The Babe Ruth of Japan: Shohei Ohtani signs with Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels
One of the hottest properties in baseball, the 23-year-old makes the move to the US after starring for Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan
Shohei Ohtani is a 100-mile-an-hour fastball pitcher and home-run slugger who once dreamed of skipping the Japanese leagues to head straight for the big time stateside.
Hailed in the US media as “Japan’s Babe Ruth”, the 23-year-old is the hottest Japanese export since Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki took the Major Leagues by storm in the early 2000s.
“There has never been a player who has performed two ways and reached his great height,” Masa Yamamoto, retired Japanese baseball pitcher, wrote for the Nikkei newspaper.
“He is the best talent in Japanese baseball. Without exaggerating, he is a talent seen only once in a century.”
On Friday, Ohtani agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Angels capping a frenzy of courtship and speculation that had surrounded the player’s move to the US major leagues – and fulfilling his childhood dream of playing stateside.
The Angels, who must pay the US$20 million posting fee to Ohtani’s Japanese club the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, have until December 22 to complete the deal.
A strapping 6-foot-4 (1.93 metres) from rural Iwate in northern Japan, the baby-faced Ohtani originally wanted to join the US big leagues straight from high school after dominating at that level, passing over Japan’s professional league.
However, that could have proved costly for Nippon Professional Baseball, fearing a disastrous precedent that might doom one of Asia’s oldest sporting leagues.
Ohtani relented after the Fighters, based in Sapporo on the northern-most Japanese island of Hokkaido, offered to let him play as a designated hitter in games he was not pitching – a rare feat in both Japan and the US.
Armed with pitches clocking faster than 160 kilometres (roughly 100 miles)-per-hour and with dozens of home runs to his name, he has drawn comparisons to Babe Ruth, the American baseball icon who began his career as a pitcher but is best remembered as a New York Yankee home-run artist.
Unlike legendary Ruth, however, Ohtani is still an evolving talent after only five professional seasons, and Japanese media have treated the nickname as a validation of his talent among US baseball fans.
Ohtani has wowed fans with stellar successes both at the plate and on the mound, supported by his stoic self-discipline.
After five seasons in Japan, Ohtani has a career earned-run-average of 2.52 and 624 strikeouts in 85 game appearances as a pitcher.
He also boasts a career batting average of .286 and has smashed 48 home runs in 403 game appearances as a batter.
Ohtani’s brilliance led the Fighters to their first championship in 10 years in 2016, catapulting him to global fame.
He was crowned the most valuable player of the Pacific League in 2016 and was chosen as the league’s best pitcher and designated hitter.
Ohtani’s discipline drove him to his success, Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama, said in a recent magazine interview.
However, he advised Ohtani, who weighs 97 kilogrammes (213 pounds), to bulk up his physical frame.
“It’s like I see both Ichiro and Hideki Matsui in Shohei Ohtani,” Kuriyama said.
“At the Fighters, he fulfilled tasks that many said were impossible. He will continue to get better. He is only standing at the starting line.”
Ohtani moves to MLB after surgery in October for an ankle injury, with the Fighters announcing that he will regain full fitness by mid-January. He also tore his left hamstring in the 2017 season.
While Ohtani insists on playing two ways, observers say he will eventually have to focus on one skill-set – most likely pitching.
Yu Darvish, a former Fighter who moved to the Texas Rangers in 2012 before joining the Dodgers, advised Ohtani to focus on his pitching in the US.
“If he wanted to go to the Majors, it [the two-way approach] would absolutely work against him,” Darvish said in a 2014 interview on TV Asahi.
“He is a pitcher. There are powerful batters everywhere. Ones with good shoulders and speed. Fundamentally, it is extremely difficult to compete with them,” he said.
“But pitching gives him an opportunity to be the number one. You must choose the opportunity to be the number one,” said Darvish.