Japanese pitching and hitting phenom Shohei Ohtani is in the news. He's in the dreams of 30 Major League teams. And he's in the hearts of the baseball-crazed fans of his native country as he prepares to make the big leap to the big leagues.A lot is known about the
Japanese pitching and hitting phenom Shohei Ohtani is in the news. He's in the dreams of 30 Major League teams. And he's in the hearts of the baseball-crazed fans of his native country as he prepares to make the big leap to the big leagues.
A lot is known about the 23-year-old, from his electric fastball and slider to his decorated career in Nippon Professional Baseball to the questionnaire he and his agent submitted to all 30 MLB clubs in hopes of finding the perfect home for his unique talent. A new posting system is expected to be ratified on Friday, which will clear the way for the two-way star to sign and report to big league Spring Training in February.
:: Shohei Ohtani coverage ::
"The only thing I can promise you is that I'm going to play as hard as I can all the time and give 100 percent," Ohtani told MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi last spring. "Hopefully, by doing that, I can inspire numerous people, maybe in their personal life, if they're having other issues, and cheer them up by watching me play. That would probably be the most honorable thing about playing baseball."
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Despite all the headlines and publicity, there are still things about Ohtani that many American baseball fans don't know. So with the help of some Japanese baseball experts and historians, we put together this unofficial Ohtani "casefile."
Humble but athletic upbringing: Ohtani's father, Toru, was a baseball player in Japan's high-quality corporate (industrial) league, which produced big league reliever Junichi Tazawa.
Ohtani's mother, Kayoko, was an accomplished badminton player. He was born in the farm town of Oshu in the rural prefecture (state) of Iwate, where urban centers are few and rice fields abound. It's about three hours north of Tokyo, and it was near there that Ohtani attended Hanamaki Higashi High School.
"He's not a Tokyo city slicker," said Brad Lefton, a bilingual writer who has covered baseball in Japan and in the United States for years. "That might be part of the reason he's so admired. There's still an innocence to him. He's doing it his own way, which I think connects with people because it's refreshing."
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Koshien arrival: Japan's famed high school baseball tournament, Summer Koshien, has been the birthplace of Japanese baseball legends. Ichiro Suzuki burst onto the scene there in 1991. Future big leaguer Daisuke Matsuzaka became a sensation in that tournament in '98, pitching a no-hitter and throwing 250 pitches in 17 innings in another start. Current Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka threw 742 pitches in 52 2/3 innings over six appearances in the tournament in 2006.
Ohtani's team didn't win the Summer Koshien, but he still captured the eyes of scouts and hearts of fans when, days before his 18th birthday, he unleashed a fastball that was clocked at 160 kilometers per hour -- or 99 mph. It was a record for a Japanese high school pitcher.
"Ohtani was different from the beginning," said Jim Allen, a writer for the Kyodo News who has been covering Japanese baseball for more than three decades. "He was going to hit and pitch, and there was such controversy about it in Japan. Fans loved it, but most of the old guys derided it from the start, saying 'What's he doing?' But the fans all loved it."
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Decision time: After Ohtani finished high school and established himself as a potential superstar, it came time for him to decide where he would play professional ball. He surprised some on Oct. 21, 2012, when he announced that he would forego the opportunity to turn pro in Japan, instead opting to test the waters of Major League Baseball. As possible offers from the Dodgers, Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees swirled throughout the rumor mill, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NPB Draft.
Then over the course of a month, Nippon-Ham came up with a long-shot strategy that paid off. It was a presentation that the club called "The Path to Realizing Shohei Ohtani's Dream," and it was a carefully calculated sales pitch that was grounded in reality and honesty about the travails of rookie-ball players in the States.
"They put together a video," said Robert Whiting, a best-selling author whose 1989 book "You Gotta Have Wa" is considered the seminal work on Japanese baseball. "It showed the really tough stuff that young Minor Leaguers have to go through, and especially what Ohtani would have to go through -- the lack of Japanese restaurants, the 18-hour bus rides, things like that.
"But it also highlighted how he would be an instant star with Nippon-Ham, how family and friends would be there, how he would have this comfortable cocoon. They would help train him to get to the Major Leagues. He wouldn't have to spend any time worrying about anything other than that."
