Shohei Ohtani: Japan's Babe Ruth
The most captivating story in baseball this offseason involves a player who has yet to take his first swing-or, for that matter, his first pitch-in a Major League game. Shohei Ohtani, a fearsome pitcher AND prodigious hitter in Japan, announced his ambitions to take his dual talents to the Majors.
After a fierce recruiting contest among all but a few teams, Ohtani chose to sign with the Los Angeles Angels. The team not only got a young potentially transcendent, two-way star; they got him at a bargain price-a $2.3 million bonus and a salary of barely $550,000-thanks to baseball's international spending rules.
As we first reported last April, Ohtani vows to keep pitching and batting. Should he have the durability to pull it off, he'll be the first Major Leaguer to moonlight since a guy named Babe Ruth. We traveled to Japan early this year to meet Ohtani for what was his first interview with an American television network. But we first laid eyes on him in Arizona, where his former team held spring training.
This sliver through the fence of a batting cage made for a fitting introduction. We found dozens of Japanese outlets angling for a slice – any slice -- of Ohtani in action. Cameras follow him to the exclusion of every other player on the field and so do the fans. We met supporters who traveled 5,000 miles to the desert southwest just to watch him train.
Having glimpsed the Ohtani phenomenon on the road, we were eager to explore it on his turf. Our search to find what all the fuss was about took us here, to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. It's home to the national champion baseball team, the Nippon Ham Fighters. It's also home to the sport's most intriguing prospect.
"Just thinking about facing [Kershaw] makes me really happy and excited. I could just tell he's such a great pitcher through the TV screen." Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani looms large in the snowy Hokkaido town of Sapporo. If Tokyo is a fastball, Sapporo is a curveball. Japan's fifth-largest city feels not unlike a laid-back ski village. But this is a baseball town. And this is the home stadium, the Sapporo Dome.
It's here we sat down with Ohtani. We broke the ice with a question about what we'd heard was his favorite local fast food.
Jon Wertheim: Very important question. In-N-Out Burger or Captain Kangaroo burger?
Shohei Ohtani (translation): Captain Kangaroo.
Jon Wertheim: Better?
Towering and affable, Ohtani is working on his English, but felt more comfortable using a translator during our interview.
Jon Wertheim: I want to ask you about coming to the Majors. But should we say "if" or should we say "when"?
Shohei Ohtani: That's a tough one. I mean, nothing is for certain so, I guess it's "if".
Despite that cautious response, Ohtani eagerly revealed which Major League players he looks most forward to facing – no less than MVP hitter Bryce Harper and star pitcher Clayton Kershaw.
Shohei Ohtani (translation): I watch Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw.
Jon Wertheim: A pitcher and a hitter.
Shohei Ohtani (translation): Yeah, unlike me Kershaw is a lefty.
Jon Wertheim: You see a little of yourself in both Kershaw and Harper?
Shohei Ohtani (translation): I actually do see myself. And I actually try throwing lefty sometimes.
Jon Wertheim: How do you think you'd do against Kershaw?
Shohei Ohtani (translation): Just thinking about facing him makes me really happy and excited. I could just tell he's such a great pitcher through the TV screen.
Jon Wertheim: How would you pitch to Harper?
Shohei Ohtani (Translation): I would have to go with my best pitch, which is the fastball. I want to see how my best pitch fares against one of the best hitters.
Likely quite well. Throwing his dancing fastball, Ohtani strikes out batters at a higher rate than Kershaw. Unfurling his violent yet somehow elegant swing, he hits home runs at a higher rate than Harper. There are days Ohtani makes baseball look almost laughably easy. Consider this performance last summer.
On the very first pitch of the game, Ohtani -- batting lead off -- hit a home run. He then pitched eight shutout innings and struck out 10 batters.
At 6-foot-4, the designated hitter turned pitcher reliably brings the crowd to its feet.
