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Wonderboy

Shohei Ohtani shouldn’t be possible. He’s the most-hyped prospect in recent memory—and he’s a mystery. He’s a flame-throwing pitcher—and a he’s sure-eyed hitter. He’s the most important player in baseball—and he’s a rookie.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Albert Pujols looked out from his locker at a throng. His Angels had just hammered a hard-fought 8-7 road victory over the Houston Astros, their second win in as many games in Houston, to leapfrog the heavy preseason favorites for first place in the AL West. Pujols’s seventh-inning single had tied the game and helped spark the eventual game-winning rally. But only one reporter was talking to the three-time MVP who’s six hits away from 3,000. The rest—about 15 reporters and camera operators, a few team staffers, and one astronaut—had their backs to the biggest baseball star of the century and were watching a kid drip water into a trash can.

The kid, 23-year-old Shohei Ohtani, was coming off a relatively difficult outing. On a Tuesday night with weather that was good for baseball but would’ve been even better for drinking two-thirds of a bottle of Shiner and passing out in a hammock, Ohtani threw 98 pitches and allowed four runs over 5 1/3 innings. Six of those pitches came in at 100 miles an hour or more as Ohtani struck out seven. But he also struggled with his command, walking five, and his slider and splitter weren’t the devastating jai alai shots he displayed in his no-hit bid against the A’s two starts ago. For most of the game, he’d thrown about as many balls as strikes, and his no-decision felt appropriate for an outing with so many ups and downs.

Ohtani had wrapped his throwing elbow and shoulder in ice, which was fixed to his torso with ace bandages and melted as he leaned on the back of a recliner. Whatever water hadn’t saturated his T-shirt and basketball shorts ran off his throwing arm into the trash can. Ohtani, like everyone looking to kill time in 2018, looked silently at his phone. And everyone just watched: media, Angels staff, and the astronaut, 53-year-old Soichi Noguchi.

To see Ohtani, Noguchi had come up from the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake, Texas, where he’s training for his third mission to space. He wore jeans and a bright blue pilot’s jacket with NASA and JAXA patches; as if the jacket didn’t signal that he was the coolest person in the room, he stood with the kind of confident posture you earn by going to space twice. And yet he waited quietly while Ohtani dripped into the trash can. When Ohtani was done icing, he spoke to Noguchi briefly and signed a ball and a set of batting gloves for the astronaut. Noguchi moved off and everyone else moved out into the hallway where Ohtani would answer questions, while the Kid went to find a dry shirt to wear in front of the camera.

Ohtani, through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, explained that he’d missed his spot on a few three-ball pitches and that he had no problems with umpire Eric Cooper’s strike zone, which had flummoxed both teams through the night’s action. He smiled warmly, but somewhat tentatively, and frequently paused his answers to choose his words carefully. Asked about his relationship with catcher Martín Maldonado, Ohtani called the 31-year-old veteran a “business partner,” but despite drawing laughter from the crowd of reporters, explained that he’d been joking.

“Since he’s older than me, he’s a veteran guy, it’s kind of hard for me to bring the conversation to him,” Ohtani said. “I think he feels that, so he comes to me a lot and makes me feel more comfortable. I really appreciate his presence.”

Before Monday’s game, Maldonado and infielder Luis Valbuena—the two players whose lockers flanked Ohtani’s—took a few minutes to joke around with Ohtani, whom Maldonado calls “Jorge.” They looked like two upperclassmen gently teasing a freshman, illustrating the kind of relationship where Maldonado, the mentor, would have to make the first move. Ohtani, listed at 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds, is huge—he looks like a teenager who’s just had a growth spurt and is still three years of eating 3,500 calories a day from filling out. His limbs and neck are still kind of skinny, and despite his broad shoulders, his sweatshirt hung off him like something he’d borrowed from an older sibling.

Ohtani is a six-year professional veteran with more than 1,100 plate appearances and 500 innings in NPB. He’s the center of a transoceanic media circus, a man whom astronauts stand in line to meet, and the biggest story in baseball, if not yet the game’s biggest star. Mike Trout, who took the mantle of “best player in baseball” off of Pujols in 2012 and has worn it ever since, walked past Ohtani’s postgame media scrum on Tuesday and nobody would’ve noticed if the Millville Meteor hadn’t shouted out “Shoney!” on his way out the door.

