the dirt off his cleats with his bat before he entered the batter’s box. Ohtani maintained a veteran approach at the plate in this key situation, working the count before an eventual past ball brought one run home. The count was now 2-2 with men on the second and third bases.

Tomlin took his sign, came set, and threw a curveball low and inside. Ohtani, poised with his hands loaded and his weight back, drove the bat through the zone. Off the crack of the bat, the ball sailed. “That’s out toward right center field,” Rojas said. Hands high on the follow through of his swing, Ohtani eyed the ball as it flew and landed in the first row of the outfield seats—a three-run home run, his first in the majors. “Big Fly, Ohtani-san,” Rojas called out in excitement.

The fans erupted as he rounded the bases, still with his head down as he adjusted his helmet. Taking it off once he entered the dugout, he noticed his teammates were all concentrated on the game, ignoring his feat. Ohtani, playing along, waved his hands and high-fived a line of imaginary teammates. Soon after, his team broke out of the ruse, swarming their new rookie and patting him on the back. When they emerged, so did a wide smile across Ohtani’s face. He high-fived superstar Mike Trout, Luis Valbuena, and the rest of the team before they ushered him back out onto the field to receive his standing ovation.

Since his arrival in the Major Leagues, Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani has shocked the baseball world. Following the April 3 game, Ohtani homered in each of his next two. To date, he has compiled five home runs at the plate and a 3-1 win-loss record on the pitching mound.

Ohtani has truly broken out and shone through in his role with the Angels. He has displayed versatility, breaking the lines of specialization to a certain position or skill that have dominated baseball in the 21st century; he is thriving both as a pitcher and as a hitter, something no one has done since the legendary Babe Ruth himself. He is proving the skeptics and analysts wrong and is being widely accepted by his teammates and by California. For much of the public, he came out of nowhere to push the Angels in the postseason conversation. But in reality, Ohtani made a name for himself in Japan long before he came to America.

Ohtani was born in Oshu, a rural city in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. Despite being only a roughly three-hour train ride from Tokyo, the area is a stark contrast to the bustling, metropolitan aura of Japan’s capital. Oshu’s vast land area is covered with green rice fields that extend for miles, with clusters of majestic trees and homes here and there. The area is well known for its various historic temples and shrines and its high-grade Maesawa beef. The humble area seems like the last place one would expect to find an MLB star in the making.

Ohtani is the youngest of three children. His athleticism, in part, was passed down from his parents. Ohtani’s father played in Japan’s semi-professional industrial league back when he worked at a Mitsubishi manufacturing plant, and his mother was a national-level badminton player in high school.

Growing up, Ohtani was a “yakyu shonen”—the Japanese idiom for a kid who lives and breathes baseball. Taught by his father, Ohtani demonstrated an aptitude for the game at a young age, as well as a golden arm. During the national high school championship tournament, the Summer Koshien, Ohtani set the record for the fastest recorded pitch by a high schooler at 99 mph.

Once out of high school, Ohtani was set on pursuing a professional career in the United States, wanting to come straight to the best competition available. However, he was heavily pursued by a top Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, and he finally gave in, becoming the team’s number one draft pick in 2012.

This was a strategic decision, as Ohtani was able to avoid the rigors of climbing through the minor leagues in the US, where many young prospects are ground down, injured, and ultimately unable to make a career in the majors. In his five years in Japan’s Pacific League, Ohtani honed his skills toward his development as a two-way player. Ohtani was used both as a pitcher and a right fielder for his strong arm and asserted himself as one of Japan’s premier players (toward the later end of his career in Japan).

Each year, Ohtani performed better and better; he won a plethora of individual awards and was voted into numerous All Star Games, all while his salary grew to match (100 million yen a year). Ohtani also played in various international tournaments, such as the World Baseball Classic and the Premier 12, as a member of the Japanese national team. In these tournaments, he faced top-notch MLB players, proving to MLB scouts that he could handle the Major Leagues.

Ohtani’s breakout year was truly 2016 both as pitcher and a hitter, as he performed on an unprecedented scale in both categories. As a pitcher, he built off the previous year with a career low ERA (earned run average) at 1.86. He went 10-4 overall while striking out 174 batters, with four complete games and one shutout to boot. As a hitter, he hit .322 with 22 home runs and 67 RBIs in 104 games. Ohtani lead his team to the Japan Series that year, and the Nippon Ham Fighters won the championship against the Hiroshima Toya Carp, four games to two.

B y 2017, Ohtani had compiled a career 42-15 record on the mound, a 2.52 ERA, and a 1.08 WHIP (walks and hits divided by number of innings pitched—the number of batters who get on base per inning) as a pitcher. His average fastball velocity clocked in at a jaw-dropping 102.5 mph, well into the upper echelon of MLB pitchers.

One of the biggest headlines of this MLB offseason was the hype over this Japanese star when it was announced that he would be coming to the major leagues. At 23, with the title of ‘Japanese Babe Ruth,’ Ohtani represented tremendous talent to MLB clubs all around at the time.

While teams tried to attract Ohtani with larger and larger contract deals, the policy for signing foreign-born players under 25 prevented Ohtani from making the big money he was initially promised.

Despite this, Ohtani still decided to come to America. He wanted to prove himself on the biggest national stage, rather than wait two more years to make more money. He signed with the Los Angeles Angels to avoid the big-market, national-spotlight East Coast teams and play in the West coast, attracted to the smaller market with less media attention and the close proximity to his home in Japan.

Despite a rocky Spring Training, Ohtani has blown away even the wildest of expectations. Entering the league, questions lingered over whether his high level two-way play would translate in the MLB, the highest level of and most rigorous competition in the world. Through about a quarter of his rookie season, he’s emerged as a clear rookie-of-the-year contender. Whether this level of production is sustainable long-term remains to be seen, but early results look promising as the “Japanese Babe Ruth” has lived up to his lofty moniker.