When he threw the fastest pitch, breaking his own record, even opponents looked on in astonishment.
Jon Wertheim: Last year you threw a pitch 165 kilometers an hour, more than 102 miles an hour. How much faster can you throw than 102.5?
Shohei Ohtani (translation): I don't have an exact answer for that. But I'm still young. I'm still 22. I think there's more room to grow.
As seasons go, 2016 will be hard to top. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters took the Japan Series. Ohtani was his league's MVP.
About that name: The Fighters are owned by Nippon Ham, makers of Japan's best-selling sausages. And while, yes, the name resists serious treatment, the team itself is widely regarded as the most innovative in the league. Manager Hideki Kuriyama groomed former Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish, now an ace for the Texas Rangers.
"He's so talented, it's really tough to use him the right way, with the right balance." Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama
Jon Wertheim: Can you compare this to anything you've seen?
Hideki Kuriyama (translation): No. Never seen anything like it. Never.
Jon Wertheim: What's it like having a player who's your best pitcher and also your best hitter?
Hideki Kuriyama (translation): He's so talented, it's really tough to use him the right way, with the right balance.
If you thought Moneyball, the practice of using baseball data over intuition – contorted a manager's conventional thinking, try overseeing a two-way player. Kuriyama's formula? He pitches Ohtani on Sundays then bats him the rest of the week with a day or two off before each start. Distractions are to be kept to a minimum.
Same goes for praise. Shohei Ohtani may be the star of the team, but Kuriyama doesn't exactly coddle the guy.
Shohei Ohtani (translation): Last year, when we won the championship, it was the first time he gave me a compliment. And he said, "That was great pitching."
Jon Wertheim: Never complimented you before that?
Shohei Ohtani (translation): Not once. He always says, "You've got to get better."
And Kuriyama has his reasons.
Hideki Kuriyama (translation): I truly believe he's a lot better than where he is at right now.
The crowd at the Sapporo Dome is less stingy with its praise. You don't get a lot of quiet time here. No peanuts and Cracker Jacks either, but plenty of the local beer. A college football style atmosphere pervades. The caliber of play is considered one level below the Major Leagues in America. Top Japanese players, names like Ichiro and Matsui, aspire to compete against the very best in the U.S. Even amid such company, Shohei Ohtani sticks out. Expat John Gibson has reported on Japanese baseball for 20 years.
Jon Wertheim: What's it like covering this guy?
John Gibson: You think about a guy who throws 101 and then a guy who hits home runs and that's a comic-book character. That's not somebody you're thinking about in real life. You know, nobody does that. Who does that?
We had hoped to leave the Sapporo Dome with Ohtani, get to know the mortal behind the comic-book character.
But he politely declined our invitation. Not even a quick Captain Kangaroo Burger.
So we invited a couple of his teammates instead. Brandon Laird and Luis Mendoza are two of the team's gaijin, or foreign players. Laird saw action as a Yankee. Mendoza once pitched for the Rangers and the Royals.
Sapporo is not a bad place to be a gaijin. Over dinner at their favorite spot in town, Laird told us that Ohtani is the most talented teammate he's ever had. This from a guy who played with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
Brandon Laird: Some pitchers can hit but, I mean, he actually does it in a game. Like, he's in our lineup, you know? And it's impressive.
Luis Mendoza: Watching him hit the ball – I mean, it's like, Miguel Cabrera, you know, power – kind of power, you know.
Jon Wertheim: He reminds you of Cabrera?
Luis Mendoza: Yeah. Definitely.
Jon Wertheim: You guys been out with him?
Brandon Laird: No. I mean he doesn't really do anything. He just, mellow kid, just goes back to the dorms.
Yes, the biggest star in Japanese baseball with a reported salary of roughly two-million-dollars -- apart from not owning a car, lives in these minimalist team dorms.
Ohtani confirmed to us that he seldom leaves the facility. Not that it keeps fans from waiting for him outside.