Ohtani is a star and a polished veteran, but also a developing rookie. An unprecedented talent in a game that’s seen everything, and also a pitcher who says he needs to locate better. The kid, but also a kid.

There’s a (probably apocryphal) story about how Hall of Fame first baseman Jimmie Foxx got his start in baseball. A scout got lost in rural Maryland on his way to a game and found the teenaged Foxx by the side of the road with a plow. The scout asked Foxx for directions, and Foxx told him which way to go by picking up the plow and pointing. The scout asked Foxx if he played baseball, and 20 years and 534 home runs later, everyone lived happily ever after.

It’s part of baseball’s pastoral and folklore-obsessed culture that we need to believe that the world’s backwoods are littered with diamonds in the rough, from Roy Hobbs to Toe Nash to Sidd Finch. This, of course, is not the case—every inch of the U.S., Canada, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, Cuba, South Korea, and the former Netherlands Antilles is combed by legions of scouts who identify future big leaguers from youth. The closest you’ll get to Roy Hobbs these days is someone like Trout, a relatively underscouted first-rounder who turned out to be way better than anyone thought. But he was still a first-rounder.

Ohtani blew up that myth, at least from the American perspective. Not only is he a relatively young player ready who was ready for the big leagues from his first day on American soil, but he’s also a two-way player. In 2016, Ohtani was the Pacific League’s MVP, and was named to the league’s Best Nine as both a pitcher and a DH. And he decided to take his act to the best league in the world.

Almost every big league player played both ways in Little League. Most of them played both ways in high school, and more than you’d think—Andrelton Simmons, Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Michael Lorenzen, Carlos Rodón—did it in college, too. But while Hall of Fame hitters like Babe Ruth, Sam Rice, and even Foxx late in his career also pitched effectively in the big leagues to some extent, the two-way players just about died out around 1920.

The reason is that almost nobody develops at the same rate as both a hitter and a pitcher. Even a player who can play both ways at the major college level will need longer to develop his weaker tools into an MLB-quality skill set. Minor league development is predicated on testing a player against the toughest competition he can manage until he learns how to beat it, at which point he can move up to the next level—not unlike putting more weight on the bench press or adding another mile to a cross-country run. If a player’s bat and arm don’t develop at the same rate—and almost nobody’s do—one aspect of his game won’t be challenged while the other catches up. At best, that delays the development of the player’s strongest tool. At worst, it stunts his development and lowers his eventual ceiling. Rays prospect Brendan McKay, who won the Golden Spikes Award while playing both ways at Louisville, is one example: Tampa Bay is developing him as a two-way player now, but he could be MLB-ready as a pitcher long before he’s there as a hitter. The Rays hope he’ll get in enough reps as a hitter while they limit his pitching workload to protect his arm, but the time may well come when the need for a big league starter, or the risk to McKay’s pitching development, is so severe that they take away his bats.

If Ohtani had been born anywhere else, he wouldn’t have become a two-way player. But NPB competition, which he’s faced since he was 18, is strong enough to hone him into someone who can hold his own against the world’s best, but not so strong that it dominated him as a youngster to the point where he had to give up hitting.

Ohtani’s career path required such a specific set of circumstances that American baseball fans and media can scarcely comprehend it. We shouldn’t be able to find the Roy Hobbs types in the Information Age. The sum of human knowledge is on the internet. We’ve been to space—Soichi Noguchi alone has spent almost six months there—and we’ve split the atom. Ohtani is as close as you’ll get these days. He isn’t a total mystery, but he’s mysterious enough to American fans and writers, most of whom have never seen an NPB game.

Even in a relatively rough start, like his four-run, 5 1/3 inning campaign in Houston, Ohtani fascinates with occasional hints of the unprecedented. A fifth-inning fastball to Josh Reddick clocked in at 101 miles per hour, the fastest pitch thrown by a starter this year, and faster than anything anyone apart from relievers Jordan Hicks and Aroldis Chapman could muster. Angels manager Mike Scioscia won’t even say that Ohtani can’t throw harder.

