Baseball / MLB

Shohei Ohtani's MLB fireworks wow Japanese baseball world

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were busy preparing to face the Chiba Lotte Marines on Saturday afternoon when the events happening at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, reached the visitors’ clubhouse at Zozo Marine Stadium in Chiba.

Shohei Ohtani, their former teammate who is in his first season in MLB, had just hit another home run for the Los Angeles Angels.

“I know, I just showed all the guys,” third baseman Brandon Laird said excitedly after finishing up in the batting cage.

In the dugout, reporters pulled out their phones to check for video of Ohtani’s fourth MLB homer. On Twitter, former Fighters pitcher Anthony Bass, now a Chicago Cub, was incredulous. “Ummmmm . . . . . how???” he tweeted over a clip of Ohtani turning on a 97-mph (156-kph) inside fastball from New York Yankees pitcher Luis Severino.

Fighters pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa was caught unaware.

“He hit one?” a surprised Uwasawa asked. “Wow, amazing.”

That’s pretty much been everybody else’s reaction, too.

What else is there to say about a player who can throw 101 mph (162.5 kph) on the mound, the fastest pitch by a starter in the majors this season, multiple times on Tuesday and then muscle out a big league fastball an estimated 410 feet (125 meters) on Friday?

“If he was going to be able to perform with 100 percent of what he’d gained during his five years in Japan, I thought he’d do pretty well,” Satoru Komiyama, who pitched in NPB for 18 seasons and for the New York Mets in 2002, told The Japan Times last week.

“But since he just moved (to the U.S.) where he didn’t have any experience, I’ve been impressed that he’s been able to play and adjust to everything this much,” added Komiyama, currently an MLB analyst for public broadcaster NHK.

There has been no shortage of people impressed by Ohtani’s electrifying start in MLB. Including the players who used to see the show up close.

“It’s cool just showing them,” said Laird, who played with Ohtani for three seasons. “They’re all excited. Because obviously he played for the Fighters, but he’s from Japan and he’s playing in the major leagues. They’re excited and they want him to do well. They watch all his at-bats on TV.

“Doing what he’s doing over there on the mound and hitting, I’m happy for him and I just wish him the best of luck in his career.”

Ohtani’s ambitious quest to become a two-way player in the majors began in Japan with the Fighters after the 2012 draft. The team aided his pursuit, and Ohtani made it work so well he was named both the Pacific League’s top pitcher and top designated hitter in 2016, as well as PL MVP. Overall he was 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA as a pitcher and hit .286 with 48 homers in Japan.

Now in MLB, he’s trying to do something not seen since Babe Ruth was a two-way star for the Boston Red Sox in 1919. Ohtani hit a snag on Friday, suffering a mildly sprained ankle, but has been impressive overall.

On the mound, Ohtani is 2-1 with a 4.43 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 20⅓ innings. At the plate, he’s hitting .341 with four homers and a 1.065 on-base plus slugging percentage in 47 plate appearances.

One of the most talked-about parts of his game has been the split-finger fastball he’s been dominant with as a pitcher.

“It’s just hard because of the movement it has,” Laird said of the splitter. “Sometimes you take a guy like (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks righty Kodai) Senga, he throws it really hard and it’s almost like a knuckleball, and it drops. Ohtani, he throws 100 (mph) and his split-finger I think it’s at 91. Some guys’ fastball is at 91, and now it has movement and it drops? I mean, that’s just a tough pitch to handle.”

Other Japanese pitchers have successfully used the splitter in the majors, including current stars Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka.

“I think it’s a little early to make a comparison with them because Ohtani hasn’t faced many hitters yet,” Komiyama said. “It appears to be working, but it’s not that easy. He’s only shut down Oakland so far, and you never know what’s going to happen. Yet considering his potential, he has good velocity. Plus, if he’s able to command his fastball and splitters knee-high, he isn’t going to get hit too often. So I think he has the potential to keep holding down the hitters he’ll face going forward.”

As a batter, Ohtani dropping the leg kick he arrived with has improved his timing and, as the home runs show, he’s still able to generate power.

“He’s really cool to work with, because he’s so coachable,” Angels hitting coach Eric Hinske said in an interview with Fox Sports West on April 13. “. . . it’s been going well so far, I’m just trying to keep him in a consistent position to drive the baseball.”

So far, so good.

“Although I said at the beginning I’m high on his pitching ability, having seen him hit as well as he has, it’s natural to want to see him continue to hit,” Komiyama said.

“It should stand out that he throws 100 miles per hour even after 100, 110 pitches, plus he can throw breaking balls. But I saw him in person in Oakland. The balls he hit were just astonishing. You see (Mike) Trout and (Albert) Pujols, but he was hitting it further than those guys. It makes you think maybe they should prioritize his hitting. I was genuinely surprised.”

Komiyama still expects things to get tougher for Ohtani. He said the young star will have to adjust to the travel and the time zones in the U.S, among other things, and noted he’ll also have to adjust mentally.

“When you pitch and hit against strong teams, your adrenaline naturally rises a little and maybe it causes extra fatigue, even if you’re aware of it,” Komiyama said. “As he faces bigger names as a pitcher, he’s going to have the mind-set to want to hold them down. When he in the batter’s box facing star pitchers . . . he could overexert himself.

“It’s better for him to not get like that, but you can’t look for perfection in his first year, including mentally. Personally, I think it’d be beneficial for him to experience a lot of errors in his first year.”

The 23-year-old from Oshu, Iwate Prefecture, also has to deal with the unrelenting spotlight that comes with being the most hyped rookie the majors has ever seen — to say nothing of the attention he’s still receiving at home.

“That’s been the case since he was in Japan, but I think he’s aware of the high expectations others have of him,” Komiyama said. “The Angels weren’t regarded highly going into the season, but they’re in a good spot right now and I think it has a lot to do with him. Regardless of how old he is, he’s expected to be one of the main guys on the team, and it’s working out well for him.

“Everyone knows he’s eventually going to hit some bumps in the road, because he doesn’t have a lot of experience, and we’ll see how he’ll handle that. But it’s natural for him to go through a lot of trials because this is his rookie year. I’d like to see how his teammates are going to support him during those times.”

So far, what Ohtani has done is cause many to reconsider what’s possible on the diamond.

“I thought it was worth trying, but considering his abilities, I was higher on him as a pitcher,” Komiyama said of Ohtani as a two-way player. “So I was thinking he’ll eventually focus on pitching while making time to hit a little. But having seen how he’s started his career over there, the whole of America has been enjoying this phenomenon and comparing him to Babe Ruth with various numbers and all that. So I think he’s going to continue (as a two-way player) for a while.”

Komiyama, however impressed he is by Ohtani’s hitting, still thinks he can be one of the greats on the mound.

“It depends on what he’s aiming at,” Komiyama said. “Perhaps right now he’s enjoying playing baseball and wearing the Angels jersey. I personally fell in love with his pitching ability, and I think eventually his objective will be to pitch on four or five days’ rest and pitch 200 innings.

“But having seen him hit as comfortably as he has, I can’t dismiss the idea he’s going to say, ‘I’m bored with pitching, so I’ll concentrate on hitting completely.’ I mean, it’s surprising that the batted balls he launches are flying further than some of the best major leaguers, and it makes you think it’s too hard to completely abandon that. He’s been getting a lot of praise (for hitting) and I think Ohtani is probably thinking, ‘I’m good as a hitter as well.’

“But if I were a coach standing right next to him, I’d tell him, ‘you’re hitting well by chance, so just focus on pitching,’ ” he added with a laugh.

Staff Writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.