Shohei Ohtani Is What Baseball Needs

WShohei Ohtani, hen, takes a place on a bench shaded to wait for his turn at the Los Angeles Angels spring-training batting cage. The feeling is similar to when a star of the movie is taken to a table. Although everyone pretends they don’t notice the sudden excitement in the room, it is obvious that the atmosphere has changed.

That is what an All-Star pitcher can do – 46 home runs.

Ohtani has a unique ability to be a major league baseball genius. Babe Ruth is the only player who was able to pitch and also hit at the elite level. This happened a century back. The Bambino, however, stopped pitching at an early stage in his career and opted to focus on hitting. Ruth is the fastest ever named. Ohtani stole 26 bases as the American League MVP unanimously last year.

Look at this guy. Baseball’s savior has the body of a Marvel superhero and plays with the joy of a child. When Ohtani is laughing at a grounder, the laughter that echoes across the field could sound like a child’s giggle.

Opening day of any baseball season is a sign that there’s hope. Baseball has never had more. Opening Day in this year’s baseball season, April 7, is a difficult one for the game that has been called America’s national pastime. The game has grown too slow—the average affair runs as long as Ghandi, more than three hours—and a bit stale, with a preponderance of home runs and strikeouts robbing its incremental drama. The 99-day lockout was frustrating and threatened to stop fans from two major attractions: Major League baseball parks that were not subject to pandemic capacity limitations at the beginning of the season; and, a Japanese-born superstar who built off an 2021 season that energized everyone else.

“To be honest, I’m not impressed with what I did personally,” Ohtani, 27, tells TIME. Ohtani’s earnest eyes are not deceitful. “I think it was nice to have a good season, but what’s more important is continuity,” he says. “In that sense, this year is very important.”

Ohtani’s extraordinary talent may contain the power to redeem not just baseball but also other data-driven sports that have superseded it in the American imagination. One-to-one, Ohtani displaced the belief that only one discipline can produce excellence. Choose a sport first, and then choose a position. Ideally, before age 8, stick to it. The player that can throw at 100 MPH. In one innings, he pitches a pitch and hits a homer at 110 m.p.h. in the next. challenges the tyranny of “analytics”—shorthand for the increasingly obscure metrics (DRS, WAR, FIP, etc.) These metrics drive trading, wages, attention, betting, and some of the pleasure from sports.

“With numbers,” says Angels manager Joe Maddon, “it’s almost becoming a socialistic version of sports, baseball especially. All of us want the exact same thing. We all desire the same thing. The same player should be constructed the same way and do the same things. The human element is constantly being subtracted. The whole world’s into specialization, and that’s why it’s becoming a little bit more boring. Our cars are all the same color!”

Maddon, who hails from “the liberal arts school of baseball—I want it all,” presided over the 2016 championship run of the long-benighted Chicago Cubs, who drew attention “like the Beatles.” Yet more people in the U.S. seem to obsess over football and basketball. “The thing that bothers me as much as anything: We’re not talked about as a national pastime anymore,” Maddon says. “Players can change that. You have to allow them to become charismatic. You have to permit them to be great.”

That’s what the Angels did with Ohtani last year. His response was to record 156 strikeouts while on the pitch and drive in 100 runs. The 100th run was the 46th homer. Eight triples were his best performance in baseball. He also stole 26 bases.

This feat was never attempted before. And Ohtani did them with a quality—a lightness—that belies his size (6 ft. 4 in., 210 lb.) while reminding one and all that what’s being played here is, after all, a game.

“I don’t feel pressure that much,” Ohtani says of the season ahead. “I feel more excited.”

Ohtani was born and raised in Oshu, a small city in northern Japan where both his parents played on sports teams—dad, baseball; mom, badminton—sponsored by the local Mitsubishi plant, where his father worked. His father was also a coach of baseball. “I only played on weekends, and I really looked forward to weekends,” Ohtani says, recalling his dismay when teammates took a loss hard. “I didn’t understand why they were crying, because I was just having fun. I remember that clearly … I was not practicing hard enough nor serious enough to feel upset about losing.”

But that would all change. By age 18, Ohtani’s fastball had been clocked at 99 m.p.h. He was becoming a powerful hitter, like Hideki Mizuki, the New York Yankees’ outfielder he had grown up to admire. Japan’s top prospect in 2012, Ohtani was intent on accepting an offer from a U.S. team when the Hokkaiddo Nippon-Ham Fighters persuaded him to remain in Japan for the years he’d have to spend in the minors. The Fighters offered him the opportunity to both hit and pitch.

