Shohei Otani is an international superstar along the lines of Ichiro Suzuki, and a 23-year-old talent with the long-term horizon of a Mike Trout or Bryce Harper. Most important, Ohtani wants to be a pitcher and a hitter on a regular basis. With the possible exception of Babe Ruth and Brooks Kieschnick, few players have aspired to that level of versatility.
So before Ohtani went about the business of picking a team, agent Nez Balelo and CAA took an unusual step and sent a questionnaire asking teams to outline their plans, philosophies and systems in place to help make this unprecedented partnership work.
“I didn’t think the questionnaire was a big deal, because teams already had figured out they better have answers to those questions,” said the general manager for a team that did not make Ohtani’s final cut. “If you couldn’t figure out what was going to be important, then you had no shot.”
On Friday afternoon, the mystery came to an end. Ohtani and CAA announced that he had picked the Los Angeles Angels over six other finalists. Come spring training, Ohtani will join Trout and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols in making Tempe Diablo Stadium a star-powered Cactus League destination.
The Angels can take gratification in having outlasted the competition. But in some respects, the hard work is just beginning. Here are some hurdles Ohtani and his new team will have to traverse in his transition from Japanese sensation to Major League Baseball fixture.
Pat Gillick was general manager of the Seattle Mariners in 2000, when the team spent $13,125,000 for the rights to Ichiro, a seven-time batting champion who was intent on making the jump to the United States at age 27. Ichiro’s track record was extensive, but he was something of a trailblazer as a Japanese position player looking to make an impact in the majors.
Ichiro quickly allayed any concerns, batting .350 with 242 hits and 56 steals to win the American League Rookie of the Year award. He joined MLB’s 3,000-hit club in 2016 and hit .255 this season at age 43.
“In Ichiro’s case, there was a feeling around the team of, ‘You know what? We want to do everything possible to make him succeed,'” Gillick said. “There was doubt that he could make the adjustment coming over from Japan, where they had smaller ballparks and a different level of competition, and people looked at it like high Triple-A.”
Ichiro and Hideki Matsui have since answered any questions about stardom in Japan translating to the U.S. Now Ohtani will try to blaze a different trail. He’ll be under tremendous scrutiny because of his impressive two-way skill set.
“This is not just signing a player,” said a longtime MLB executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s somebody who’s really talented in a lot of ways — in both sides of the game. He’s 23 years old and coming from another country, and all of that makes him unique.
“When he pitches, it will be an event. When he hits, it will be an event. This is such a big story in Asia. I’m not saying it’s a playoff-game atmosphere, but suddenly you look around and you’ve got 50 media — not 15 or 20. You don’t have five people covering your team during a road game, but 35 to 40. You have to prepare for all those dynamics. There’s something different than in the typical course of a day.”
The media onslaught
Bob Melvin managed Ichiro in Seattle and Matsui in Oakland. He saw enough to know that the presence of a Japanese superstar might necessitate some extra planning on the part of the media relations department and add to the manager’s workload — not to mention tax his patience and creativity on occasion.
“There’s a contingent that’s just reporting on one guy, so you have to be patient and answer all the questions and understand every question they have is going to be about that guy,” Melvin said. “There’s a press [briefing] before the game, and then another half of one that you know is just gonna be about that player. And they have to write something every game. The guy goes 0-for-4 and nothing happens, and they still have a story to do. From the manager’s standpoint, there’s quite a bit more that goes into it.”
The impact on clubhouse chemistry
In all likelihood, Ohtani’s new teammates in Anaheim will welcome him enthusiastically because they understand the impact he can have on the club’s success and admire the difficulty of his undertaking.
But if he struggles on the field amid all that attention, there’s always the possibility of grousing or an internal backlash. The same applies if he succeeds and the narrative surrounding the team is all about Ohtani.
“I suppose if a player is next to his locker and Ohtani’s not doing anything to help the team, and said player has to wait 20 to 30 minutes for a throng of reporters and TV cameras to clear the way every day, there would be some animosity or disdain over time,” John E. Gibson, a longtime baseball journalist in Japan, said in an email. “However, that kind of clubhouse chemistry is going to exist whether the player receiving the attention is from Japan, Mars or Mudville.
“Guys who produce and gain [recognition] — who can hate that kind of player? A guy who doesn’t produce and constantly stays in the limelight and gets rock-star treatment is bound to cause friction. I don’t think that would be unique to Ohtani.”
Ohtani, by all accounts, is humble and sincere and has very little diva in him. He made a statement about his priorities when he decided to leave Japan at 23 rather than wait two more years and snag a nine-figure contract. A positive reputation precedes him.
“To me, it sounds like he’s a driven guy,” Gillick said. “He’s not afraid of competition, and he’s not afraid of failure. It seems like he marches to a little different drummer.”