“To hear Shohei describe it, it seems like as the season goes on, he’ll work his way into his stuff,” Scioscia said. “And that’s pretty good, considering the couple games we’ve seen he’s had great stuff.”

Ohtani’s thrown even harder in the past, but he says he’s still settling into an MLB rhythm and also doesn’t know his physical limits.

“The fastest pitch I threw in Japan was 165 km/h [about 102.5 mph], and that was during the postseason, which is in October,” Ohtani said. “So I can’t really say where my peak is. It depends on the game situation and how my body is feeling that day.”

Knowing as little as we do about his limits, and less about his personality, we understand Ohtani on a mythological scale, even more so than with most athletes. Particularly because the Angels don’t allow one-on-one interviews with their star two-way man, simultaneously protecting him and increasing the mystery around him, like he’s the Holy Tabernacle and not a young man who in another life would just be out of college.

“We definitely see him as a rookie,” said Angels left-hander Tyler Skaggs. “He’s still learning; he’s trying to find consistency out there. At the same time, I wouldn’t say he’s a sheltered 23 years old, because when you come to a new place where you don’t speak the language, it’s always tough. But he’s handled it really well.”

Nobody in baseball knows exactly what Ohtani’s going through, but the Angels have a few players who have come close. Of the 11 active MLB players who debuted in their age-19 seasons, two—Trout and Justin Upton—are on the Angels. Not counting three games at Triple-A, Pujols came to the majors straight from A-ball at age 21 and like Trout became an instant superstar. Even Skaggs made his major league debut just after turning 21 and appreciates how difficult it can be.

“On this team, it isn’t very tough, because we have a lot of cool guys, a lot of veteran guys who are really nice,” Skaggs said. “But when I came up, we had some really salty veteran guys who rode me really hard, so it wasn’t as easy as it is over here.”

But even if Ohtani has a friendly clubhouse, most rookies don’t have four photographers scampering around the warning track as they walk from the right-field gate to the visiting dugout.

“It’s pretty crazy, honestly, all the people that are filing through,” said Angels reliever Cam Bedrosian. “I almost feel bad for him sometimes because it feels like he’s always on the move, always has to do something. But that’s the way it is, being a rock star like him. He’s been real good with it. It’s been kind of weird, seeing the presence from Japan and all the people who show up to his games, but it’s cool.”

Someday, an Ohtani start might become routine. Skaggs says he’s already gotten used to the increased media attention around the club.

“I’m immune to it now. In spring training, it was kind of like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of people. They can’t keep doing this every day,’” he said. “But when you get to know the same people well enough to say hello, it starts to be normal.”

The same thing happened with spaceflight; when only a few people had gone to space or the moon, Americans knew astronauts’ names and faces the way they know baseball players’ names and faces. Now, Noguchi can go to a baseball game, distinguished from the earthbound members of humanity only by his stance and his jacket. Maybe we’ll just get used to having Ohtani around, or maybe McKay will be the second member of a new generation of two-way stars, the Alan Shepard to Ohtani’s Yuri Gagarin.

Even now, as Ohtani isn’t hitting and pitching in the same game, the spectacle is less about what he’s doing than what he’s not doing, but everyone knows he’s capable of. From the press box or the upper deck, his 101 mph fastball doesn’t look much different from the 98 mph heaters Gerrit Cole had thrown the night before. When Ohtani walked off the mound Tuesday, the purportedly hostile Minute Maid Park crowd gave him a standing ovation. The next afternoon, Angels starter Nick Tropeano also allowed four runs in 5 1/3 innings, and he walked off the mound to indifference.

The Kid isn’t fully formed as a ballplayer yet, and even if he were, we’re still a ways away from being able to see him only as a ballplayer. He’s a figure who can make a crowd of baseball people who have seen everything turn their backs on Hall of Famers to instead watch ice melt into a garbage can. We’re still not sure what we’re seeing—we know only that we’ve never seen anything like this.