Unless you completely tuned out of baseball after the World Series or have been living under a rock for the past month, you’ve probably heard of Shohei Ohtani, the 23-year-old Japanese pitcher/hitter/superhero who is set to make his way to Major League Baseball in 2018.
Ohtani, who was posted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on December 2nd, is the newest in a long line of Japanese phenoms that includes Ichiro, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Yu Darvish. Let’s look at what exactly Ohtani will bring to Major League Baseball after he ultimately signs with an MLB franchise in the coming weeks.
For starters, Ohtani is pegged as a likely ace pitcher. The 6’5” Ohtani throws a fastball clocked up to 102 MPH, and he also features two nasty secondary pitches: a slider and a splitter.
The pitching mound is where most scouts see Ohtani asserting his dominance.
What separates Ohtani from the likes of other high profile pitching prospects is his bat. When scouts discuss Ohtani’s offensive prowess, it isn’t in the same regard as Carlos Zambrano, or Mike Hampton, or Dontrelle Willis, or Micah Owings.
This isn’t a pitcher who is just competent with the bat; Ohtani is a pitcher that seemingly is able to offer offensive production rivaling that of a good major league position player, and he does it more than once every 5 days.
For reference, in 2016, Ohtani’s age-21 season, he registered a 1.86 ERA, 0.957 WHIP, and 174 strikeouts in just 140 innings. On the offensive side, Ohtani finished with an elite .322/.416/.588 slash line along with 22 home runs and 67 RBI in 104 games. Posting those numbers on both sides of the plate in MLB wouldn’t just be unprecedented (unless you’re Babe Ruth), it would be unfathomable.
To put that in perspective, let’s look at two former Nationals prospects that were advertised as generational talents: Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Harper’s OPS this season was 1.008, only 4 points higher than Ohtani’s in Japan. Strasburg’s ERA of 2.52 this season is nearly two-thirds of a run higher than Ohtani’s. Several MLB teams appear to believe that Ohtani can develop into a successful major league hitter.
Pitching and hitting are two sides of the coin that is baseball. They are complex crafts in their own right, requiring an immense amount of time, discipline, and effort to achieve greatness. Those who have reached the highest level of competitive baseball have committed innumerable hours to one of these two inverse skills. A focus on one comes at the cost of the other.
That is where the fascination lies with Ohtani. He is being advertised as someone who has the talent to perform at an elite level in two concentrations. Even the greatest of players, from Mays to Maddux, haven’t been able to do that. The potential of Shohei Ohtani isn’t just fascinating, it’s transcendent.
We, as sports fans, are drawn to the transcendent. There is a certain mystique about athletes who challenge our notion of what is and isn’t within the realm of human capability. In fact, we saw it just this past season in the form of Aaron Judge.
It isn’t just the jaw-dropping numbers that these athletes put up, but the almost superhuman way in which they do it. The presence of Aaron Judge is certainly awe-inspiring due to his immense size. His physical stature is certainly extraordinary, but it seems more Paul Bunyan-eque than Shohei Ohtani.
We’ve seen potential transcendence in other Japanese baseball players as well. Daisuke Matsuzaka captured the interest of baseball fans with the rumored “gyro ball.” The concept of an international pitcher bringing a unique pitch to MLB, paired with his projected talent, left the baseball world salivating. We were hungry to see something that we had never seen before. Alas, Daisuke’s career was fairly mediocre and short-lived. But, the fascination with Daisuke is more in the realm of science fiction than Shohei Ohtani.
The athlete that most closely resembles Ohtani is perhaps Deion Sanders. Sanders simultaneously played in the NFL and MLB. There exists a similar allure in that Sanders was able to compete at the highest level in two different sports, while most others had to dedicate all of their efforts in order to reach that stage in only one.
While the transcendence of Deion Sanders captivated a generation of sports fans, Ohtani mastered two completely opposite actions within one sport; two actions that together make up baseball. Think of William Perry asserting himself as one of the best running backs in the NFL. Think of Patrick Roy scoring 30 goals a season on the ice.
When baseball fans look at Ohtani, they see a glimpse into the future of the sport. If the future of baseball includes more two-way superstars, Ohtani will be the man who pioneered it. We see the potential of Ohtani as an agent for monumental change within a game that traces its origins back to the 1800s.
Ohtani hasn’t even signed with an MLB franchise yet, let alone played in an MLB game. We still are uncertain as to whether Ohtani will be able to sustain a career in the league as a two-way player. What we do know is that Ohtani will have a team in the next few weeks, and that organization will give Ohtani the opportunity to pitch and hit.
We do know that Ohtani’s arrival to the majors signals the potential for transcendence. He will make baseball fans challenge what they think they know. He might even end up changing the game of baseball forever.