This week, like almost every week, will be full of firsts for Shohei Ohtani, the Angels’ two-way superstar. On Monday, Ohtani will become the first Japanese-born participant in MLB’s Home Run Derby, and the first Derby competitor to have started a game as a pitcher. On Tuesday, he’ll pitch and hit in the All-Star Game as the first player ever appointed to the roster as a pitcher and a position player. MLB’s marquee midseason events will serve as a showcase for the unmatched all-around skills of the American League MVP favorite, who turned 27 last week. In the first half of what could be the best season ever, Ohtani led all hitters with 33 home runs, 56 extra-base hits, and a .698 slugging percentage while also pacing the AL in bunt hits, tying for the lead league in triples, and stealing 12 bases in 16 attempts. (Another first: No previous player has hit at least 32 homers and stolen at least 12 bags before the break.) Ohtani, who leads the majors in wins above replacement at both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, also started 13 games on the mound, recording a 3.49 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 67 innings.
Ohtani’s hyperbole-proof start has silenced the doubters of his two-way potential, awed the best and brightest of baseball and other sports, and vaulted the pitcher/DH into statistical territory that even Babe Ruth, Bullet Rogan, and other long-ago two-way stars never sniffed within a single season. After a few injury-riddled years in which his ability to play both ways was severely curtailed, Ohtani is operating well beyond the peak of any other player’s powers, and presumably at the peak of his own—unless, somehow, he has a higher gear.
Every superhero has an origin story. And before Ohtani donned his current costume and started smoking baseballs around the world, he had to discover his gifts and take his first faltering flight. For Ohtani, every MLB first was preceded by a first in Japan’s major leagues, Nippon Professional Baseball. Before he could break barriers, set records, and steal the spotlight here, he had to do it there, without any track record or road map. Even the events of this week won’t be totally new to Ohtani, who entered (and won) the NPB Home Run Derby in 2016 and captivated NPB All-Star Game audiences as a two-way player in 2013, his rookie season. That’s when the teenaged Ohtani’s journey in pro ball began. And that’s when he started blazing the lonely two-way trail that would eventually make him the majors’ must-see man.
Like a lot of people who would soon see much more of Shohei Ohtani, Jason Coskrey became aware of the phenom in July 2012, when Ohtani, who had just turned 18, set a Japanese high-school record by throwing a pitch 160 kilometers per hour (roughly 99.4 miles per hour).
No matter how hard he threw, Ohtani couldn’t propel Hanamaki Higashi High School, alma mater of Mariners pitcher (and fellow 2021 All-Star) Yusei Kikuchi, into the prestigious Summer Koshien tournament in 2012. But his eye-popping pitch made international news and attracted the attention of MLB scouts. Back then, though, he profiled as a pitcher, not a two-way unicorn. Coskrey, who has covered Japanese baseball for The Japan Times since 2007, doesn’t remember hearing about Ohtani’s offensive prowess when he was an amateur. “Obviously, he was hitting home runs and things like that, but it wasn’t such a major thing that he was doing it, because there had been other [high school] players who were pitching and also were pretty decent batters,” Coskrey says. “It’s just that they ended up in one track or the other.”
There was every reason to think that Ohtani would too. As unlikely as it is that one player would possess the set of skills that Ohtani will show off this week, it’s just as improbable that his two-way aspirations would survive the pressure to specialize that greets players on both sides of the Pacific. If Ohtani hadn’t gotten the go-ahead to try his hand at hitting and pitching in Japan’s highest-level league (and avoided flopping in his first attempt), he almost certainly would have been barred from being a two-way player in MLB. Thus, his rookie campaign in NPB, while his least distinguished season statistically, provided the proof of concept that made his latest exploits possible.