The cultural adjustment
Ohtani will have a full-time interpreter and receive all the help he needs finding a comfortable place to live, transportation to and from the park, favorite restaurants and other personal accoutrements. Whether his support system consists of one or two people or an entourage, he’ll have all the resources required for him to focus on baseball and baseball alone.
Ohtani has some other things working in his favor. He has been preparing for this moment for years. He has already received an extraordinary amount of attention at an early age. And he has trained in Arizona the past two springs with his Japanese club, the Nippon Ham Fighters, so he has received a small-sample-sized taste of life in the U.S.
“There’s a lot of American culture in Japan,” Gibson said. “It’s not like he’s from Pluto, for goodness’ sake. And he has played with and consulted with the non-Japanese players on his team and with others, and he knows a lot about what to expect in the United States.”
The demands on the training and medical staff
Stan Conte, a former head athletic trainer for the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers who is now a medical research consultant for Major League Baseball, said he knows of no studies that have examined the physical impact on ballplayers who play both ways. The closest comparables to Ohtani are elite college players who pitch and play in the field. But they’re doing it for 50 or 60 games — not 162 games, plus spring training, plus the postseason, should it come to that.
Ohtani’s schedule and routine will require constant monitoring and vigilance from manager Mike Scioscia and the Angels’ staff. Starting pitchers focus more on running than their position-player counterparts, but they’re unaccustomed to standing in the outfield for two hours per game three or four days a week. How much of a physical toll can that take over a span of six months?
“The biggest management issue is playing time and recovery,” Conte said. “It involves a lot of different people in the organization — the medical people, the strength and conditioning coach, the pitching coach and the manager. How are you going to utilize him, and what safeguards are you going to put in place? And are those safeguards more theory than reality? You might lay out a program that you think is going to work, but you’re going to have to watch really carefully.
“At 23, he has youth on his side. There’s no reason to superficially say he would have a higher injury rate [by playing both ways]. The question is, would he wear down? We know that fatigue is a major contributor to pitching injuries because it can affect mechanics.”
Justin Verlander provided some insight into the mindset of the elite pitcher in October when he attributed his longevity at age 34 to his unrelenting devotion to routine. Hitters might vary their routines and take more or less batting practice or soft toss depending on how their swings feel at a given time. The best starting pitchers tend to be more creatures of habit.
“The routine for starting pitchers is very systematic,” Conte said. “They know exactly what they’re going to do each day with their running, their lifting, their recovery and their bullpens. When you talk to Clayton Kershaw, from the last pitch of the game he just pitches, he goes through a routine for the next five days that hardly changes at all.
“This guy [Ohtani] may not need that type of program. If he was successful in Japan, I would be looking very closely at what he did each day if I could get that information [from the Fighters]. How did they achieve that?”
In 2016, Ohtani accumulated 140 innings on the mound and 382 plate appearances. That workload provides at least a general road map for what he can handle.
The need to be flexible
ESPN’s Buster Olney recently spelled out many of the possible scenarios for Ohtani’s schedule and workload. Since Ohtani opted for an American League team, he’ll have the opportunity to both play in the field or DH. The Texas Rangers, according to reports, were among the clubs considering the idea of a six-man rotation. It’s uncertain how the Angels plan to use Ohtani.
It’s apples and oranges to an extent, but Louisville coach Dan McDonnell provided some insight into the care and feeding of a two-way player when he described some of the accommodations the Cardinals made for Brendan McKay, the talented two-way prospect selected in the first round of the draft by the Tampa Bay Rays.
When McKay took grounders at first base during infield practice, the Louisville staff added a twist: Rather than toss balls back to the coach wielding the fungo bat, McKay was instructed to make the shorter, less-taxing flip to a team manager at first base. McDonnell calculated the effort saved in his head and determined that seemingly minor changes might add up over an extended time frame.
“I’m thinking, ‘If you throw it back to the fungoer 35 times a day and multiply that by a week, a month and then a year, you just made a thousand more throws overhand. I don’t need you making those throws,'” McDonnell said. “Sometimes we get a little too protective of Brendan, and he doesn’t like that.”
Dealing with the newness of it all
Teams filled out their questionnaires and outlined their game plans for Ohtani in advance. But once he steps on the field and the plan needs tweaking, adjustments will be necessary on the fly.
Everyone in the ballpark will be watching the first time Ohtani tries to score from first base on a double or slides into second to try to disrupt a double-play pivot. Preparation only counts for so much when reality intervenes and Ohtani’s dual roles intermingle.
“If you’re the pitching coach or manager, and he’s playing the outfield, and you’re in the eighth inning and the tying run is on second base, and he’s made 110 pitches the day before, and all of a sudden he makes a throw and hurts his arm, that’s a problem,” Gillick said.
Some baseball observers think Ohtani will eventually have to back off his two-way dream scenario and concentrate more on one pursuit than the other. As Ohtani tests his limits in the quest to make history, this has all the makings of a captivating storyline.
“It’s good for baseball,” Conte said. “And it’s going to be fascinating to watch.”