Japanese Rookie Electrifies American Baseball

If a scouting report exists on baseball’s newest Japanese phenom, it would read: can pitch, hit and run, a triple threat all in one neat package.

The world has gotten almost blasé about Japanese players moving onto the American major leagues. One thinks of Hideo Nomu, who paved the way for his countrymen as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1990s, or Ichiro or Yu Darvish.

But no Japanese player and probably few baseball players of any other nationality have made such an extraordinary debut as has Shohei Ohtani playing for the decidedly second-rank Los Angeles Angels, who finished 21 games behind their rivals, the Houston Astros, in the American League West, in 2017.

In his first 10 games of the new season, Ohtani had two wins as a starting pitcher and three home runs as a Designated Hitter (DH). He has struck out 18 opponents in 13 innings. He has 11 runs-batted in from the homers and a triple. His batting average is .365, a figure unheard of for pitchers.

But is Ohtani a pitcher or a batter? The answer is he is both. In his recent games for the Angels in this season Ohtani has been booked as both. It is not the case of a player who can hit fairly well and used as a pitch-hitter in tight situations.

As a pitcher in the Japanese Pacific League Ohtani’s fastball has been clocked at 100 mph. He also has a repertoire of other good pitches. In his first win as a pitcher, he came close to pitching a perfect game (in which no batter gets to first base).

He has been appearing as a part of the official lineup in both as a pitcher and in the batting lineup, and based on early days at least he does both equally well. He stands in as a DH usually when he is not pitching that day.

There is considerable irony in that. Generally speaking, baseball pitchers are specialists. If they can throw strikes, nobody complains if they can’t hit. Often before the DH was created, pitchers often looked out of place in the batter’s box, striking out or grounding out.

The position of DH was considered the solution. Take the pitcher out of the batting lineup replaced by a player, almost invariably the pitcher, who does not take to the field when their turn comes around.

The DH rule is still controversial in the major leagues. It applies to the American League, of which the Angels are a part, but not the National League. Ohtani has not explained why he chose the Angels over other suitors, but one likely reason is because he wanted to play in the American League where he can both bat and pitch.

Ohtani is the first professional baseball player to both hit and pitch on a regular basis for nearly a century. In the US he has been compared to Babe Ruth. That might seem strange for a 23-year-old rookie, but it is often forgotten that Ruth was, early in his career, an ace pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.

Then Boston traded Ruth to the New York Yankees who turned him into the slugger he’s famous as. His record of 60 home runs in a single season stood for decades before it was broken by Roger Maris in 1961.

The comparison probably doesn’t hold for Ohtani. He may be an excellent hitter, but he is not really a slugger despite his season opening burst opening burst of homers. In his career with the Nippon Ham Fighters, the most home runs Ohtani had in a single season were 22.

One area where his statistics are not so impressive is in his salary package. The Angeles posted US$20 million to win his services for the Fighters and agree to pay a modest US$2.3 million for Ohtani himself. By way of contrast, the Texas Rangers paid more than US$100 million in posting fees and salary for Yu Darvish. (Darvish is playing for the Chicago Cubs this season).

Posting is a system that regularizes the transfer of Japanese ball players to the US Major Leagues. It works this way. The Japanese side holds an auction to sell off the rights to one of its players. The winning team posts the agreed fee.

Then the winning team then has 30 days to negotiate a personal contract with the player. If that fails, the post goes back to the Japanese team; if successful then the Japanese team get to keep the post.

Ohtani is already is expected to make up the relatively low salary with product endorsements, and of course higher salaries as the years go by assuming his performance holds up. (This week he was pulled from the mound after the second inning of disastrous game with the Red Sox, showing he is no superman.)

His picture already graces every sports magazine in Japan; his games are broadcast live in Japan, and an army of Japanese sportswriters follow his every move, which keeps him constantly in the limelight. It cannot be long until his face appears on advertisements.

It seems as if the Angeles struck gold in signing Ohtani. Almost overnight it has turned the Angeles into contenders for the league championship and a possible berth in the 2018 World Series.

The team got off to a blazing start, winning 11 games against three loses, the best record so far in the American League West division. The Angles have been in the playoffs in recent years but haven’t won a playoff game since 2009. The management is counting on Ohtani help change that this year.

Todd Crowell is Asia Sentinel’s Tokyo correspondent