As Los Angeles Angels rookie Shohei Otani’s historic week concluded, baseball fans everywhere searched for some sort of context for the Japanese two-way wunderkind. Due to his newfound American fame and the throng of 100+ Japanese reporters that follow his every move, Ohtani will have more words written and spoken about him than any other player this season.
However, there are only so many words, in any language, that can describe an opening week like this:
Shohei Ohtani's Week
Tuesday: 3-for-4, Homer, 2 runs, 3 RBI
Wednesday: 2-for-5, Homer, Run, 2 RBI
Friday: 1-for-4, Homer, BB, Run, 2 RBI
Sunday: Perfect game into 7th, 7 shutout innings, 1 hit allowed, 12 strikeouts
— James Santelli, The Lost Royal Baby (@JamesSantelli) April 8, 2018
Home Run. Home Run. Home Run. Shutout with 12 K’s.
It’s enough to make your head spin, feeble brain matter struggling with the site of a drive high into the night coming from the same body that paints the outside corner at 100. Pitchers who slug aren’t new, but precious few hurlers throughout history however, would be picked to DH over Albert Pujols. Ohtani did it in the opening week of his Major League career.
In the absence of any contemporary comparison, followers of our most historic game have again and again pointed to one man for a frame on Ohtani’s sparkling start:
Babe Ruth pitched for the last time nearly 85 years ago, a complete game performance in which the 38-year-old Ruth gave the Boston Red Sox a final taste of his old medicine. Between 1915 and 1919, Ruth was 87-45 with 17 shutouts as the last man to regularly pitch and play another position. In 1916, just two years before he became an everyday outfielder (there’s no doubt he would have loved being a DH), Ruth went 23-12 with 9 shutouts and led the league in ERA. His annual salary was $3,500.
Ohtani’s potential on the mound and in the box has forced us back eight decades into a comparison with one of baseball’s most storied icons. Ruth will forever be an influence on our love for the long-ball and boyish wonderment with unforeseen athletic accomplishment. He embodies baseball’s 20th century rise as America’s game.
To me, this is too much to compare Ohtani to right now. Comparing Ruth & Ohtani gives context to his dual skill, but doesn’t capture the modern challenges and consequences that rest on Shohei’s shoulders each time he takes the field. Every pitch he throws is international news and each trip to the plate brings fruitful praise or massive public doubt.
To understand Shohei Ohtani in 2018, there’s no need to reach back into an era of black and white newsreel highlights and folklore. Just 17 years ago, another Japanese hardball hero introduced his all-encompassing skill with an iconic play that involves excellence with neither a thrown pitch nor a crushing swing. He’s the lens through which we should analyze Ohtani.
Just eight games into his Major League career, Ichiro Suzuki charged a sharp single to right field off the bat of A’s catcher Ramon Hernandez. Outfielder Terrence Long, one of Oakland’s fastest players, rounded second and sped towards third.
He would never get there. Despite being halfway to third as Ichiro uncorked his long range missile, all Long could do was slide into the tag of third baseman David Bell, who never moved his glove.
“That’s the greatest throw I’ve ever seen,” said Long.
As he entered the majors, Ichiro’s bat was well known to those who cared to do the research. In 7 full seasons in Japanese baseball, his lowest average was a smoking .342. The season before he crossed the Pacific, Ichiro hit .387 with 73 RBI’s in 105 games.
His defensive abilities were much more unknown, as defensive statistics are rarer and almost all of his Nippon Professional Baseball career went untelevised.
With one throw, Seattle’s diminutive outfielder established his world class defense. He’d throw out eight more runners in his rookie season and win the first of 10 Gold Gloves, the award given annually to baseball’s defensive best. “The Throw” was the first of many moments that put the first Japanese position player on the map in 2001. Every time he slapped an infield single, stole one of his 56 bases, or ran down a fly ball destined for the gap, he was breaking new ground in the Major Leagues and validating Japanese baseball.
Ohtani’s first full week of fireworks brought Ichiro’s famous snipe to mind -- an introductory frozen moment that showed how multifaceted his excellence would be.