Ohtani’s first exposure to pro ball almost came far from his native country. Two months after pitching for Japan in the under-18 world championships in August 2012, Ohtani announced in advance of the NPB amateur draft that he had decided to become the first Japanese player to sign with an MLB organization out of high school. “I agonized over the decision,” he said. “But I have decided to play in America. It’s been my dream to play in the majors since I started school. I want to play over there as early as possible. I will learn the hard way. I understand the risks. It’s not about the money. It’s about following my dream.”
After Ohtani announced his intention to bypass NPB, MLB teams—including the deep-pocketed Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers—lined up to sign him, and NPB clubs backed off. Except for one: the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. “That’s the kind of team the Fighters are,” Coskrey says. “I don’t want to say they’re weird, but they’re different in some ways.”
The Fighters had spent decades playing second fiddle to the far more popular and successful Yomiuri Giants, with whom they shared the Tokyo Dome. But in 2004, they went ahead with a risky relocation to Hokkaido that was engineered by top executive Toshimasa Shimada, an ex-interpreter. Once ensconced in Hokkaido’s dual-purpose Sapporo Dome, they found a new fan base and flourished under globe-trotting American manager Trey Hillman, who had taken the helm in the Fighters’ final season in Tokyo. In 2005, an 18-year-old Yu Darvish joined the team, and the young ace helped the Fighters win the Japan Series in 2006 and two more pennants in 2007 and 2009. (The Fighters would win another pennant in 2012 after Darvish’s departure and a title in Ohtani’s 2016 breakout campaign.)
Thanks in part to Hillman’s influence, the Fighters often defy Japanese baseball tradition, employing front-office-centric, analytics-oriented operating principles and a modern (and, mercifully, moderate) approach to practice. In 2012, they hired Hideki Kuriyama, a former marginal outfielder who had no previous coaching or managing experience. Kuriyama would later become the first Japanese manager to use Rays-style openers, and the first in decades to employ defensive shifts. But before introducing those innovations, he would help pave a path for Ohtani to play both ways. “Kuriyama is a quirky guy,” Coskrey says. “If you wanted to have someone as close to Joe Maddon as you could have in Japan, it’d probably be Kuriyama. … It’s not particularly surprising that someone doing something like this would have been under his watch.”
Deciding how to handle Ohtani wouldn’t have been Kuriyama’s call if the Fighters hadn’t drafted the teen despite his expressed wish not to be taken by an NPB team. In each round of the NPB draft, teams nominate the player they hope to select. If more than one team selects the same player, a lottery determines which club gets dibs. Teams that fail to sign a drafted player don’t receive a compensation pick in the next year’s draft, so drafting a player who’s said he wants to play elsewhere is a dangerous idea. Yet even prior to 2012, the Fighters had established themselves as mavericks by repeatedly picking players who had already stated their desire to sign with other clubs. Their hit-or-miss strategy had notably backfired in 2011, when the Fighters had drafted future ace Tomoyuki Sugano. Sugano, who had said he would sign only with the Giants (who were managed by his uncle, Tatsunori Hara), sat out the 2012 season rather than sign with the Fighters, then joined the Giants the following year.
Undaunted by their wasted pick the previous year, the Fighters became the only NPB team to call Ohtani’s name in the first round. “My own feelings are unchanged,” Ohtani said in response. “I am grateful they value me so highly. Right now, I am going to just practice in order to achieve my own goals.” In other words, thanks, but no thanks.
Then the Fighters went to work. Ken Iwamoto, a former Mets interpreter, joined the Fighters as Hillman’s interpreter and, in 2009, transitioned to the front office, where he remains. (As “team director,” he’s the NPB equivalent of an assistant general manager.) Iwamoto recalls that when the team’s scouting director met with Ohtani for the first time, the executive didn’t think he’d made much headway. “When he first met Ohtani directly to talk about the Fighters, he couldn’t read his mind at all,” Iwamoto says. “Ohtani never changed, never expressed his feelings, didn’t show his mindset in his face at all. So the scouting director thought it was unsuccessful. He didn’t really think Ohtani could change his mind.”
