Shohei Ohtani, the Impossible Ballplayer, is Here to Surprise You

The Angels free agent pickup has spent his entire baseball life surprising himself, and others. No matter how his career shakes out, it's going to be quite a ride.

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Apr 5 2018, 2:50pm

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Shohei Ohtani was the biggest story of baseball’s offseason. At 23 years old, already a megastar in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, Ohtani had decided to make his move to baseball’s highest level of competition. And he was going to try to compete not just on one side of baseball’s basic confrontation—the battle between pitcher and hitter—he was going to try to do both.

By its very nature, Major League Baseball trades in superlative talent. You have to be a superlative talent to even reach the major league level, let alone succeed. As a baseball fan, you know what an exceptional hitter looks like—you can tune in on any given Wednesday and watch Bryce Harper or Mike Trout. You could flip to a different game and see exceptional pitching in Clayton Kershaw or Noah Syndergaard. Superlative talent is the norm.

But to excel at both pitching and hitting at the major league level—being both an ace and a slugger — is something that’s completely unprecedented for fans who weren’t around to see Babe Ruth circa 1920. Apart from two seasons of Brooks Kieschnick, who was hardly an ace and only hit well in one of those two seasons, and a few experiments here and there, no one in recent memory has even come close to succeeding as a two-way player. It’s hard to visualize what such a player would look like, just how valuable they could be to a team, or how anyone could possibly sustain that level of mastery.

But in NPB, Ohtani was that player—playing baseball on the hardest mode possible, and playing it extraordinarily well. Through five full seasons, starting from the time he was 18 years old, Ohtani excelled on both sides of the ball. His NPB career batting line is .286/.358/.500; as a pitcher, he accrued a 2.52 ERA with a 1.076 WHIP, averaging over 10 strikeouts per nine innings. In 2016, when his Nippon-Ham Fighters won the Japan Series and he earned MVP honors, Ohtani batted .342/.416/.588 and pitched to a 1.86 ERA. That season was when international eyes began to turn to Ohtani in earnest: Here, live and in the flesh, was that impossible player, doing things on a baseball field that no one had ever seen done before.

Scouting reports gushed over the raw power, the movement on his pitches, the eye, the speed. Everyone began to speculate on when he would make his inevitable move to the major leagues. His injury during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, preventing North American audiences from getting an extended look at him, made his promise all the more tantalizing for its distance. When he made his intentions of signing with a major league team over the 2017-18 offseason clear, the frenzy of speculation began to swirl out of control.

Because it wasn’t only the unparalleled physical reality of what Ohtani could do on a baseball diamond that made him so fascinating. In an era where we seem closer than ever to understanding baseball, to having it systematized and fully comprehended, Ohtani represented the promise of the unknown. A kind of baseball player for whom there is no real reference point, whose potential exists entirely in the realm of imagination.

But Ohtani has always been full of surprises. He surprised even himself—playing as a kid, he didn’t see baseball success in his future, assuming with his lack of tournament experience that there were many others better than him. When it became clear that wasn’t the case, when he could hit 99 mph at the age of 16, everyone—including him—assumed that he would be off to North America as soon as he was out of high school. But the Nippon-Ham Fighters picked him first overall, won him over with their organizational philosophy and their commitment to his development as a pitcher and a hitter, and convinced him to stay in Japan.

And for five seasons with the Fighters, Ohtani continued to surprise at every turn—with just how amazing he was. He disappeared baseballs into stadium roofs, and he pitched more aggressively and with greater skill than anyone could have anticipated. The whole time, he never acted like a superstar, never even used his money. He lived in the team dorm, said he liked his team’s trip to Honolulu simply because no one looked at him and no one knew who he was. He doesn’t own a car, because he doesn’t even know how to drive.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If Ohtani had waited only two more seasons to make his move to the major leagues, he would have been looking at a nine-figure payday. Instead, he’s earning less than Jordan Lyles. But it was Ohtani’s time. He’d decided this was what he wanted, and he was going to stick to his plan. he was going to do exactly what he wanted to do, just like he always had, no matter how unexpected it might seem. That uncertainty is why Ohtani is so thrilling. I can’t think of any other player who represents such an extreme polarity of outcomes. Whose lack of success would be such a stunning disappointment, and whose full potential is so wonderfully hard to imagine.

As spring training began, and as all eyes turned to him, Ohtani struggled mightily on both sides of the ball. He allowed eight runs in two and a third innings pitched; he had four hits and 10 strikeouts in 36 plate appearances. The new scouting consensus was that his bat was far from major league ready. The tools were there, yes, but they were all too raw.

Fans began to worry. The extraordinary hype that had surrounded him to this point flipped on its head. Perhaps he was being rushed; perhaps he should start in Triple A; perhaps he would never be able to hit at all. Maybe the dream of a two-way player was foolhardy. Maybe a mistake had been made.

Ohtani recorded a hit on his first swing in the major leagues. He won his first start, allowing three earned runs in six innings, striking out six, his fastball averaging 97.8 mph—once again, turning expectations on their heads.

And on Tuesday, he stood at the plate for the first time at his new home field, facing Josh Tomlin, the Angels home crowd rumbling eagerly behind him. Bases loaded, two out, tie game, bottom of the first. He fouled off a cutter for strike one; he swung through another for strike two. A wild pitch in the dirt brought home a run. He fouled off one last cutter. Then he turned on a curveball, down and in, and launched it into the right-field seats.

It was a moment so shockingly perfect that anticipating it would have seemed foolish. It was exactly what you wanted to seen and exactly what you could never have let yourself expect. He went and hit another home run the very next day, this time off reigning AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber.

No matter what Shohei Ohtani ends up achieving in his major league career—whether he’s a bust, or focuses on pitching, or does something else entirely—I am looking forward to being surprised.