Sports writers often dabble in hyperbole when describing athletes at the top of their game, but when it comes to Shohei Ohtani, the player they call “Shotime,” phrases like “once in a generation” and “the best baseball player ever” are written in earnest.

Why all the hype? Because almost nobody has come close to achieving what he has since the 1920s. This week on Deep Dive, Jason Coskrey and Dave Cortez speak with host Jason Jenkins about what makes Ohtani both an exceptional athlete and likable person, and they discuss what his success could mean for the game of baseball as a whole.

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Note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Jason Jenkins  0:22  

Hello deep dive listeners. This is Jason Jenkins, one of your new hosts here on the podcast team at The Japan Times. This week we're talking baseball. More specifically, we're talking about Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese phenomenon that has dominated the headlines of baseball for some time now. Sports writers often dabble in hyperbole when describing athletes at the top of their game, but when it comes to Shohei Ohtani, the player they call “Showtime,” phrases like “once in a generation” and “the best baseball player” ever are not an exaggeration. Indeed, Ohtani is regularly compared to players from the 1920s — people like Bullet Rogen from the Negro Leagues, and Babe Ruth, one of the most venerated players of all time. Why? Because almost no one in the past 100 years comes close to the same accomplishments. The 2022 Season of Major League Baseball has just drawn to a close, and with Ohtani signing a new contract, we thought this was the right time to discuss what all the hype is about. To get to the heart of the Ohtani story, I spoke with two of my Japan Times colleagues: sports writer Jason Coskrey and editor Dave Cortez. Let’s get into it. Whenever anyone talks about Shohei Ohtani, the concept of a “two-way player” invariably comes up. For those unfamiliar, a two-way player is exactly what it sounds like: instead of focusing on hitting or pitching, a two-way player specializes in both. Jason Coskrey covers baseball for The Japan Times and I asked him to explain what makes a two-way player so special in the first place.

Jason Coskrey  2:12  

Basically, in baseball, you either pitch or you hit — you don't really do both, even when you consider the National League used to have pitchers hitting, they weren't doing it very well. It was just sort of a thing they did because that's how baseball was created. And that was the rule that pitchers had to hit, and so they didn't really work on it. They weren't very good at it. So what Ohtani is doing is absolutely different. Usually, pitchers would hit at the very bottom of the lineup, where you put your worst hitter. Ohtani’s hitting number three, number four. Sometimes he bats lead off. Sometimes he bats second where you put your best hitters, and then he's pitching, which is just pretty much unprecedented. Nobody's doing what he's doing in baseball today. Nobody was doing what he’s doing in baseball 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, 60 years ago. I mean, you have some guys in the Negro Leagues who were doing it. That was out of necessity. You have Babe Ruth, who is basically the Mount Rushmore of baseball to a lot of people, but Babe Ruth didn't do it as long as Ohtani is doing it and he didn't do it as well as Ohtani is doing. So that's why.

Jason Jenkins  3:14  

Why have there been so few two-way players? Why aren't there dozens more throughout history? Why do we have to dig back to Babe Ruth and the Negro Leagues?

Jason Coskrey  3:24  

There's probably two reasons. The first reason is just that it's hard. I don't think — and I'm not a professional athlete myself — but I don't think the average person really appreciates just how hard it is to be a batter in Major League Baseball. To actually just hit a pitch, let alone hit a homerun or hit a double, triple whatever. And I don't think people appreciate exactly how hard it is to pitch. Just look at people who do first pitches and all the results you get from that. And those are just amateur people coming off the street throwing a ball and it's harder than you think. And from the mound to the plate is farther than you think. And to be able to manipulate the ball and throw the ball hard. It's really, really hard. So you have to train really, really hard to do both of those skills. And pitchers in America pitch once every five days, pitchers in Japan pitch once a week. It's taxing, it's strenuous. And then you pile the other one on top of that. So it's just so difficult to do it. The other one is just simply opportunity. Because I think it would be naive to say that Shohei Ohtani is the only player that could have done what he's doing. Because there have been just so many amazing athletes throughout Major League Baseball who probably, if they worked at it, could have pitched and hit if they were given an opportunity. But baseball is such a traditionalist sport that once, I guess, the sort of separation of pitcher and hitter got there, it stayed. And then as you kept going along in time, you've got financial considerations where I don't want to risk my million dollar, $20 million pitcher, batting. Maybe getting hit by a pitch. Maybe hurting himself on the base path, which Ohtani has done, hurt himself on the base path before. Maybe getting injured. And again, it's so taxing that usually starting pitchers are pitching once a week, once every five days. They're not hitting in between that. So teams just didn't want to take that risk. And then also no one thought anybody could do it.