The Fighters, who had an exclusive negotiating window with Ohtani, persisted. The team made a presentation to Ohtani and his parents titled “The Path to Realizing Shohei Ohtani’s Dream,” in which it pointed out that almost all Japanese players who had thrived in MLB—including ex-Fighter Darvish—had passed through NPB. The team also described the unglamorous life that awaited Ohtani in the U.S. during what would probably be a long slog through the minor leagues. Perhaps most important, the Fighters tantalized Ohtani with a unique usage plan. Kuriyama met with the teenager multiple times and helped sell him on the team’s vision of Ohtani as NPB’s only nito-ryu, or two-way player.
“The key word is ‘pioneer,’” Iwamoto says. “We told him, ‘Hey, this thing, nobody’s ever done it before in Japanese baseball. And nobody really believed someone could do both at the professional level. But you could be the first one, and we support you a hundred percent.’” Former major league pitcher Brian Wolfe, who played for the Fighters from 2010 to 2013, says Kuriyama’s promise was stronger than the second-guessing. “I know he gave Ohtani his word that that was going to happen and that’s the way he was going to be used,” Wolfe says. “If he said something, that’s what it was. There wasn’t, ‘We’re going to change it later on.’”
The Fighters sweetened their pitch by offering Ohtani a signing bonus of 100 million yen (roughly $1 million) and the maximum rookie salary of 15 million yen (about $150,000). They also offered him Darvish’s old number, 11, which might otherwise have been retired. And they reportedly reached an understanding that the Fighters would post Ohtani when he was ready to move on to MLB. The full-court press persuaded the teen to change his mind about spurning NPB. By December, Ohtani was in, and against the odds, his hopes of breaking baseball’s mold were still alive. “If he had [been drafted by] the Giants, I think he’d be a hitter or a batter, or would have just gone to America,” Coskrey says. “But the Fighters are a team that were willing to give him a chance. Kuriyama is the kind of manager who does stuff like that.”
Through some combination of unparalleled talent, clever negotiating, and luck in finding the perfect partner, Ohtani had hit on the one way to bend baseball to his will and reshape a roster to suit his skills. By expressing his sincere preference for skipping straight to MLB, Ohtani created the leverage required to extract an unorthodox commitment from the Fighters. Six years later, he’d use the leverage conferred by free agency to secure the same promise from the Angels. If Ohtani had left for the U.S. years earlier or later, he might have made much more money, but based on his actions, maximizing his income isn’t his top priority. His bold bets on himself, backed up by the allure of his powerful bat and arm, allowed him to sidestep specialization and avert regret about the road not taken. “The irony is that had he not said he was going to go play in the States, then there’s zero chance he would have been a two-way player,” says journalist Jim Allen, who has covered Japanese baseball since the early 1990s. “And had he gone to the States, there’s zero chance he would have been a two-way player.” Sing it: “Here was a kid with his act down pat / From zero to hero in no time flat.”
When Ohtani was in high school, even the Fighters had been far from convinced that he was a future two-way star. “Some of our scouts said he’s a hitter, and some of them, he’s definitely a pitcher,” Iwamoto says. “But nobody really thought at that time that he could do both at the professional level.” When the Fighters went all in on Ohtani, they set about trying to prove their original evaluations wrong.
The first time Coskrey saw Ohtani in person was in January 2013 at a convention center outside Tokyo, where Nippon Ham was showing off both its edible product line and its baseball team’s rookie class. Thousands of fans came out to see the rookie—or, perhaps, the ham, which Ohtani dutifully scarfed down as the cameras clicked. “You’ve got Ohtani walking around in a suit that didn’t fit because it was one of his teammates’,” Coskrey recounts. “They’d stop and they’d give him something to eat, and he’d go around. … He was shy and he spoke really softly and he was really polite.”
With his ill-fitting clothes, quiet manner, and few wisps of hair tentatively sprouting above his upper lip, Ohtani looked his age off the field. “When he first got there, he was skinny,” says Micah Hoffpauir, the former Cubs hitter who had signed with the Fighters after the 2010 MLB season. “I mean really, really skinny.” Coskrey reported that Ohtani weighed a hair under 190 pounds on the day the Fighters introduced him and made him eat ham. (It’s not clear whether that weight was pre- or post-ham.) That number climbed quickly: “From day one, he was always lifting,” Iwamoto says. He’s officially listed at 210 pounds now, but he bulked up to 225 entering 2021, which means he’s added about 35 pounds—presumably, mostly muscle—to the same 6-foot-4 frame he had at 18.
Slender as he was, Ohtani made a major impression when he had a bat or ball in his hands. Hoffpauir remembers being skeptical when he and his veteran teammates heard about the 18-year-old kid who wanted to be a two-way player. “We were all sitting there going, ‘OK, he’s going to be really good at one and he’s just going to be OK at the other,’” Hoffpauir says. “So he’s going to be a thrower and he’s going to be a really good hitter, or he’s going to be a pitcher and he’s just going to be swinging at everything.”
Those doubts died in spring training. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Ohtani supplied some even before games began. Early in camp, Hoffpauir was hitting with a group of older players when a series of bat cracks rang out like rifle shots from a nearby field, drawing the other Fighters toward the source of the sounds. “We’re meandering back through there to see what’s going on, and it’s Shohei, and he’s hitting,” Hoffpauir says. “And man, just every ball he hit is coming off the bat really well, and just hard. It’s a different sound. … I remember hearing stories about [Josh Hamilton], the people hearing the ball come off the bat, going, ‘Damn, it sounds different.’ Ohtani was like that. Even at 18, he was like that.”
Fine, the kid could hit. But could he pitch? That question was answered a couple of days later, when Ohtani took the mound. “He’s out on the field and he’s throwing a sim game or something like that, a couple of hitters stepping in to watch him throw and take some swings or whatever,” Hoffpauir continues. “And the ball just effortlessly jumps out of his hand. And you’re like, ‘Holy crap, man, this is impressive.’ … We stood around the cage and watched, because it was fun to watch the ball come out of his hand like it did and know that this guy could potentially hit fourth in the lineup for us tonight, and he’d be really good at that too.”
Not everyone was won over immediately. Ohtani’s chosen course didn’t come without controversy, even though conditions were more conducive to disruption than they had been decades earlier. Robert Whiting, author of You Gotta Have Wa and several other books about Japanese baseball and culture, says via email that Ohtani “grew up in an era in which athletes were less afraid to challenge the system, having been influenced by [Hideo] Nomo’s 1995 defection to the States [and] Ichiro’s and [Hideki] Matsui’s big league successes. Before Nomo, no Japanese star was willing to take on the entire baseball establishment. His success in MLB sent a message to all other athletes.”
Yet as Allen notes, “It takes a lot of stones for an 18-year-old kid to come out and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” especially when what he’s going to do hasn’t been done before. Ohtani had ruffled feathers by declaring that he didn’t want to play in NPB—deepening fears of a mass exodus to the States that could devastate Japan’s top-level leagues—and then ruffled a few more by flip-flopping after telling teams not to draft him. Even after the fuss about his destination died down, NPB’s old guard still resented his quest to topple tradition, a bedrock of baseball in Japan. “There was a lot of skepticism and criticism toward [the] two-way attempt by old-school baseball people in Japan,” Yoshi Hasegawa, director for Japan baseball at the sports agency Octagon, says via email. “NPB [teams] have their own tradition, and there are certain things that they never change.” Kuriyama caused a stir in recent years when he started using openers, and last August Giants manager Tatsunori Hara “set the baseball media on fire,” Coskrey says, when he had the audacity to use a position-player pitcher for the first time since 2000. One can imagine the hot takes about Ohtani in 2013.
“There were a lot of players who felt he was taking the game very lightly,” Allen says. “And I think that’s at the root of the [attitude that] ‘You shouldn’t do both.’ That these people toil and sweat and spend that last hour to refine their swing plane, and here’s a guy who’s taking that last hour and throwing pitches in the bullpen.” Ohtani’s two-way dream made him a frequent target of NPB all-time hits leader turned curmudgeonly commentator Isao Harimoto, whose sniping persisted even after Ohtani’s rookie season.
"Shohei Ohtani is being childish. His selfish desire to hit is taking at-bats from real players, angering his teammates and keeping him from becoming the player he could be."— Jim Allen (@JballAllen) June 30, 2021
--Isao Harimoto after Shohei Ohtani hit 10 homers in 212 at-bats as a 19-year-old in 2014.
Most observers weren’t rooting for Ohtani to fail; they just thought it was inevitable that he’d have to lower his sights and become a conventional player—probably a pitcher, though projections varied. “There were a lot of people saying it couldn’t be done,” Coskrey says. “There were a lot of people [saying] he should pick one or the other.” And the naysayers weren’t limited to pundits and fans. Allen adds, “All the scouts were basically [saying], ‘What are the Fighters doing? They’re ruining this kid’s career.’”
Iwamoto acknowledges that Ohtani’s special circumstances sparked a backlash, but as he tells it, both Ohtani and the Fighters were unfazed. “Some of the commentators and ex-players, and some of the TV and radio shows and newspapers, said he should focus on [being] either a pitcher or a hitter, but he basically didn’t care at all,” Iwamoto says. “I don’t know if he watched those TV shows or read the newspapers, but he never said that it bothered him. And we all knew about it, but the club … didn’t really think about, ‘He can’t do both.’ So it didn’t really bother us at all.”
Whatever their opinions or prognostications about Ohtani, everyone in Japan who cared about baseball followed his first season closely. “You have this guy who’s like, ‘I’m going straight to the major leagues,’” Coskrey says. “Then you have the reports that [multiple major league teams] had been here to talk to him … coupled with the fact that ‘Oh, this kid’s going to try to hit and pitch,’ which no one is doing in Japan or MLB. The anticipation was at a fever pitch from the start.”
Ohtani wasn’t the first celebrity Hoffpauir played with in Japan. In 2011, Hoffpauir’s first year in Hokkaido, Darvish had been dominant, and former Koshien star Yuki Saito, “the Handkerchief Prince,” had made his NPB debut with the Fighters. “The media that followed [Saito] was kind of crazy,” Hoffpauir says. “But then when they drafted Ohtani, it was a whole ’nother ballgame. There were people everywhere.” Coskrey recalls, “His games were an event. You knew when Ohtani was playing even in his rookie year. … There was always some sort of buzz when Ohtani was around.” Bright as the lights trained on Ohtani will be both this week in Denver and throughout the second half of the season if he keeps up his MVP pace, the intense scrutiny is nothing he hasn’t dealt with for his whole adult life.
Ohtani’s precocity as a player was almost matched by his maturity and preternatural equanimity. “The thing that stuck out to me the most with Shohei was to watch the amount of media pressure that they had on him—constant, constant, constant, constant,” says Hoffpauir. “And to watch him still be able to be an 18-year-old kid and goof around with his teammates in the dugout and in the locker room and all that stuff, that was something.”
The Fighters tried to protect Ohtani from some of the media onslaught. The team “guarded him a lot,” Coskrey says. “They really made sure that there wasn’t too much of a media crush on him.” Wolfe, who was 32 when Ohtani arrived, says Ohtani “fit in well” in the clubhouse—where he still keeps things loose—but couldn’t hobnob with the rest of the roster after games. “They kind of handcuffed him on being able to hang out with the players off the field a lot, because they had a lot of restrictions on what he was allowed to do because he was so young,” says Wolfe. “He wasn’t allowed to go out to dinner or anything else. He had to be at the hotel, and then when we were back in Sapporo, he had to go right back to the dorm. So he wasn’t allowed to go out at all.” Then again, Ohtani tended to keep to the team dormitory and the gym even when he was older. “He’s a kind of a baseball monk,” Allen says.
