The Los Angeles Angels were preparing for a series against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in May 2018, Shohei Ohtani’s first year in MLB, when Jose Mota, a former major leaguer and longtime member of the broadcast crew, went to have a word with his producers.
“I said listen, I don’t know if you guys are going to be at lunch when Shohei is hitting BP, but we need to film that,” Mota told The Japan Times. “We need to have that on tape.”
It was a good thing they listened. In scenes reminiscent of the 2016 afternoon when he left the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in awe during batting practice at Tokyo Dome — hitting the scoreboard will do that — Ohtani put on a show. He hit one ball so hard, according to MLB.com, it left a mark on a railing in the upper deck.
“People are enjoying their pregame drinks and all of a sudden, there’s a ball dropping like, ‘What? How did this ball land over here?’” Mota recalled. “So just think about what the All-Star Game is going to be like during that derby, oh my goodness.”
There is no shortage of fans, and probably some players too, who can’t wait to see what Ohtani, who turned 27 on Monday, pulls off during this year’s All-Star festivities, which will be held at Coors Field. He has already ensured it will be a historic occasion by becoming the first player in history to be named an All-Star as both a pitcher and batter — Ohtani is the American League’s starting designated hitter.
“The guy’s going to participate in the Home Run Derby, pitch in the game and hit in the game. That doesn’t happen like, ever,” Angels manager Joe Maddon was quoted as saying by The Associated Press on Sunday. “So this is the one time even the non-baseball fan can really latch onto this and become interested.”
It’s all part of the Shohei Ohtani Show: A thrill ride filled with home runs, devastating splitters, a helmet that won’t stay on, a star who oozes charisma and a seemingly almost-daily redefining of what everyone thought was possible.
Ohtani is the most interesting player in baseball — and it’s not close.
“I grew up in the game with my father being a 20-year big leaguer,” Mota said. “This is the most talented all-around player I have ever seen. Overall, there is nobody that has ever touched the big leagues like Shohei Ohtani.”
Ohtani hit his MLB-leading 31st home run of the season on Sunday to match Hideki Matsui’s single-season record for the most by a Japanese player, a mark he equaled with an entire half of the season left to play. He’s also leading the majors with 52 extra-base hits. Ohtani is second in slugging percentage (.695), third in on-base plus slugging percentage (1.058), and also has 12 stolen bases.
That’s just as a hitter.
“He’s definitely a special player in this league,” Baltimore Orioles pitcher Thomas Eshelman said after allowing Ohtani’s homer on Sunday. “He’s doing things that have never been done before.”
Ohtani also has 83 strikeouts, a 3.60 ERA, a 1.27 WHIP and a 3-1 record in 12 starts as a pitcher. He’s the first player in MLB history to hit 20 home runs and have at least 70 strikeouts as a pitcher in the same year.
Ohtani is doing things not seen since the Negro Leagues. In MLB, he’s in such uncharted territory the phrase “is the first player since Babe Ruth” could be permanently affixed to his name.
It’s no wonder fans can’t get enough of him.
“What he’s doing is kind of unheard of,” Maddon said during his media availability on Friday, after watching Ohtani hit two homers against the Orioles before stealing a base in the ninth and later sliding home before the tag to score the winning run from second.
“Complete game. Every time he swings the bat it looks like it could be a home run, patience to draw a walk, really an aggressive, astute baserunner; and then he pitches.”
After struggling through an abbreviated 2020 season at the plate, Ohtani, who is batting .277, has faced pitchers with renewed fire in 2021.
“He’s more comfortable because he understood last year how they were pitching to him,” Mota said. “He understood he was moving his feet too much. The league knew about it, they exploited him and he struggled. What he did in the offseason is add a disciplined approach to what he needed to improve on.”
Ohtani the pitcher can hit triple digits with his fastball, but has molded his split-finger fastball into a pitch hitters actively try to avoid. In May, MLB.com’s David Adler called it the “most unhittable pitch in baseball.”