Even from a distance, plenty of observations can be made about the pitching slugger, or the slugging pitcher. He is meticulous, stopping mid-pitch to adjust his form; open to advice from his batting coaches.
Even baseball tedium provides a source of enjoyment. This is someone who plays baseball but has always worked at it too. Ohtani grew up in a small, industrial town on Japan's mainland. His father, once an amateur player himself, coached his son's little league teams. Shohei Ohtani showed promise as a hitter but drew more interest as a pitcher, occasioning stealth visits from American scouts while he was still in high school.
At age 18, he held a press conference to announce his Major League intentions and went so far as to tell Japanese teams not to draft him. But the Nippon Ham Fighters – again, known for doing things their own way -- drafted him nonetheless.
Shohei Ohtani (translation): Every other team besides the Fighters was looking at me as a pitcher. But the Fighters were going to allow me to do both pitching and hitting. Honestly, I wasn't even thinking about doing both on a professional level. But they approached me in that way and I wanted to take the chance.
"[Babe Ruth's] like a mythical character to me. Because it's such a long time ago and he was God to baseball. I shouldn't be compared to him, at least not right now." Shohei Ohtani
Jon Wertheim: That's your fastball grip?
Shohei Ohtani (translation): Fastball. Splitter.
Jon Wertheim: So you have a splitter?
True to their word, the Fighters have cultivated Ohtani as a hitter as well as a pitcher. We asked him about his forebear.
Jon Wertheim: People have compared you to Babe Ruth. What do you think about when you hear the name Babe Ruth?
Shohei Ohtani (translation): He's like a mythical character to me. Because it's such a long time ago and he was God to baseball. I shouldn't be compared to him, at least not right now.
But maybe someday soon. The Fighters have said they'll permit Ohtani to negotiate with Major League teams after this season. Hideki Kuriyama says the time is right.
Hideki Kuriyama (translation): For our team, we're all for him going to the States.
Jon Wertheim: Best player on the team, this amazing two-way talent, and you're OK with him going to the Major Leagues?
Hideki Kuriyama (translation): Yeah, as a manager, it's going to hurt. It's tough that way. But more than that, I want him to succeed.
Back in the U.S., news of Ohtani's imminent arrival was a hot topic at spring training – though, weary of tipping their hand, execs we approached would only talk off-camera. Dave DeFreitas was a scout for the Yankees and the Indians. He watched Ohtani come of age in Japan. Now independent, he produces scouting reports for the website 20-80 baseball.
Dave Defreitas: Everybody is interested. Scouts are going over there all year this year to watch him. I think if a team tells you they're not interested, they're probably lying to you. You're talking about a young kid that's one of the best talents in the game, on the planet.
Ohtani told us he doesn't have an agent yet. But he's going to need one. His path to the Majors won't exactly be straightforward. A new collective bargaining agreement caps at $6 million what teams can pay any foreign player under the age of 25 – even those who, ritually, send balls dinging into the outfield seats. By coming before he turns 25, Ohtani could be leaving tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars on the table.
Jon Wertheim: The timing of when you come to the Majors could make a big, big, difference in terms of salary. Does that concern you?
Shohei Ohtani (translation): Personally, I don't care how much I get paid or how much less I get paid because of this.
This may be the rare case where it's not about the money. Rather, the deal with Ohtani may hinge on which team will let him keep pitching and hitting.
Jon Wertheim: You think he's in a position now where he can say to teams, "Listen, if you're not going to play me both ways, I'm probably not your guy,"
John Gibson: I think he won't even talk to them if they don't.
Jon Wertheim: Really?
John Gibson: I think he won't even have a meeting with them.
No matter where he ends up, it's hard to root against the great Ohtani experiment. Here in Sapporo, where his departure will be bittersweet, they'll be cheering the loudest.
This report was produced by Nathalie Sommer. Emily Hislop, associate producer.
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