Leading a semi-monastic, baseball-centric existence may be a prerequisite for holding down two jobs in the big leagues and doing both at an elite level. No other player has the raw tools to throw as hard as Ohtani does, hit the ball as hard as he does, and run as fast as he does. But not many more have the devotion and discipline needed to make it through both batting practices and bullpen sessions, study two sets of scouting reports, and maintain the training programs, recovery regimens, and nutrition plans that make his two-way high-wire act possible. Those qualities were evident in Ohtani early on.
“He was a very mild-mannered kid, very respectful, worked very hard,” says former major league pitcher Justin Thomas, who joined the Fighters midway through 2013. “He would come in a little early a lot of the time because he had his two-way responsibilities. … Just had his nose to the grindstone, always doing extra work, and always doing it with a smile on his face.” Iwamoto adds. “He’s never been stubborn. He was so humble. From the first day on, he never changed. … Not one time were we concerned about his character at all. He’s [been] more like a role model type of player since he was 18.” Even though being blessed with most of a Viltrumite’s powers might have made another player feel full of himself, Ohtani was outwardly egoless. “No arrogance,” Iwamoto says. “Nothing snobbish. Very nice guy to anyone, to everyone.”
Wolfe remembers Ohtani absorbing advice from veteran players and pitching coach Masato Yoshii, and Hoffpauir, who calls Ohtani “very, very serious about perfecting his craft,” says he sometimes asked for help picking up English. (Ohtani usually—though not always—uses an interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, who was one of the interpreters on the 2013 team and will pull double duty of his own as Ohtani’s catcher in the Derby.) Wolfe, who notes that no one on the 2013 team took issue with Ohtani’s two-way usage, says the player “still had that even keel like he does now,” adding, “He doesn’t get too high or too low. So he could be feeling different ways and you would never know by his expressions or what he did. … He’s just that even-keeled guy, which is what almost all athletes strive to be.” In later years, when Wolfe pitched for the rival Hawks and Lions, Ohtani always made his way over to the visitors’ side of the field to greet his old teammate, which Wolfe says many Japanese players don’t do with foreign players.
Although Ohtani batted eighth and played right field for the Fighters on opening day, he didn’t make his mound debut until May 23 (accompanied by a big bump in attendance). For the first several weeks of the season, Ohtani shuttled between the Fighters and their farm team, easing into his two-way role by pitching against lower-caliber competition. Allen remembers spotting Ohtani pulling a suitcase as he entered the Tokyo Dome on his way back from the minors, en route to talk to the press before a big league game at the Tokyo Dome. “There were days where he would pitch on the farm team during the day and hit for the top team at night,” Coskrey says.
Ohtani’s father, Toru, a former amateur outfielder, said in 2017 that his son “was a child who would try anything,” and that “If you didn’t take care to watch him, it was dangerous.” The Fighters sometimes had to hold the teen Ohtani back when he wanted to do more, taking advantage of NPB’s schedule (which is shorter than MLB’s and features weekly off days) to give him ample rest. Their restraint likely helped him in the long run, but finding a two-way rhythm probably took a toll on the rookie Ohtani’s stats.
“He wasn’t necessarily able, in my opinion, to get into a real groove,” Thomas says. “He would pitch one game, a couple of days off, play the field for a couple of days, then pitch, then a couple days off. … Early on it was, ‘How are we going to manage this guy’s workload? Are we going to let him play after he pitches? Are we going to give him days off? Does he need days off? He’s young.’ He was, obviously, a major project for that team.” But between the growing pains, his unsurpassed skills shone through. “Man, it was fun,” Hoffpauir says. “It was fun to watch him go and do his thing.”
