Shohei Ohtani could take the MLB by storm
In 2009, when a 16-year-old Bryce Harper graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, baseball gained its next great prodigy, following in the footsteps of Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr before him. While other players garnered immense hype, the next great prodigy was overseas, tearing up opponents left and right at the same time as Harper was starting to show just how justified his hype was.
If you haven’t heard Shohei Ohtani’s name then that rock you are living under is quite thick. Labeled the Japanese Babe Ruth, the hype surrounding Ohtani has even surpassed that of his fellow compatriots Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and the vaunted hype of Daisuke Matsuzaka. To show just how dominant Ohtani was on the Japanese circuit, here is a taste of his accolades: Pacific League MVP, two-time Pacific League Top Pitcher, three-time Pacific League All-Star, and Pacific League Top Designated Hitter. Yes, you read that right: he was the best pitcher, and designated hitter in Japan, in the same season to boot. Did I mention he is only 23? For years Major League Baseball has known about the precocious talent and eagerly sought him out, but in a stunning move Ohtani decided to come over this season, forfeiting massive sums of money in order to spend his prime playing in the Bigs.
Due to International Signing restrictions, the money Ohtani could receive and that teams could offer was extremely limited. The relative cheapness of Ohtani only enhanced his hype, as each team submitted massive recruiting pitches to entice him as no economic barriers existed for any team, no matter how big the payroll, to sign Ohtani. After a nationwide tour, Ohtani signed a contract with the Los Angeles Angels, instantly giving the Angels arguably two of the most talented players on the planet in Ohtani and Mike Trout. Entering spring training, all eyes were fixated on the Japanese phenom, yet through two games that hype seems to be fools gold.
Spring training is a time for players to shake the rust off and adjust, so take any conclusions from Spring training with a grain of salt, but some performances or lack thereof can be startling. So far, Ohtani is 0-1 with a 27.00 in 2.2 innings, a very slim trial. While the ERA may be a bit alarming, the game reports from his outings aren’t as bad. Ohtani still shows off his devastating stuff and has wowed with some spectacular pitches, despite poor control on his breaking balls. Contrastingly, fellow hyped Japanese exports Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and Daisuke Matsuzaka all had quite impressive efforts during their respective first Spring Trainings. Still, the alarm shouldn’t be sounded quite yet. As for Ohtani’s ability on the mound, he is still just 23 years old and a few poor innings does not mean that Ohtani is a poor pitcher. Where the alarm could be sounded is Ohtani’s ability at the plate. So far Ohtani is hitting a paltry .083, with only 2 hits in 24 at-bats. The peripheral stats are not any better with a K/BB ratio of 3, and not a single extra base hit. Despite his massive success at the plate in Japan, many in the industry were skeptical of the plan to use Ohtani as a two-way player, and so far they seem to be right.
Two-way players are a rarity in the modern game, especially with the culture of specialization in professional baseball. Not since John Olerud was a consensus All-American at first base and pitcher has a two-way player truly enticed Major League Baseball, yet the past year has introduced three such players: Ohtani, Hunter Greene, and Brendan McKay. Greene was the 2nd overall pick in last year’s draft, and while his future likely lies on the mound, his athleticism and power from the plate provide salivating potential. Just two picks later, another two-way player was picked, Brendan McKay out of the University of Louisville. McKay’s hallmark left-handed power makes me likely to stick with the bat, but he also was the ace on a pitching staff that took Louisville to the College World Series.
While two-way players seem to be the trend, traditional wisdom reigns supreme, as per usual with America’s pastime, that one can not successfully pitch and hit at the Major League level. No one since Babe Ruth has managed that feat, and with an increased emphasis on specialization, it seems that club will remain a one member club for the foreseeable future.