Any time a Japanese superstar comes to the MLB, it’s accompanied by deafening hype.
There was Ichiro, the wiry slap-hitting spark plug who debuted as a 27-year-old with the Seattle Mariners and became one of just two players in league history to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Hideki Matsui, a power-hitting outfielder nicknamed “Godzilla”, came over shortly thereafter and was an immediate All-Star. In 2012, the Texas Rangers deemed 6-foot-5 power pitcher Yu Darvish worthy of an $111 million commitment which quickly proved to be a bargain.
The speculation surrounding the talent of Shohei Ohtani might dwarf them all.
Ohtani, a 23-year-old pitcher and outfielder, was recently signed by the Los Angeles Angels for a contract The Atlantic argues could make him “the most underpaid man in the world.” Due to the MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, an incoming international player under the age of 25 can only sign for the league minimum salary. Without those restrictions, experts estimate his deal could’ve been close to $300 million. For comparison, the entire Los Angeles Angels payroll was about $176 million in 2017. Why is Ohtani worth so much?
Quite simply, he can throw a 102-mph fastball and hit 500-foot home runs. This has earned the 6-foot-3, 189-pound Ohtani the nickname “the Japanese Babe Ruth,” as the Great Bambino is really the only precedent for what Ohtani could become in the MLB should he reach his full potential. “I’ve seen players hit a ball 500 feet and players throw a ball 100 mph,” Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto said on his podcast. “I’ve just never seen one do both.”
Let’s start with Ohtani’s explosive right arm. At Hanamaki Higashi High School, he threw 99 mph on several occasions. He debuted with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball league in 2013 and quickly established himself as a dominant pitcher. At the 2014 NPB All-Star Game, Ohtani threw a 101-mph pitch, setting a record for the fastest official pitch thrown by a Japanese pitcher. In 2015, he led the league in wins (15) while recording a 2.24 ERA and 196 strikeouts. He followed that up with a 2016 season that saw him record a minuscule 1.86 ERA and win Pacific League MVP honors. This was also when he unleashed the aforementioned 102.5 mph fastball, which set a new NPB record. He was limited by injuries in 2017, but his fastball still averaged 97.5 mph (only one MLB starting pitcher, Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets, averaged a higher fastball velocity in 2017). Ohtani’s current arsenal includes that blistering fastball, a devastating splitter and an effective slider. Several MLB scouts have said they remind him of a young Justin Verlander. Watch Ohtani K a bunch of MLB All-Stars in this game from 2014:
Safe to say Ohtani’s pitching ability alone would be enough to make MLB scouts salivate. However, the dude also has the potential to be the greatest power hitter Japan has ever produced. Like many MLB players, Ohtani throws righty but bats lefty. He has a beautiful, fluid swing that can belie just how much power he produces. His best year as a hitter in the NPB came in 2016 when he hit .322 with a .416 OBP and 22 home runs plus 67 RBIs in just 382 plate appearances. For context, no MLB player has ever hit more than 20 home runs and recorded an OBP over .400 in so few plate appearances. Many of Ohtani’s home runs measured in the range of 500 feet, and he actually won NPB’s Home Run Derby in 2016. His legend only continued to grow after he crushed a ball clear through the roof of the Tokyo Dome in November of 2016:
Those are some majestic moonshots, and Ohtani possesses power to all fields.
Ohtani is also rumored to possess game-changing quickness, as the Los Angeles Times reports pro scouts have timed him at 3.8 seconds from the batter’s box to first base. CBS Sports states a time of 3.9 for a left-handed hitter typically grades as an “8” on the standard 2-8 scout scale. A 3.8 is simply off the charts for a man of Ohtani’s size. “We all know he has a great arm and he’s got the equipment to be a No. 1 starter, but the overall athleticism is what’s so impressive with this guy,” San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy told NBCSports.
Ohtani also possesses mind-boggling flexibility—a quality he shares with Ichiro. Check out this screenshot from a Japanese television show of Ohtani showing off his insane shoulder mobility:
Then get up, try that yourself and realize what you’re looking at simply shouldn’t be possible. Ohtani’s work ethic is reportedly equally as impressive as his superhuman athleticism. He’s had his mind set on being an elite player since childhood, and he’s worked relentlessly in this pursuit. In high school, he wrote down a list of goals that included “throwing a no-hitter and recording 25 wins” in the MLB by age 25 and winning three World Series. While he has long been a megastar in his native Japan, he largely avoided embracing his celebrity and simply continued to grind. “He’s not like that. He doesn’t go out to eat or drink. He just likes to be close to somewhere he can train,” Hiroshi Sasaki, Ohtani’s former high school coach who remains one of his trusted advisors, told the Los Angeles Times.
At this point, Ohtani’s abilities sound like folklore. A man who can hurl fireballs on the mound, launch missiles at the plate and teleport around the base paths. But we have footage and data of him actually doing these things. It’s great fun to speculate about what he could become, but it’s important to remember he’s still a young player and needs further time to develop. In March, one anonymous MLB official told Bleacher Report Ohtani was the “best baseball player in the world.” Making that kind of claim about a 23-year-old who has yet to play a game in the world’s best baseball league is irresponsible, and we really have no idea how the Angels will utilize Ohtani on a game-to-game basis. But it certainly will be fun to see just how good the humble Japanese import can be.
“This may sound like a cliche, but I do not feel pressure at all when it comes to playing baseball, and this is being 100 percent honest,” Ohtani told Bleacher Report. “Playing baseball is genuinely fun for me, and I enjoy every moment of my time on the field, whether it’s practice or game time.”
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