Jason Jenkins  5:28  

It was interesting. You were talking about how pitchers take the mound maybe once a week. But Shohei would be pitching once a week, but then he would also be batting and playing other positions. Is that right?

Jason Coskrey  5:41  

Yeah, that's what he did in Japan. He’d take the day off before he hit, pitch the next day, take the day off after he pitched and get back to hitting. And pretty much said that in his first couple of years in the states, and then former (Los Angeles) Angels manager, Joe Maddon, basically took off the training wheels and said the day before you pitch you can hit, and the day after you pitch you can hit, and so he ended up basically playing almost every day. And so the curiosity of what he's doing and how well he's doing it is really what has fueled the fervor around him even among casual fans.

Jason Jenkins  6:16  

How well is Ohtani doing it? As we put this episode together, I turned to Dave Cortez for insight. In addition to being on the news desk and editing this podcast, Dave's also a baseball fanatic. He breaks down Shohei Ohtani’s achievements this way.

Dave Cortez  6:32  

So Shohei Ohtani is much more than just a two-way player. I mean, yeah, that's the remarkable thing about him, but it's really the level at which he's doing it. So I like to look at his 2021 season when it comes to hitting, that's the year he won the MVP. So he had 46 home runs, which was second among all the hitters, and he actually broke the Los Angeles Angels franchise for homeruns for left-handed batters. There's a really intricate baseball stat called OPS+, which basically tells you: is a batter hitting the ball often and far? And Ohtani was fifth in that category. So he's top-five and smashing baseballs — a lot. And of course, he's doing this while pitching well, and his 2021 season was good, but it's actually the 2022 season where his pitching really jumped up a notch. So since we're recording a few days before the end of the season — Ohtani actually gets one more start, so take these stats in stride — but he pitched over 160 innings through 27 games. And he has a 2.35 Earned Run Average with 15 wins. So in context, that means the Angels were able to count on him to pitch deep into games, secure wins, and opposing batters can barely get like two runs. Now these feats have obviously netted him many awards. He's a two-time All-Star, an MVP, like I said, a rookie of the year. But of course, he's starting to rack up the MLB records. Many of his records, for example, are ones that Babe Ruth doesn't have or no longer has. And so again, it's not that he's a two-way player. It's that he's a fantastic two-way player. That's what matters.

Jason Jenkins  8:03  

Beyond the statistics, Ohtani is an outlier in other ways. In addition to his athletic talent, he carries himself with a modest, almost egoless charm rarely seen in the elite levels of sports. Here's how Dave puts it.

Dave Cortez  8:18  

So one of the things that I love most about Ohtani is that he kind of carries himself like a kid having the best day of his life, you know, but then he's also extremely serious about what he's doing at the same time. You see him smiling on the mound or in the batter's box. He's playing pranks in the dugout and then he's picking up trash on the field and apologizing for hitting batters with a pitch. I mean, I encourage anyone to go watch this really great GQ interview. It's called 10 Things Shohei Ohtani Can't Live Without. It's an interview series that they do, so he's not the only one. But you know, they do famous athletes and you know, other artists and professionals. And the interesting thing is, many of them kind of flaunt like a watch or something expensive but Ohtani is like the consummate professional. He's like, “Here is my pillow. It helps me sleep and get ready for the game. Here's my bat. It's my main tool for doing damage to baseballs. Here's my arm-icing machine so I can recover better for pitching.” I mean, it's just absolutely amazing. I mean, it's cliche to say, but clearly he eats, sleeps and breathes baseball. It's awesome.

Jason Jenkins  9:26  

What Dave is getting at here is Ohtani's almost reverent approach to the game. He's very likable — he waves at young fans and jokes around with his teammates — but fans and teammates alike often talk about his commitment to baseball in near-spiritual terms. While researching this piece, the phrase “baseball monk” came up more than once. Just one way some fans and sports writers use to express his devotion to baseball.

Jason Coskrey  9:51  

Well Ohtani, that's him. He just had a singular focus, which was baseball and that's what he does. I mean, respect for the game: some of that is cultural. If you go to a Japanese game, a pro game, some of the players, when they come out, you'll see them take a bow to the field. Not everyone does that. Some of them will bow when they leave the field. They'll walk off, turn around, bow. Ichiro Suzuki was pretty famous for how meticulous he was about caring for his bats, because that was his instrument. That's what he did. That was his tool. And he really took care of them to an extreme level. But some of that's just also Ohtani because not everybody in Japan does all that stuff. But that's just him.

Jason Jenkins  10:45  

Shohei Ohtani may be a superstar today, but like many famous athletes before him, he has humble beginnings. I asked Jason Coskrey to share a few details about his background.

Jason Coskrey  10:56  

He's from a town called Oshu in Iwate prefecture. His dad was an industrial-league player; he played for the company team. His mom was also a really good athlete — she played badminton. He played little league. I know his dad was worried that his pitches were kind of all over the place. And his dad was worried about his command and those sorts of things. And then he matriculated to Hanamaki Higashi High School, where I guess he had a growth spurt and he was just, you know, kind of a supreme athlete there. And he threw 100 miles an hour, and that really got a lot of people's attention because you've got a high school kid doing this. That drew the attention of Major League scouts. That drew the attention of NPB scouts. And he became a star high school player.

Jason Jenkins  11:43  

And what were his moves after high school and maybe talk about how he got involved with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Jason Coskrey  11:51  

Well, after high school, Ohtani had decided that he was going to the major leagues. That's what he was doing. That was his dream. That's where he was going. And he told everyone in Nippon Professional Baseball to not draft him because he was going to North America. And what happened was, during the draft, the Fighters drafted him anyway, because that's the kind of thing the Fighters do. It was really risky because unlike in MLB, where you may get a compensatory pick, when you can't sign a draft pick in Japan, you get nothing. So this actually happened to the Fighters the year before. Tomoyuki Sugano, a really, really good pitcher, had come out. He was the nephew of the Yomiuri Giants manager, Tatsunori Hara. I don't know if Sugano never actually came out and said it, but it was sort of an unofficial thing: don't draft him because he's not going to sign and you're going to be left with nothing because he only wants to go to the Giants. When of course, the Fighters drafted him. And basically — unlike in the U.S. — in Japan, the draft is basically a lottery. Teams can name the same player and so the Giants and the Fighters named Sugano. The Fighters won the lottery, Sugano didn't sign and just sat out a baseball for a year and the Fighters had nothing to show for it. So you come back the next year, and Ohtani says “Don't draft me.” And you know, that's the risk the Fighters decided to take. And so they drafted him anyway.

Jason Jenkins  13:10  

That's a big gamble. Would other teams have done that? Or I have the impression that the Fighters — or at least the management behind the Fighters — have a unique take on baseball or managing. Is that a fair assessment? Were their other teams that would have done something like that?

Jason Coskrey  13:25  

Um, no other team would have done it. I think we can say definitively, because no other team did it. Everyone had a chance to put their name in the hat for Ohtani, and none of them did. And so, basically, that's kind of how the Fighters are there. They're not … if there's a box that all the other Japanese teams are in, the Fighters are out of it. Which is, again, why they drafted Ohtani and Sugano — when there was a risk that other teams were not willing to take, and they took it. That's kind of the kind of team the Fighters are. And then they let him play two ways, which then sort of forced him to…

Jason Jenkins  14:01  

Yeah, that's one of the ways that the fighters are unique. They're the only ones who drafted him when he said not to draft him, but then offering two ways was unprecedented in a lot of ways.

Jason Coskrey  14:15  

Well it was the carrot they were dangling in front of him, because he had the leverage of saying, “Well, if you don't let me do this, then I'm just going to go to North America and you get nothing.”

Jason Jenkins  14:26  

By all accounts, the Fighters’ gamble paid off big time, and by enticing Ohtani to become a two-way player in Japan before moving to the major leagues, the Fighters set him on a career path that almost no one in a century has come close to. He rose to the top of the Japanese League, and once eligible to move to the MLB, the Los Angeles Angels came knocking. Was he a star from the get-go? Here's Dave with a breakdown.

Dave Cortez  14:54  

So once the Angels acquired Ohtani in 2018, the league was abuzz. Who's this new Japanese phenom? I mean, we've heard about him, but how's it gonna go? Are the Angels going to deploy him in the same two-way method that the Nippon Ham Fighters did? If it doesn't go, well, are they going to force him to pick a side? And then he has a little bit of a slow spring training start, and the microscope is really on him, but you know, we don't know who he is, at that point. What kind of player do we have? And then he goes out and has his first start of the season against the Oakland A's, pitches six solid innings. And everybody was kind of like, okay, I think he's got the goods. He goes on to smack 22 home runs that season and win Rookie of the Year. And then something even more interesting happens: he gets what some people think could be the kiss of death in baseball, which is called Tommy John surgery. This happens in the middle of 2019, and shuts his season down, and he is forced into a rehab period while his elbow recovers. But it's almost like a blessing that the truncated 2020 pandemic season happened. I mean, one could argue that it gave him time to recover, because by the time 2021 comes around, and baseball's back full time, he is on top of his game. This is when you start seeing GQ interviews and an MVP season. And he even becomes the cover athlete for the wildly popular MLB The Show video game. I mean, imagine little kids holding that video game cover or getting to be Shohei Ohtani and hit home runs. And I mean, his legend only deepens from there. So here we are, and he is what he's hyped up to be. It's real.

Jason Jenkins  16:47 

Now that we've covered Shohei Ohtani's ascent to the top of baseball, let's talk about where he is today. At the time of recording, the season is just about to conclude. Here's Dave again to break down the biggest storylines surrounding the man they call “Showtime.”

Dave Cortez  17:02  

When Ohtani won the American League MVP award last year, it basically started a bit of a debate in baseball. And you know, baseball has its conventions. And the award-giving is no different. There's that kind of a “just the way we've always done things” kind of mentality. So you know, pitchers have their own award. It's called the Cy Young Award. It's very prestigious. And it's not to say that pitchers have never won the MVP. But basically, in recent decades, it's kind of an unspoken idea that the MVP is usually given to the best offensive player. I mean, this is not a hard and fast rule but that's kind of the convention. So what do you do with a guy like Ohtani? I mean, the general feeling is, that if he has a good but maybe not elite offensive year, tied to a good pitching performance, how can you not consider that the best player in the league, simply because he's doing both for his team? I mean, last year, the baseball writers who vote on MVP didn't have much trouble giving it to Shohei because he had an amazing offensive season. But this year, you have a 6’7” Yankee breaking home run records by the name of Aaron Judge, who also has the great character and personality that Shohei does. So the baseball world is asking itself: What exactly is an MVP? You know, Judge leads in most, if not all offensive categories. He is on a historic 61 (perhaps more) home run season, and he's a Yankee. So it's well known that baseball writers have what's called an East Coast bias because that's the media Mecca and you know, the historic center of the game. But over on the West Coast, you have perhaps the greatest living baseball player of all time, doing elite level things on the mound and elite level things at the plate. I mean, what are you going to do? Are you going to give him the Cy Young Award for pitchers? If you give him the MVP, are you going to ignite a revolt among Yankees fans? I mean, this is the kind of stuff that sports drama is made of. And to be frank, we're all extremely privileged just to witness it.

Jason Jenkins  19:08  

There's another kind of sports drama playing out around Ohtani. Here's Jason Coskrey again. Tell us about the Angels, Ohtani’s team.