Ohtani signed, putting his faith in Nippon-Ham, and that faith has been returned now that the club has agreed to post him years earlier than it would be required to.
The two-way game: Ohtani wasn't always the "Japanese Babe Ruth" or, as a Reuters report in 2014 called him, a "Nito-ryu," or two-sword samurai. In fact, he slashed .238/.284/.376 for Nippon-Ham in his rookie season in 2013 while playing mostly right field when he wasn't pitching. He went 3-0 with a 4.23 ERA, 46 strikeouts and 33 walks in 61 2/3 innings in 13 games (11 starts) on the mound.
"They approached me, 'What do you think about doing both?'" Ohtani told Sports Illustrated in April. "I definitely wanted to try it. I still thought I had a chance to be a great hitter at a professional level."
Ohtani improved during his age-19 season the following year, hitting 10 home runs in 212 at-bats and breaking out as a pitcher, going 11-4 with a 2.61 ERA and 179 strikeouts in 155 1/3 innings.
It was after the 2014 season that U.S. fans first took notice of Ohtani when he played for a Japanese All-Star team against Major League stars in an exhibition series that November. Ohtani started the fifth and final game and struck out Yasiel Puig, Justin Morneau and Evan Longoria in the first inning, allowing two runs over seven innings of work while fanning seven.
Ohtani regressed a bit at the plate the following year, in part due to recurring and nagging leg issues, slashing .202/.252/.376 in 109 at-bats.
Ohtani's pitching stardom was meteoric, but he did not put both sides of his game together until 2016, when he slashed .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers, while pitching to a 1.86 ERA and striking out 174 batters in 140 innings over 21 games (20 starts). That was the year that he became the first player to win the "Best Nine" award as a pitcher and a hitter (DH), and he was also named Pacific League Most Valuable Player while leading the Fighters to a Japan Series title.
"It took a long time for him to be the guy he is now, the batter between starts," Allen said. "It didn't happen all of a sudden."
Everybody expected Ohtani to take another step forward as a hitter and a pitcher, but an ankle injury in February forced him to withdraw from Japan's roster for the World Baseball Classic and miss a big chunk of the NPB season. He still hit .332/.403/.540 in 231 plate appearances, while posting a 3.20 ERA with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings in five starts as a pitcher.
After the season, Ohtani made it clear he was ready to be "posted," which would allow him to sign with an MLB club. If he waited two more years, he could have been a true free agent, but because of posting rules and MLB's international spending rules, pretty much every club will have a chance to sign him, with no team other than the Rangers, Yankees and Twins having more than $3 million in their budget.
"As long as I have enough money to be able to play baseball and am enjoying baseball, that's all I'm asking for right now," Ohtani told Sports Illustrated.
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Ohtani revealed: By all accounts, Ohtani is the total package -- a true sports rarity. He's 6-foot-4, 215 pounds and as fast as they come: He's been clocked as fast as 3.80 seconds from home to first. For context, Dee Gordon's average "max effort" time from home to first was 3.81 seconds in 2017, per Statcast™. But there's so much more to Ohtani than his baseball gifts.
"He looks like a movie star," Whiting said. "And he's the modern-day version of Frank Merriwell, a fictional character from comics of the 1920s and '30s -- the guy who's the All-Star athlete, he's really clean-cut, helping neighbors, helping the old lady with her groceries, just being an all-around great guy to everybody."
And it's not an act. By all accounts, Ohtani has long been respectful with media, even though he's been swamped by coverage for the last five years, and his No. 11 jerseys and billboards featuring his face are seen all over Japan.
Ohtani lives in the Nippon-Ham dormitories so he can be closer to the training facilities -- he is diligent about exercise and a student of nutrition -- and more immersed in being all about baseball all the time. He doesn't go out on the town with teammates, hasn't shown a desire to put the dating scene above his athletic preparation, studies English and smiles a lot.
"He knows how it all works," Lefton said. "When you're trying to do something, but you haven't done it yet, instead of talking yourself up, you let the success come first."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB.