Ohtani rules

Well of course he does, but this is about how and why MLB has adjusted its game to make room for the Shohei Ohtani two-way player phenomenon on Friday by changing its rules to make the non-English speaking face of the game even more prominent.

Ohtani’s two-way career may have gotten started in Japan, but it started here only because his 100-mph fastball gave the high schooler the leverage to turn down the Nippon Ham Fighters and sign with an MLB club. To be fair, Ohtani and the Fighters deserve credit for his development in an environment basically hostile to the idea of a two-way player.

Let’s face it, Ohtani only became the AL’s 2018 rookie of the year and 2021 MVP because teams knew in December 2017 that if they wanted his fastball and splitter, they had to suck it up and let Ohtani try to hit MLB pitching, even if they didn’t want to and didn’t believe it was possible.

Any baseball person who tells you they saw Ohtani as a slugging high school pitcher in Japan and thought at the time he could be a two-way pro is full of shit.

Pro baseball around the world believed in specialization, and no one was going to tell it differently. Nippon Ham was certainly no exception.

The Fighters, however, faced a dilemma. Ohtani wanted to play in MLB, and Nippon Ham was desperate to find a way to keep him from taking his fastball straight to America out of high school.

So they put their thinking caps on and offered him a two-way role. They then hit the jackpot with their longshot gamble.

Ohtani’s success in Japan only moved the needle in Japanese baseball thinking from “no one could possibly be a two-way player, “to “only Ohtani can be a two-way player.”

To admit that less talented players could succeed in dual roles, would be to admit that decades of teaching had been wrong, and that’s not something people quickly own up to, and Japan is no exception.

Since Ohtani was taken in the first round of NPB’s 2012 draft as the joint fourth overall pick*, Japan has been a two-way desert. On Nov. 28, 2016, when Ohtani was voted the PL’s MVP, best pitcher, and best DH. How did Japanese teams respond? They did nothing.

Less than seven months later, on June 12, 2017, the Tampa Bay Rays selected University of Louisville first baseman and pitcher Brandon McKay fourth overall in MLB’s June draft AS a two-way player.

When MLB decided to cut down on pitching changes in 2020 by limiting the number of active pitchers on the roster to 13, an exception was made for Ohtani and other two-way players, OK, basically Ohtani.

In the All-Star Game, MLB allowed Ohtani to be listed as both pitcher AND DH and treat him as two different players for the purpose of staying in the game because it had a good thing, and wanted to make the most of it. On Friday, MLB announced its “Amended Designated Hitter Rule” which, again, basically allows Ohtani and others to both pitch and DH, stay in the game in one role while being replaced in the other.

After the announcement, Ohtani said according to Kyodo News, “This kind of movement didn’t happen during my time in Japan. “I feel grateful that the American side has taken a more flexible approach.”

Of course, MLB’s “flexibility” comes from the teams’ heightened sensitivity to making a fast buck as witnessed by MLB and its teams selling out to gambling interests and private streaming services that limit access to their product for huge short-term gain at the expense of the base business. If MLB broadcasts are not announcing Ohtani as a “Ceasar’s Palace two-way player” by the all-star break, I’ll be surprised.

To be fair, MLB can change its rules through a simple agreement with its players’ union. Changing rules in Japanese pro baseball requires endless rounds of consultation with and the approval of all of baseball’s associated federations who are represented on the Baseball Rules Committees.

It’s a baseball version of asking how many people are required to change a light bulb. In Japan, it’s sometimes easier just to read by candlelight.

Baseball fans want more two-way players. Ohtani’s exciting, but it’s not just him. And in their effort to sell Ohtani, MLB may back into having more players sliding into similar roles, that will make the game better.

And while MLB gets something right out of its slovenly greedy self-interest, Japanese baseball eats up the praise for having developed a two-way role it wanted nothing to do with. But I guarantee you that if it does become routine, Japan will claim that its old ways and old teachings were what made it all possible.

*-Because Japan’s entry draft involves lotteries, I rank draft order as:

  1. The number of teams selecting that player in the draft that ended up in a lottery. This made the 2012 draft’s first three players 1. Shintaro Fujinami (4), 2. Nao Higashihama (3), and 3. Yudai Mori (2).
  2. The players selected by one team as first pick. In 2012, this was Ohtani, Tomoyuki Sugano and Koji Fukutani.
  3. Players selected by more than one team as first alternates. This made Tatsushi Masuda and Takahiro Matsunaga joint seventh in 2012.
  4. Players selected by only one team as first alternates. This made Hiroyuki Shirasaki and Taichi Ishyama joint ninth.
  5. Players selected by more than one team as second alternates. None in 2012.
  6. Players selected by one team as second alternates. This made Takahiro Matsuba and Hiroki Takahashi joint 11th.

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