Jason Coskrey  19:16  

They're not any good. They're really bad and then they're usually really bad and it's really surprising because they have good players a lot of the time. They’ve got Mike Trout, who is I guess … if Ohtani is a generational talent, Mike Trout was before him. Although they're kind of the same generation. Anyway, Mike Trout is regarded as one of the best players in history already. And he's basically been toiling away in obscurity for the Angels. Relative obscurity: baseball people obviously know who Mike Trout is, but the wider public may not because he's only been in the playoffs once because the Angels just can't find a way to win. And they paired another generational talent in Shohei Ohtani with Mike Trout, and they still aren't winning. They got Anthony Rendon, another really good player who they signed for a lot of money, and they haven't been winning. They signed Albert Pujols, who was recently in the news for hitting his 700th home run. They had him after he was one of the best players in history with the St. Louis Cardinals and they still didn't win. So they're kind of perpetually in the lower half of the standings.

Jason Jenkins  20:22  

Knowing this, many have speculated that Ohtani would move on to a different team. But with his one-year, $30 million contract extension only a few weeks old, it's safe to say that he'll stick around LA for the time being. It allows the Angels to hold off deciding whether or not to keep Ohtani long-term. They can kick that can down the road for another year. So with all the hype, the accolades and now the contract, Ohtani is in good hands. But what about the fate of baseball itself? Is it in good hands? Some say Ohtani's impact on the game is helping revive a sport that struggles on occasion to put fans in seats. I asked Jason what he thinks about the state of baseball, and if it indeed needs saving.

Jason Coskrey  21:06  

Baseball doesn't need saving. Baseball has lost ground in terms of popularity to American football. But so has everything else. There's nothing that hasn't lost ground to football. The NBA is good play on the court and the NBA is popular. And then the NBA also has drama, and drama gets clicks. Drama sells papers. Drama makes people tune in to see what talking heads on television are talking about. And baseball doesn't really have that. Baseball is a very regional sport in a lot of ways. People who like the Atlanta Braves are watching the Atlanta Braves and the AL least. They may not necessarily care about what the Angels are doing, or what other American League teams are doing. Whereas with the NBA, if you like the Atlanta Hawks, you may still watch the Los Angeles Lakers. You may still watch the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's just more … I guess basketball is a little bit more connected. Football has the fantasy football aspect and the gambling aspect which really helped it shoot up the charts. And baseball is not as digestible as those other sports and that's what they're trying to do by you know, making the games take less time — less than three hours — because young people it seems aren't watching baseball games for three hours. And baseball games can stretch to however many hours because there's no time limit or no innings limit. So it doesn't need saving. It needs modernizing, which is one of the things Ohtani is doing because he's drawing more casual people to the game because he's such a unique figure that people are watching.

Jason Jenkins 22:47

Once again, special thanks to Jason Coskery and Dave Cortez for stepping up to the plate for my first episode as host of Deep Dive. For more of Jason's baseball coverage at The Japan Times, we'll include a link to his work in the show notes. 

Since recording this episode, the Yankees’ Aaron Judge ended his season with 62 home runs, breaking the decades old American League record for a single season, and Shohei Ohtani became the first player in the major leagues World Series era to qualify for the leaderboards as both a hitter and a pitcher. The MVPs will be announced in November. 

Also in The Japan Times this week, staff writer Gabriel Dominguez writes about the recent spate of missile tests out of North Korea, and how they are leading to increased cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the United States. Tim Hornyak tells the story of Japan's trains, as the country marks the 150th anniversary of its railway system. Kathryn Wortley talked to Japanese farmers about the so-called “wagyu Olympics,” which are turning into something of a PR powerhouse for this country's premier beef products. But of course, the biggest story this week is that Japan is once again open to independent tourism, ending a border policy that essentially sealed the country off from travelers for two and a half years. Links to our coverage are in the show notes. For more stories like these, please consider a subscription to The Japan Times.

Thank you everyone for listening. We’ll be back next week — so until then, podtsukaresama.

This episode was edited by Dave Cortez. Our theme song is by LLLL. And our outro song is by Oscar Boyd.