Baseball / MLB

Shohei Ohtani reflects on successful first year in Major League Baseball

by Jason Coskrey

STAFF WRITER

A little over a year ago, Nov. 11, 2017, to be exact, Shohei Ohtani strode into a room full of journalists at the Japan National Press Club and told the world he was ready to head to MLB and hoped to one day become the best baseball player in the world.

The Los Angeles Angels star was back in that same room Thursday morning — facing 312 writers, 31 television cameras and 30 photographers — to reflect on a whirlwind rookie season in MLB that ended with him as the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year.

“When I came here a year ago, I was determined to perform as well as I could,” Ohtani said. “It’s been one year since then and I think I was able to have a satisfactory and enjoyable season. After the season, I felt it was a good year and I have a lot of things to build upon for next year.”

Ohtani turned baseball convention on its ear in 2018 as he embarked on a quest to be the first successful two-way player in the majors since the days of Babe Ruth.

At the plate, Ohtani, who was the designated hitter in 82 games, batted .285 with 22 home runs, 61 RBIs and a .925 on-base plus slugging percentage in 367 plate appearances. He also stole 10 bases. On the mound, Ohtani made 10 starts and posted a 3.31 ERA and 1.16 walks plus hits per innings pitched in 51 2/3 innings. He finished 4-2 and struck out 63 batters.

He was the first player since Ruth in 1919 to pitch 50 innings and hit 15 homers in the same season.

“I get compared to him often, but to me he’s like something from a myth,” Ohtani said. “His presence is so surreal, I can’t really grasp it. I know of the numbers he had, but considering where I am as a player, I’m not in a position to think about him yet.

“Hopefully I can get closer to him year by year, but right now, I can’t honestly think about it too much.”

Ohtani’s two-way pursuit was cut short on Sept. 6, when an MRI revealed damage to his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, leading doctors to recommended Tommy John surgery and ending his season as a pitcher. That same night, Ohtani went 4-for-4 and hit two home runs in a win over the Texas Rangers.

After going over the options regarding his elbow, Ohtani decided to finish the season as a hitter before having surgery, which he underwent Oct. 1. He won’t pitch again until the 2020 season.

“I was a little reluctant to have surgery on my elbow and I thought it would be better if I could avoid it,” Ohtani said. “But looking at the long term, I thought it’d be best to be fully healthy and able to perform at my best on the mound. That’s when I thought the surgery was necessary.”

He said his recovery has been smooth.

“It hasn’t quite been two months, but I haven’t had any problems in my daily life,” he said. “For the first month or so, I felt like I couldn’t use my right arm the way I wanted, but I don’t feel like there are any problems now.”

The 2018 season was a learning experience for Ohtani, who had to adjust to a lot on the fly.

“I would say the technical part is the biggest thing,” he said of the difference between MLB and NPB. “You probably notice it’s lot different physically, but their technical acumen was more advanced than I had imagined and they’re using so many advanced techniques.

“So in order to fit in, I need to keep evolving. It took me a lot of time to think that way. I wanted to do things the way I always had. So I had a lot of internal conflict.”

His transition was aided by his Angels teammates, who created a positive environment for him. Nearly every MLB wanted to sign Ohtani once he was posted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters last winter. The star whittled down his list and met with seven clubs before signing with the Angels, to the surprise of some.

“My first impression was the team had a lot of good people and I would be able to learn from them,” Ohtani said. “I imagine they were trying to take care of me (during the season), so my impression hasn’t changed at all. It’s a good team, and I’m glad I was able to come to this kind of team.

“There are a lot of star players who I was inspired by. But I would say Mike Trout is one of the best players in baseball. Both technically and as a person, he’s a good person. I have nothing but positive things to say about him.”

Ohtani made his MLB debut on March 29 against the Oakland Athletics and went 1-for-5 at the plate. He made his pitching debut against the A’s on April 1 and picked up his first win, allowing three runs and striking out six over six innings.

Ohtani played his first home game on April 3 and hit a homer off the Cleveland Indians’ Josh Tomlin in his first at-bat at Angel Stadium.

“In terms of pitching, I remember I was so nervous on the mound,” Ohtani said of his first MLB start. “So rather than having a good result or not, I remember the game that way. Hitting-wise, I was so pleased I was able to hit a home run in my first at-bat at home.”

He continued to impress over the course of the season. He was AL Rookie of the Month in April and September and was named AL Player of the Week for the weeks of April 8 and Sept. 9. He then garnered 25 of the 30 first-place votes in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.

“I didn’t know how my skills would play until I got there,” Ohtani said. “But I had the confidence of having played in Japan for five years. Considering the level I was at, wanting to win it was something that was in the back of my mind when I went there.

“But when I got there, I saw how high the level was, and I felt you still had to do your best regardless of what you’ve done in the past. I think that paid off and I was able to win it and please so many people.”

Ohtani captivated baseball fans by being both a very good batter and pitcher. He plans to remain a two-way player when he returns to the mound in 2020, but hasn’t ruled out a more conventional role in the future.

“It’s rare to take this path right from the start, and I’m not going to think about that now,” he said. “Maybe I’ll eventually narrow it down to one or the other naturally, but for now, I’m not thinking about that at all.”

Now back in Japan, Ohtani will continue with his recovery and maybe take it easy a little.

“I want to eat delicious sushi,” he said of his plans in Japan. “I don’t really have anything else I want to do. Right now, I need to focus on my rehab, whether I’m in America or Japan.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.