When you look at the impact Shohei Ohtani is making on the MLB, it’s not surprising people are calling the Japanese pitcher and hitter the modern-day Babe Ruth.
His command of the arts of pitching and hitting is truly being felt now that he is through a phase of niggling injuries. Interestingly, he knows his abilities so well that he will be using imbalance between them to ensure continuing success…
Making All Star History July 2021 saw the All Star game in which Ohtani became the first player in Major League Baseball history to be named as both a pitcher and hitter. For context, the first All Star game was played all the way back in 1933, some 89 years ago. Ohtani was not only selected for the American League roster in both roles; he was the starting pitcher for the AL in Denver the previous week, and leadoff hitter for the AL the day after he competed in the Home Run Derby.
“To me, the contrast between the two jobs isn’t there,” he says, “because it’s been a part of my game for so long. It is like the sun and the moon – they both emerge to play their part and there is no day that goes by where I don’t factor in both.”
The ratios balance for me because my hitting requires a higher ratio of practice and attention
The irony for Ohtani is that his two-way game isn’t balanced at all. The star, who at the close of his current contract will sign the largest ever deal in the history of the sport – rumored to be over half a billion dollars – will prepare to hit for four out of five days during the week, resting for another, and pitching for the final day.
“The ratios are not balanced but they actually do balance for me because my hitting requires a higher ratio of practice and attention,” he says,
What arguably helps Ohtani, the Los Angeles star man, is the very same thing that damages the Angels – the team’s mediocrity. Ohtani’s opportunity to flourish has been brought into focus ostensibly by the fact he is playing for a side who, for six years in a row, have failed to make it to the end-of-season play-offs.
“People point at the performance of the team as a whole, and I am asked frequently where they would be if it were not for my contribution to the team,” he says. “Well, that is impossible to say, but I do accept some blame in the side not being able to advance forward as quickly as we would have liked.”
The ownership of the line is as shocking as it is misplaced, surely – arguably the finest baseball player of this and previous generations suggesting that he is in some way culpable for his team’s meager record.
Achieving Competitive Freedom The broader truth for Ohtani is probably that the so-so nature of the team has enabled the two-way star to express himself without taking with him concerns that he is adversely affecting the playing prospects of his team-mates. It means he can balance his strengths without fear of stepping on toes. “They do say competitive freedom and being able to relax in a role is perhaps the most important thing,” he adds.
“Naturally it’s a different set of rules when it comes to All Star games and exhibition matches, and I do feel a different type of pressure. I do feel a different intensity.”
It sounds perverse to suggest that the greatest player in the world should put barriers up to his own career progression, and not begin to entertain the notion of signing for one of the league’s stellar sides, but the theory comes with good standing.
Even when building his game back in Japan, he took the decision to sign for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, a side who weren’t even the biggest entity in their own stadium (which they shared with the Yomiuri Giants), let alone their city or district.
I also find it useful to get inside the mind of an opponent, and I can do that because at some point I will be playing that exact same position
“There is nothing conventional about the Fighters, and while they knew my dream was to go straight to Major League Baseball, they battled and fought for my attention, noting that the only way I might realistically make it as a two-way player is to sign for them in NPB and let them put me in the shop window as the world’s best nito-ryu,” says Ohtani.
“It was a concept that was crazy, but the more I thought about it the more it actually made a lot of sense.” Sure enough, Ohtani’s evolution came about not by accepting the big offer from MLB, but by rejecting it.
Powerhouse Player The athleticism of Ohtani is staggering – at 6ft 4”, 215lb, he is a right-hand pitcher capable of delivering at over 102mph. He is someone who has justified the hype throughout his career, whilst finding a way to build performance at both pitching and hitting.
“Maybe it’s because I am doing both that I never get bored,” he says. “Repetition is the enemy for any sportsman, and I have never for one day considered that I want to do something else. On those days when I am tired of swinging the bay, I’ll get out on the mound and see it from the other side.”
“I also find it useful to get inside the mind of an opponent, and I can do that because at some point I will be playing that exact same position. I feel this is a huge advantage for me as well.”
It’s notable that Ohtani is at his optimum level at a time when baseball needs characters. The sport occupies an uncomfortable place right now where watchability, rule changes, cheating scandals and calls of racism are clouding what should be a straightforward, brilliant product that celebrates a global superstar without having to apologize for its own inadequacies.
“There are a lot of politics in the sport at the moment, and I have been involved in some of that myself,” says Ohtani, probably referencing comments that the star isn’t a good face for baseball if he needs to speak through an interpreter?
“All I would say is I came here to play the game I love. Everything else is welcome but less interesting, and definitely less important to me.”
Not only is Ohtani putting up ridiculous numbers in the stadium, he is also becoming the face of the sport and one of the most popular professional athletes in all of North America. “I will do what people ask of me, but I won’t apologize for their opinions,” he says.
WHAT NEXT? Discover why superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes says “you have to be the nerd!” in this RSNG interview.
Photos: Shutterstock/ REX