Shohei Ohtani: Behind the curtain

Hiroshima’s Brad Eldred has seen Shohei before.

It’s hard to tell sometimes where one story stops and another starts, and so it’s been for Shohei Ohtani.

A tall hard-throwing rookie pitcher with batting-practice power, Ohtani was perhaps the biggest question mark of the year. Major leaguers wondered whether he could succeed at both pitching and hitting. If he could, would he be able to keep it up, playing in a much-more competitive environment than he was used to?

The things people said about Ohtani this spring as a 23-year-old with the Los Angeles Angels are the same things said five years ago about him as an 18-year-old with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Hiroshima’s Brad Eldred was on hand at Mazda Stadium, when Japan watched as the two-way rookie batted and pitched in a game for the first time as a pro.

“I witnessed his draft and all the hype. There haven’t been that many players who’ve been as popular. I remember I saw him the day before going to the gym and I thought, ‘That’s a big guy,’” Eldred said.

Casey McGehee, now with the Yomiuri Giants, was the first player in NPB to bat against Ohtani in a game, a preseason contest between the Fighters and Rakuten Eagles at Tokyo Dome.

“Everybody knew about him,” McGehee said. “They said he threw 100 miles per hour, so I figured, maybe he might throw 90.”

McGehee struck out on a slider after seeing a 151 kilometer-per -hour (93.8 mile-per-hour) fastball, but Ohtani was just getting warmed up, he hit 157 kph (97.6 mph) and sat at 156 kph (96.9 mph).

“His breaking balls weren’t there,” McGehee said. “He still had kind of a high school curve, but his fastball. That was legit. I said to Andruw (Jones), ‘Did you see that?’”

Brandon Laird has had a three-year, front-row seat for the Ohtani show.

Third baseman Brandon Laird joined the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2015, Ohtani’s third spring as a pro.

“I didn’t hear anything about him till I was on the team,” Laird said. “Our interpreter, Ippei (Mizuhara), was saying, ‘This guy (Ohtani) is the next big thing and he’s going to go to the States.’ At first I watched him pitch. That was impressive, and then a couple of days later, I saw him take BP in Okinawa and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is the same guy?’ He hit the ball farther than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

McGehee returned to Japan last year for the first time since 2013, and was stunned by Ohtani’s batting progress despite only being a part-time designated hitter.

“Not seeing him for a few years and coming back last year, seeing the progress he made to clean up his swing, I thought was pretty remarkable,” McGehee said. “So you can tell he has a high baseball intelligence, able to apply changes quickly.”

“I saw a pretty good progression as far as a hitter without having all that many at-bats between injuries and the way they managed him.”

After watching Ohtani up close for five years, Japan’s foreign players watched as big leaguers said over the winter they couldn’t conceive of a player actually doing both. When Ohtani failed to impress this March, panic buttons were being pushed, and Hiroshima pitcher Jay Jackson was asked by friends what was wrong with Ohtani.

“I said, ‘It’s spring training,’” Jackson said. “As a big leaguer, nobody cares about spring training. You’re just trying to get your reps in to prepare for the season. I said, ‘Ohtani will be fine. He’ll make adjustments.’”

“He wasn’t getting his leg down on really good fastballs. That’s all he had to was put the foot down and his natural ability and his raw power took over. Pitching-wise, all he’s got to do to be successful is start locating and getting his offspeed stuff around the zone and ‘Boom,’ everything else is history. He’s just too good and his talent is too good to not be successful.”

The speed of Ohtani’s adjustments against both major league hitters and pitchers has been closely watched by former major leaguers playing in Japan.

“You’ve got to root for him. I’ve become an Angels fan,” Giants pitcher Scott Mathieson said. “He’s extremely talented. He loves the game, and he’s a good guy. How can anyone not like him?”

Ohtani’s choice of the unheralded Angels may have surprised America, but drew applause here.

“There are probably a bunch of places that are just as good, but I know a number of the guys on the Angels pretty well, and he couldn’t have walked into a better group of baseball guys,” McGehee said. “When you’re talking to them, they genuinely like him and genuinely want him to do well at both.

“It seems like he wants to learn and is eager to learn, and knowing those guys, I know they’re eager to help and eager to teach.”

Jackson, who also knows Angels players, said much the same.

“I played with Justin Upton. I played with Blake Parker. Those guys say he (Ohtani) is quiet but is a good dude. He’s got a good vibe. That’s all you can ask for out of your teammates, having a good vibe, a good mentality and being positive.”

“He picked the place that was best suited to him, that would make him happy. I tell everyone, ‘Do whatever you feel is going to make you happiest.’”