“He knows how to locate that pitch,” Mota said. “A lot of guys who throw splitters are, ‘I’m gonna just drop it, middle of the plate, I just need the ball to drop.’ Shohei knows how he wants his catcher to receive it — it’s like he knows every detail, everything.
“On top of location, he knows how to release it on speed. His fastball you have to respect, so you have to commit. When you see something that looks slower and hittable, as a hitter you think, ‘Oh there it is, it’s not coming in as hard as his fastball,’ and before you know it, it’s out of the zone.
“He makes it look like a strike all the way until the ball is just around the hitting zone and it just disappears.”
Ohtani’s influence hasn’t been limited to the field. His starting spot in the All-Star Game is the result of fan voting, and his popularity keeps rising, as evidenced by the fact he is one of six players on a series of large pictures outside the new MLB office in New York. On Monday, the Angels held a giveaway for pillows covered with photos of Ohtani’s face. According to a tweet by ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez, the demand was so great “security wondered whether they should open the gates earlier than usual.”
“The impact has been tremendous,” Mota said. “All around our division, I notice, even in marketing and promoting when the Angels come to town, you’re seeing more Japanese ads around baseball because of him. Just like what happened with Ichiro.”
Both the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in NPB and the Angels carefully monitored Ohtani’s playing time to protect him from the grind of pitching and hitting. He had Tommy John surgery in October 2018, didn’t pitch in 2019 and made it through just 1⅔ innings in 2020 as a pitcher. Now healthy again, Ohtani has finally become the fabled two-way star he was billed as from the beginning.
Mota gives the credit to Ohtani for understanding his body, and to the emphasis Maddon and his staff have put on listening to the young star.
“I talked with Shohei about various things last offseason,” Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama told NHK in an interview aired last month. “This year is the first year I felt he would be able to compete with everything he’s got.”
The chance to be a two-way player helped Ohtani choose to join the Fighters rather than attempt to move to MLB out of high school after being drafted in 2012. He provided a preview to his current exploits in 2016, when he was a near-unanimous choice as Pacific League MVP — Fighters reliever Naoki Miyanishi got the only other first-place vote. He was also named to the PL Best Nine team as both pitcher and DH after NPB tweaked the rules with him in mind.
“The talent just jumped off the screen when we were scouting him and recruiting him,” former Angels manager Mike Scioscia told The Japan Times. “We’d never seen him play in person, but once you got to know Shohei and saw him play on a daily basis, you knew the talent was real.”
Maddon has freed Ohtani from past restrictions and unleashed him fully. So much so the Angels routinely give up the DH when Ohtani pitches so he can hit for himself. He’s also moved from the mound to the outfield a couple of times to keep his bat in the lineup longer.
Ohtani started a game as both a hitter and a pitcher in MLB for the first time against the Chicago White Sox on April 5. He homered in his first at-bat and hit 100 mph (161 kph) on the radar gun nine times while striking out 10 over 4⅔ innings. He pulled off a similar trick in Japan in 2016, homering on the very first pitch as the leadoff batter against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks before fanning 10 in eight scoreless frames.
“This is Little League stuff,” Maddon said on July 1, according to Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register. “You’re the best player on the team. You hit and you pitch and you’re the first in line for the ice cream cone.”
With nothing holding him back, Ohtani is flourishing.
“It’s hard to even fathom,” Mota said. “Because playing in the big leagues is not easy, and he found that out himself. But to be able to do it, and not just since the season started, but since Day 1 of spring training he has been playing and hitting and pitching at the same level. That’s a lot of baseball, that’s a lot of wear on your body, but there is no slowing him down as of right now.
“He’s having a good time, which to me is almost the best part about it. This is not a burden on him, like ‘Oh my God, I gotta do all these things and now people expect this and that.’ He’s enjoying the heck out of this. That’s so refreshing.”
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