Monday, April 2, 2018

Chase Down the Rising Sun: Shohei Ohtani Faces the Hype

Twenty-three year old Shohei Ohtani took the mound for the first time in a Major League stadium on Sunday. His slender, six-foot-four frame seemed relaxed despite the situation. For years, Ohtani had been a star in Japan. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, he was something resembling an urban legend. A pitcher who can hit towering home runs seemingly at will. A power hitter who can flirt with 100 miles per hour and then bring a sinker and a slider that moves as if it's possessed. The yoke of expectation that comes with the label of the next Babe Ruth is enough to break anyone. Ohtani just wants to play baseball.

The narratives seem to write themselves, and for the most part they seem to be a burden that believes if Ohtani is not an all-time great pitcher and/or an hitter, he is a bust. Given the history of Japanese imports in America, it's tough to argue against that idea. For every Ichiro Suzuki, there is a Tsuyoshi Shinjo, both debuting in 2001 but having dramatically different effects in MLB.

Fifty-five Japanese players have played in Major League Baseball, forty-six of whom began their Stateside careers this century. These players tend to be the absolute cream of the crop, and most times this brings about a weight of pressure and expectation.

This is not just on the cultural impact for the Japanese fan base. The teams doling out upwards of twenty million dollars just to negotiate with the player's current club have an enormous financial stake in the player's success.

The Los Angeles Angels were selected by Ohtani in a winter bidding war between several teams. Shohei needed the opportunity to pitch, but also wanted time to hit between his starts. The designated hitter position favored American League clubs, and Western teams were seen as optimal given their openness to the Japanese market. Ohtani also wanted to play for a franchise that did not already have a Japanese star, thereby eliminating Seattle.

At the plate, Ohtani fits into a lineup of Zack Cozart, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, Kole Calhoun and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and the phenomenon that is Mike Trout. On the mound, he figures to potentially be the top of the rotation soon. Many sportswriters speculate that Ohtani will be a full-time pitcher within a year or so, but the Angels definitely have plans to utilize his bat.

On Thursday, March 28th, Ohtani debuted at the plate. Following a spring training that was viewed as anything but encouraging, Manager Mike Scioscia decided to place Shohei in the eighth spot of the lineup. In his first at-bat, he singled to right field on the first offering from Athletics' pitcher Kendall Graveman.

The subsequent four plate appearances ended without a hit.

Scioscia's schedule for Ohtani's bat was set in a way that he would not hit the day before or the day after a pitching start, and for now at least he would not hit for himself in an American League ballpark.

Then came Sunday. Marked on the iphone calendar of yours truly the moment it was announced, Shohei Ohtani's MLB pitching debut was must-watch baseball.

His first pitch to Marcus Semien was a chest-high fastball on the inner half of the plate. Radar guns clocked it at 96.4 miles per hour. By my count, it was his first of thirty-nine pitches at or above 95 mph.

A clean first inning of strikeout-groundout-strikeout pitching gave way to a second inning that was all but dominant. Ohtani rung up Khris Davis on a nasty slider but soon after began a streak of missed location. The result was a pair of singles by Matt Joyce and Stephen Piscotty and a three-run bomb by Matt Chapman.

Almost as quickly as the deluge of Oakland offense came, it disappeared. Once the inning was over, Mike Scioscia was seen giving Ohtani a pep talk in the dugout through an interpreter. The third inning lasted twelve pitches. Aside from walking Matt Joyce in the fourth, Ohtani faced the minimum amount of batters.

His fastball stayed consistent around 97 miles per hour into the sixth. His power pitch was typically his setup to a breaking ball around ten miles per hour slower. There were only three instances when a batter saw more than three or more pitches but no fastballs in an at bat. Two of those were to Khris Davis.

By the time the sixth inning had arrived, his Angels had plated four runs to take the lead back from Oakland. Now in line for the win, his regained dominance was in effect. The third out was committed by Davis, who once again fell victim to the breaking ball. In the second inning, it was the slider. Three straight high and inside to strike him out. In the sixth it was the sinker, low and outside, each hovering around ninety. Davis popped out to shortstop Andrelton Simmons and Ohtani's day was through.

The pitcher win is an outdated statistic, but in terms of value to the pitcher himself, its a crucial competitive element. The Angels scored three more runs and only allowed one more in the ninth, winning the game 7 to 4.

The next Babe Ruth had won his first MLB start.

One game at bat and one game pitched is nowhere near enough to evaluate his talents. It will take years to fully understand the entirety of his potential.

For one day, however, Shohei Ohtani lived up to the hype.

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