“I feel like it brings out my unique rhythm,” Ohtani says. Had he opted to head to the U.S. from high school, “I would have probably been a pitcher, because most of the teams valued me as a pitcher.” Instead he spent five years as Japan’s marquee player, then signed with the Angels. It was clear that the trajectory was set. Ohtani won his first appearance on the mound and scored his first hit. He was also voted Rookie of Year 2018. But then he had elbow surgery; he was off the mound in 2019, and he felt “pathetic” at the plate. The pandemic cut short his next season. All the while, “the Ohtani rules”—restrictions imposed by the Angels’ then management, which barred him from the lineup on days before or after he pitched, to rest his body—limited his production.

These rules have been discarded in 2021. It was a bold move in an era when “load management” is all the rage, managers yanking pitchers early in games for fear of taxing their arms, basketball teams sitting stars for entire games to preserve them for the playoffs. But Maddon and Perry Minasian, the new general manager at the time, say no one knows better than Ohtani what he’s capable of.

“There’s some guys that have a natural born instinct for what they do,” says Maddon. “You get to pitch as many innings as you want to, throw as many pitches as you need to. Tell me if you have a need for a rest day. I’m not going to tell you.”

“I tease him about how programmed he is: ‘I eat at this time. I stretch at this time,’” says Minasian. “That’s not just during the season. His work ethic is evident. He’s really, really intelligent, picks things up quick, can make changes. His awareness is a different level.”

Ohtani felt happy to have the ability to return to his natural cadence. Hitting even on days he pitches “helps mentally too,” he notes. “Sometimes I cannot hit or pitch well, but the next day I have an opportunity to make it up as a hitter, which is a good thing.” Baseball even instituted a new rule this season, effectively designed to keep Ohtani on the field as long as possible. When starting pitchers who bat for themselves—with the institution of the universal designated hitter this year, that’s basically Ohtani—are taken out of a game, they can stay in the lineup as the DH.

Ohtani owns a five-pitch arsenal—four-seam fastball, curve, cutter, slider, and a split-fingered fastball. The splitter’s batting average was a pitiful.087. At the plate, Ohtani’s blasts are preposterous: 24 of his home runs left his bat at speeds of at least 110 m.p.h., tops in the big leagues. His feats are so impressive that at a game, almost everyone wants to see him play—even supporters of the opposing team. Giants fansbooed him when he was taken up in San Francisco to pinch-hit last May. “I had never seen anything like that,” says his friend and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. Peyton Manning Jr., Ken Griffey Jr. and David Ortiz wanted pictures taken at the All-Star Game. “In sports, we’ve seen a lot of things,” Arizona Cardinals star defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who in March watched Ohtani at spring training, tells TIME. “One of the things that me, personally, and I think this generation, hasn’t seen is a guy able to do something that nobody’s seen.”

Off the field, there’s money to be made. From endorsements, Ohtani earns more than $20 million per year. He’s on the cover of the latest version of the popular MLB The ShowVideo game. He was signed as a global ambassador of FTX (the crypto-currency exchange); and has agreements with brands such as Hugo Bosss ASICS, Kowa and Japan Airlines. But he’s shown little interest in becoming a ubiquitous commercial presence like Michael Jordan or Manning. He doesn’t have a Twitter account. In the last two years, he’s posted just 20 times to Instagram (but has 1.3 million followers).

Ohtani believes that his play should speak for himself. This is refreshing, but it might not make baseball more popular in America. English as second language is another obstacle. After four years in the U.S., his English is improving—“It’s pretty damn good,” says Mizuhara—but Ohtani is still much more comfortable speaking Japanese in settings like interviews. Last summer, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith sparked a controversy when he said on live TV: “I don’t think it helps that the No. 1 face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he’s saying.” Smith apologized for his comments, and Ohtani tells TIME, “I don’t feel pressured [to learn English]. English would be a better language for me. My job is to play baseball, and that’s the reason why I came from Japan. Communication is essential. I know that my communication skills could be a significant factor in my performance. But I definitely prioritize baseball.”

This game needs a star. To be on the top 53 athletes in America over 5, your name must have been recognized by at least 33 others. Only 30% of Americans recognize Evan Longoria, former All-Star and now a retired Major Leaguer. “He may be getting a halo effect from the actress Eva Longoria,” says Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the Q Scores Company, the firm that conducts this market research. He’s not totally joking.

What’s the problem? Some of it’s built into the game. In basketball, LeBron James can be involved in every play he’s on the court for. Even a multi-purpose outlier such as Ohtani, Ohtani only comes to the plate once every nine batters and takes the pitch once per week. Because managers switch pitchers almost twice as frequently, the average game lasts nine innings. This is why it has increased 31% in length since 1975.