Once the season started, Ohtani exploded onto the scene, setting up a high profile May 27 matchup against New York Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka. As a rookie, Ohtani batted against that year’s Pacific League MVP 11 times, was hitless with six strikeouts. Despite five years additional experience against pro pitchers, Ohtani managed just a walk at Yankee Stadium. After the game, Tanaka said Ohtani was just another important out, but McGehee wasn’t buying it.

“(In 2013, Tanaka) turned it up a notch when a runner got on base, but he was always that way against Ohtani. It was like Tanaka was saying, ‘I’m going to show you that you’re not in the same league with me,’ and that game in New York was the same way. There was no way Tanaka was going to let Ohtani get a hit off him.”

It’s treatment Ohtani will have to get used to in the majors, although perhaps without the intensity Tanaka brings.

Shohei Ohtani shares a moment with Dennis Sarfate.

“He’s going to start seeing better stuff,” SoftBank Hawks closer Dennis Sarfate said. “They’re going to start pitching to him like they pitched to Albert Pujols in his prime. He’s going to be that guy where they’re going to give a little extra.”

Over the winter, Sarfate said pitchers need to start Ohtani with hard pitches inside and get him to chase low pitches away. At the start of the season, however, Ohtani was ready for that tactic. He would back off the plate and open up in order to hammer inside fastballs. The watershed moment was homering off a 97-mph Luis Severino inside fastball. Since then, pitchers have stopped pitching Ohtani inside so much.

“The coaches are trying to help him and he’s listening,” Sarfate said. “He’s definitely a threat to both sides of the plate. I still think you have to go in on him. If he’s looking in, he’s going to hit it. That home run off Severino was Ohtani knowing he throws hard and he’s going to pound him in. I’ve seen a lot of guys try to go in and they think it’s in, but it’s coming back over the plate.”

Sarfate said the second half is going to bring an issue Ohtani is not accustomed too, fast bats in the hot summer months.

“It’s going to be a little different between pitching against Chiba Lotte in July and August and pitching against the Astros in July and August,” Sarfate said. “Japanese hitters tend to get tired. Everyone gets exhausted. The Japanese pitchers have thrown a million pitches, swung a thousand times a day. Guys get tired. They work so hard every day.”

“I want to see his adjustments come July and August, because big league guys don’t do as much as the guys in Japan do. Guys get tired, but it’s not the same tired. You’re not going to see these long slow swings. You’re still seeing all-stars. So that’s an adjustment.”

The data over the past four seasons from America and Japan indicates Japanese baseball slows down more after June than in the majors. Two speed indicators — the percentage of triples per plate appearance and the stolen base success rates — drop much more in Nippon Professional Baseball. And though Ohtani was a solid second-half hitter in NPB, his 2.80 ERA from the start of July was over half a run higher than it was through June (2.25). Since 2013, ERAs across NPB rose by 1 percent from July 1. Ohtani’s increased by 25 percent.

Everyone, even those who believe Ohtani should focus on either pitching or hitting, is pulling for him to succeed in his dual role. For years, players and scouts doubted whether any club would actually let Ohtani bat full time. Now Japan’s foreign players are thrilled the Angels are letting him continue down his unusual path.

“I thought the same thing. He’s got a great arm. He’s going to pitch. They’re not going to let him hit,” Eldred said. “Hats off to the Angels for allowing him the opportunity to do it. I’m sure they’re going to let him keep doing it as long as he continues to do his job. He’s got the talent to do it.”
Laird, who believes Ohtani is a future major league ace pitcher, still wants to see what he could do as a full-time hitter.

“In Japan he would easily hit 40 homers,” Laird said. “A full season in the big leagues he would easily hit 30-35 home runs. With his power and his talent, I feel he could do it.”

Sarfate, goes further. He believes the batter’s box is Ohtani’s natural habitat.

“He’s exceeded my expectations on pitching so far. I didn’t think he’d do this well, because I’m a strong believer that he’s a hitter for his career,” Sarfate said. “He’s just got so many tools. I am starting to see some stuff with the pitching, but I just don’t see the same demeanor, like when you watch Darvish or Tanaka, he doesn’t have the same mound presence, but he has a hitter’s presence.”

Although Sarfate believes it is impossible to continue doing both, he too is entranced by Ohtani’s quest, following every game closely as he rehabs from hip surgery in Arizona.

“It’s cool to watch,” McGehee said. “I find myself checking on him more than I thought I would. It’s one of the first things I do in the morning is check the box score. A couple of my buddies play on that team, but that’s one of the first scores I go to every day.”

“It’s obviously cool, and it’s obviously difficult what he’s doing. But at the same time, it (pitching and hitting) is about the purest form of baseball you can get.”

Eldred said, “That’s every player’s dream. Everybody wants to see it.”
It’s a story – whether at its beginning, its end, or somewhere in between – that never gets old.

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