For Wolfe, Ohtani’s most memorable work was on defense. “I was actually pitching in a couple of games where he was in right field, and he’s throwing the ball, and you’re like, ‘Holy cow,’” he says. For Thomas, the highlight was an “absolute bomb” Ohtani hit to right-center with a quiet, compact swing. Iwamoto mentions a pinch-hit homer he launched to left-center on July 14 without seeming to swing hard.
As Ohtani performed feats not seen outside of mangas, Coskrey says, “You watched the news every night and they’d be [saying], ‘Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth.’” The hype waxed and waned as Ohtani took on new tasks. Coskrey continues, “[At] the beginning of the season it was really high, the first time he started pitching it was really high, and then when he started pitching and hitting, it was really high, and it crescendoed at the All-Star game.” The All-Star Series started at Ohtani’s home park, where he pitched and played outfield in front of the fans who’d voted him in. In the next game, he hit leadoff. “The All-Star game was his coming out, to me, because you saw him do everything,” Coskrey says. “He was the show.” Ohtani, fresh off a feature in The New York Times, had just turned 19. “I don’t really remember a whole lot of weaknesses,” Hoffpauir says.
When the stats settled, Ohtani had compiled a .238/.284/.376 slash line (83 wRC+) in 204 plate appearances and a 4.23 ERA (111 RA-) in 61 2/3 innings, somewhat underwhelming figures in light of later heroics. “A lot of guys get that learning curve in the minor leagues, so it’s not showing up in the big leagues,” Wolfe says. “But he got thrust into the big leagues because his stuff was so good and he was so talented.” With strength, experience, and a more consistent schedule, he sharpened his control and polished his sense of the strike zone. His numbers (and stuff) would be much more impressive the following year: According to DeltaGraphs, his 94.6 MPH average four-seamer velocity in 2014 led all NPB pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched, and his combined 7.0 WAR placed him among the league leaders. He’d level up again in 2016 and 2021. But considering the degree of difficulty, the rookie had more than held his own. “We never really discussed his stats in the first year, because he was 18,” Iwamoto says. “And it was already amazing that he could do something at the major league level.”
Among most observers, Ohtani’s inaugural season “wasn’t particularly heralded as, ‘Oh my God, look at what this guy did,’” Coskrey says. “It was more, ‘Wow, maybe this can be done. Let’s see how it goes from here.’ … He didn’t set the world on fire, but it was like … ‘Maybe this guy can do it,’ because he was a rookie—a rookie doing two things coming out of high school, not even college.” But even aside from his competent pitching, Ohtani’s 15 doubles and 18 extra-base hits put him in rare company. Per Allen’s research, almost all of the NPB hitters who’d managed a similar power output at such an early age developed into Hall of Fame–caliber players.
If there’s a theme to Ohtani, at 18 or 27, it’s how easy he makes the improbable appear. “The lack of effort that it looks like he’s putting out whenever he’s hitting a baseball and throwing a baseball is something that will always stick out in my mind,” Hoffpauir says. But the two-way idol’s smooth moves shouldn’t hide how hard this is. There was nothing inevitable about this singular season, and no “next Ohtani” has taken his place in Japan.
At every step of the way, detractors understandably doubted he could do this. Now that he’s doing it, they’ll doubt he can keep doing it, right up until the day age or injury makes him mortal. No matter how high he soars, someone—from Harimoto in 2016 to assorted MLB scouts in 2018 to MLB Network commentators in 2021—is always waiting for his wings to melt. Normally, the players praised for overcoming obstacles and proving people wrong are undersized, underpowered, or underprivileged, not genetic jackpots like Ohtani, a “total package” with a heartthrob-handsome face and a physique that Chipper Jones recently labeled “one of the best baseball bodies I’ve ever seen.” Ohtani may be built more like Goliath than David, but he’s both: a giant who still landed a long shot.