Secondly, without Ichiro’s Hall of Fame career, Shohei Ohtani’s career is not possible. His success as the first Japanese position player created an interest in Japanese hitters that didn’t exist previously. After Ichiro began a 10-time All-Star career by winning the MVP and Rookie of the Year, nine position players in the next eight years would forge careers in America. When Ohtani steps to the plate, he’s the product of Ichiro’s 3,089 big league hits. On the mound, he’s the more developed legacy of Japanese pitching.
In 1968, Masanori Murakami became the first Nippon Professional Baseball pitcher to leave Japanese baseball for the MLB. He’d be forced to return to the Nankai Hawks after a successful season in the San Francisco Giants’ bullpen, beginning a “hands off” policy between Japanese and American baseball that lasted nearly 30 years. When Hideo Nomo “retired” from the NPB to join the Dodgers in 1995, outstanding arms Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish and others would follow his lead in subsequent seasons. Of the 55 Japanese-born players to play in the Majors, 42 have been pitchers.
When Ohtani decided to leave the NPB, he made it clear to MLB franchises that letting him hit was a prerequisite for signing him. He pitched once a week in Japan, leaving him three days in between starts to DH or play the outfield. His Angels schedule is still in development, though it’s clear the opportunity to DH steered Ohtani to the American League.
The Angels, as an American League team with established offensive firepower and a rotation in need of stability, were his destination of choice. It’s where Ohtani will continue to carry the lengthy legacy of Japanese pitching and get a chance to swing the bat as consistently as possible.
At some point, given that the Mariners and Angels are in the same division, Ohtani will pitch to the man who created the chance for him to be a Major League hitter. Though I’m sure it will make the third segment of SportsCenter, baseball fans will boil over in Japan. The Japanese media attention, already at a level only these two ballplayers know, will peak.
Just as they did during Ichiro’s American debut, over 120 Japanese reporters cover Ohtani’s every move and send daily reports on anything they can find back home. As Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post reported, they chart his bullpen pitches and batting practice swings with the same precision as his in-game performance. Like Ichiro, Ohtani grants no pregame media sessions or one-on-one interviews. After games in which he plays, he meets with the media twice: a quick, translator-assisted conference with English speaking reporters, followed by a massive Japanese media meetup. Nobody else in baseball has such an arrangement.
Attempts to pry into his personal life for tabloid fodder are numerous, and photos of Ohtani - even the most mundane - are front-page material.
Ichiro was an established NPB legend before coming to Seattle and has experienced all of Ohtani’s intense attention and more. In Robert Whiting’s biography of Japanese baseball, appropriately titled “The Meaning of Ichiro,” he detailed how reporters seized on Ichiro’s lunch, pre and postgame routines and even hygiene habits for anything that might satisfy their ever-hungry editors.
This is what we must keep in mind when Ohtani inevitably slumps or pitches poorly, as he did this week in a loss to the Boston Red Sox. His every move is amplified, the weight of every step made heavier by the responsibility to represent his people’s national and baseball pride. The microscope he’s under is far beyond any press attention Ruth received as an American hero in the early 20th century. Even Ichiro, who had a cheating scandal exposed as a rookie, never dealt with the immediacy of social media. Shohei Ohtani content, in whatever form, is pinged all around the world every single day.
Between the magnifications on their new lives, Ichiro’s groundbreaking status as the starting point for Japanese batters in the major leagues, and their explosive introductions to the American baseball public, the parallels between Ichiro and Shohei are clear. In addition, Ichiro himself has identified an attribute of Ohtani’s that many admirers have also associated with him.
According to Ichiro, Ohtani’s greatest tool in his unprecedented endeavor as a Japanese dual threat is his mental toughness. Mental strength is the signature element of Japanese baseball, which infuses the game with “wa” (individual sacrifice in deference to team harmony) and what Ohtani will tap into during the longest and most-scrutinized season of his young career.
While announcing his return to Seattle at age 44, Ichiro praised the budding Japanese superstar who’s beginning a career much like the one Ichiro is finishing.
“He’s definitely mentally tough. Obviously the age difference, I’m like a father and he’s like the son. But mentally, he’s like the father and I’m like the son.”
Ichiro’s words, just like his career, are what we should focus on when evaluating Shohei Ohtani in 2018. Nobody else can compare.
Image Sources: Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports, Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports, Twitter, YouTube