Analytics also encourage a new style of baseball play. Managers now go to the bullpen to gain an advantage. Fielders shift from their usual positions to reach areas where a particular batter hits. This incentivizes batters to swing for the fences, rocketing the ball over these defensive “shifts.” And as players launch their bats at higher angles to loft homers, they strike out more often: 8.68 times per team per game in 2021, a 34.6% rise since 2000. While strikeouts and homers are exciting, they can make an already predictable game less interesting. The triple is fast disappearing from baseball. In 2021 MLB had just.14 teams per game, which was the 2nd lowest number of any time. Last season’s stolen-base rates were at their lowest level in fifty years. This is a worrying development for a society that has shorter attention spans. “There’s no question that analytics, while making teams more shrewd in terms of selecting talent, has definitely negatively impacted the attractiveness of the game to fans,” says Patrick Rishe, a sports business professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

It’s a paradox. The money is pouring into baseball. MLB’s new media rights deals are worth some $2 billion per year, a 26% increase from previous agreements. Ohtani’s teammate Mike Trout, who statistically ranks among the all-time greats, has a $426.5 million contract but lacks the sort of mass following that’s more common in other sports. The game continues to be the heart of American culture, even though no one claims otherwise. “I have a class of 50 college-age students, and when we were talking about the Major League lockout a few weeks ago, it was hardly on anyone’s radar,” says Rishe. “Whereas if we were talking in the ’70s and ’80s to the same group of kids, they probably would say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to solve this. Where’s my baseball?’”

“You know what,” says Billy Grisham, of San Pedro, Calif. “At our local Little League, the numbers have been down. Kind of a bummer, because when we were kids everyone was on a Little League team.” He was at the Angels’ Cactus League park with his wife and their 7-year-old son, who wore No. 17. Ohtani jerseys account for half of sales at the team store, including the model that has his name in kanji, the script of his native Japan—where baseball is still wildly popular, as it is in other East Asian nations. Ohtani’s influence is key to Taiwan where ratings for Angels matches were 84% better than non-Angels. In South Korea, MLB’s Ohtani-related social media posts drew 179% greater engagement than other posts.

If there appears to be no limit to the NBA’s global appeal, and the NFL dominates the American sports world, baseball is betwixt and between: extraordinarily popular in a handful of nations in the Caribbean and East Asia—in particular Japan—but no longer dominant in the country that in the ’70s and ’80s pumped out movies about a sport (Bull Durham. The Natural. Field of Dreams).Considered to be quintessentially American.

Ohtani is now in central casting. His every move during some games was tracked by NHK’s dedicated camera. On a typical day, there were four U.S. journalists and 25 Japanese reporters at Angels springtraining. This does not include the crews that sat on top of the hill. The man can’t walk on the street in Tokyo. “If he has to go to dinner, I make reservations and find the back ways,” says Mizuhara.

In the same country where he had the best season of any big league player? “We can go to Whole Foods and stuff,” Mizuhara reports. Ohtani’s certainly admired. Q Scores says 33% of Americans who know of him have a “very favorable” impression, No. 1 among all athletes measured by the firm; Michael Jordan’s score is 32%, Simone Biles’ 30%. Just 13% of Americans polled knew who he was.

Ohtani is the only person who watches Ohtani closely. Mizuhara was armed with a phone camera and took a recording of every swing during spring training. “If you notice today, he took, I think, three rounds of batting practice,” says Angels catcher Max Stassi. “I don’t know exactly what he was working on, but he was working on something. And then he got what he wanted and he gets out.”

“He has that lightness to him because he puts the work in,” Stassi says. “That really frees him up on the field, because he knows that his preparation is second to none. Nobody’s ever done both at such an elite level, so there’s not, like, a template going into it.”

Ohtani calls himself a “pioneer” for future pitcher-sluggers, as if there really will be more like him. When he says, “I don’t have anybody to compare myself to,” it’s not vanity speaking but a request for more data: “I can have a better understanding on how good my numbers are if there are more people and a bigger sample size.”

At another point he says: “If it was a choice between strikeout or home run, I would choose home run, because the probability of a home run is lower.” In a game reduced by data science to a binary—so many at bats are a strikeout or a homer—it’s possible to see Ohtani as analytics personified. But he knows analytics aren’t everything. Like his manager, Ohtani is a graduate of the liberal arts school of baseball, a slugger who savors not just attention-getting home runs and strikeouts but the joys of “small ball” (he stole second and third in one game). The slowness of the game is a quality “that we should cherish,” Ohtani says. “I feel like one of the strongest points about baseball is its long history. It has classical aspects that no other modern sports have.”

Now it’s him.

It’s about consistency. Ohtani said he would like to be in the playoffs, as well as win a World Series. “I need to evolve,” he says. “While others are getting better every year, I cannot stay the same.” Baseball really needs Ohtani showcased in October, during the postseason, when more eyes are attuned to the sport. Los Angeles finished under .500 again last season; the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014. Ohtani winning multiple games on the mound—and at the plate—in a World Series would go down as among the greatest baseball stories ever written.

Don’t discount it from happening. The baseball world may regain some of its old swagger. Ohtani makes a promise.

What is his best?

“It’s yet to come.” —By reporting Shiho Fukada/Tokyo Nik Popli/Washington

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