Around this time four years ago, during the last tour of Japan by major league players, the MLB world at large got its first real glimpse of Shohei Ohtani.
After pitching an inning of relief in the opener of that 2014 Nichibei Yakyu series, Ohtani, starting on his home mound at Sapporo Dome, struck out seven of the major leaguers in Game 5. He allowed two unearned runs and took the loss.
It was clear then Ohtani was destined for MLB, and he realized that dream this season with the Los Angeles Angels. He was so good, in fact, he was named the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year on Monday, becoming the first Japanese player to win the honor since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. He’s the fourth Japanese winner overall, also joining Hideo Nomo (1995) and Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000). Ohtani received 25 of the 30 first-place votes.
“I’m really happy to have accomplished this in my first year,” Ohtani said on MLB Network Monday. “I think the people who supported me are also happy, so I’m grateful for that.”
A couple of the major leaguers, now Ohtani’s contemporaries, currently in Japan for the Japan All-Star Series reflected on his dazzling introduction to MLB.
“I think he outperformed what I expected to be honest,” said Texas Rangers reliever Chris Martin, who played with Ohtani in 2016 and 2017 with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. “I thought he was going to go over there and pitch and be good right away and I thought his hitting would struggle for a little bit and then he’d start to figure it out a little bit.
“But man, once spring training was done and the season started, he really took off.”
Ohtani’s spring training numbers were underwhelming as he focused on adjusting to MLB. That led to a lot of doubt and a wave of premature proclamations about his ability to cut it in majors from some U.S. observers.
Ohtani silenced the doubters with an amazing rookie campaign, playing much of it as the first true two-way player MLB has seen since the days of Babe Ruth.
Ohtani hit .285 with 22 homers and a .925 on-base plus slugging percentage in 367 plate appearances. He also had 10 stolen bases. Before suffering a UCL injury that ended his season on the mound, Ohtani had posted a 3.31 ERA and 11 strikeouts per nine innings in 51 2/3 innings. He was 4-2 with 63 strikeouts in 10 starts.
He was the first player since Babe Ruth to pitch 50 innings and hit 15 homers.
“Very smooth,” San Francisco Giants bench coach Hensley Meulens, in Japan as part of the MLB coaching staff, said of Ohtani’s transition. “Everybody thought it was going to be hard to do and nobody has done it since Babe Ruth and all that. But he’s proven that he’s an A-class talent and they don’t come along too often. Too bad he hurt his arm, but I’m sure he’s going to get back and pitch in 2020. For the time being we have to deal with him hitting only.
“But that was fun to watch. He made a lot of Japanese people proud by playing both sides. It’s the hardest thing to do, especially as competitive as that division (the AL West) is, and he found a way to hit in that division. Hat’s off to him.”
Ohtani’s year captivated fans and fellow players alike.
“I thought that was really cool,” said Kansas City Royals pitcher Scott Barlow. “I had the experience to watch him throw when we traveled to Los Angeles. Everybody, it seemed like, was up against the rail watching intently. Every fan seems to come and watch him pitch. He’s just really special and can throw really hard and has really excellent off-speed stuff. He’s definitely really special.”
Even those watching from afar were left impressed.
“Didn’t get to see a lot of Shohei being in the National League, but what I saw in highlights and everything, he’s going to be a really special talent for a very long time,” said Kike Hernandez of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Martin and the Rangers play in the AL West, so he’s had a good view as his former teammate hit the ground running in MLB.
“I think he’s really taking it in and he’s learning a lot and just trying to get better every day,” Martin said. “You can see that. He’s a lot of fun to watch, I’m glad he’s in my division.
“Obviously he took me deep and got me a loss (on Sept. 27). But you wanna face guys like that. That’s why we play, we want to face the best. We want to compete against the best, it’s makes us better.”