Monday, May 27, 2024

‘Shotime’ Ohtani — the unicorn on a blockbuster run

Athletic marvel: The 6’4” Ohtani is in a class of his own, whether it’s pitching right-handed or batting southpaw. Photo credit: Getty Images

Athletic marvel: The 6’4” Ohtani is in a class of his own, whether it’s pitching right-handed or batting southpaw. Photo credit: Getty Images

Out of the park: Ohtani slugged 80 home runs over the course of the last two MLB seasons — most of them humongous blasts off the bat with high exit velocity. Photo credit: Getty Images

Out of the park: Ohtani slugged 80 home runs over the course of the last two MLB seasons — most of them humongous blasts off the bat with high exit velocity. Photo credit: Getty Images

Virtuoso, versatile, unicorn — these are the adjectives that emanate from every baseball analyst and aficionado asked to describe Shohei Ohtani. The 6’4” Japanese player is indeed in a class of his own — a true all-rounder in a sport that has become specialised like no other in recent years.

Ohtani is the only man to have played as both lead pitcher and everyday batter in the same Major League Baseball (MLB) season in a century. He won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for his two-way excellence, batting southpaw and pitching right-handed, in 2021 and finished a close second in 2022. 

He topped these achievements with a spectacular performance for Japan in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) last month. He starred in his country’s third triumph — the most for any nation in the competition’s five editions — and was the tournament’s MVP.

Ohtani wasn’t just pulling double duty against the United States, baseball’s powerhouse cradle, in the WBC final in Miami. He scored a hit, walked once and, in the last (ninth) inning, turned closing pitcher — a specialised role requiring a different mentality to the starting pitcher’s. 

The US was trailing 2-3 but had three recent MLB MVPs lined up to bat — Mookie Betts (2018), Mike Trout (2019) and Paul Goldschmidt (2022) — following pinch-hitter Jeff McNeal.

Ohtani walked McNeal in a rocky start, but quickly recovered and got Betts and McNeal out in a double play, setting up an encounter with Los Angeles Angels teammate Trout, one of the best hitters of this generation, a three-time MVP and also US captain.

A moment for the ages

It was showtime baseball and a coincidental moment for the ages. The millions of fans — most of whom were watching on TV sets in Japan — could not have wished for anything better. Trout vs. Ohtani in a must-deliver situation: a power-hitter facing a power-pitcher. Their shared history with the underperforming Angels — the team has not advanced to the MLB playoffs in their five years together — made the match-up all the more fascinating.

Ohtani had elected to play for the Angels after an early switch in 2018 from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Japan’s premier league, widely considered the best baseball tourney outside the MLB. He had already wowed scouts and observers with his unique two-way play in the NPB, winning multiple titles and awards by the time he was 23. 

Ohtani promised to become the first two-way operator in the MLB in nearly a century. The last player with respectable pitching and hitting numbers over a single season was the legendary George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth in 1919, when he hit 29 home runs in 543 batting appearances, pitched 133 ⅓ innings and had a 9-5 winning record with an earned run average (ERA, runs allowed per 9 innings pitched) of 2.97.

Ohtani had a tough start in the US, injuries limiting him to a ‘designated hitter’ role — a batter who does not field. Following the well-known but risky Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow, he worked his way into two-way form only after the pandemic-hit 2020 season. 

In 2021, ‘Shotime’, as Ohtani was soon to be termed, was fully on. 

In a dazzling season, Ohtani hit 46 home runs (third in the league) — most of them humongous blasts off the bat with high exit velocity — and recorded a batting average of 0.257 and an on-base plus slugging average of 0.965 (fifth in the league), with 100 runs batted in (RBIs) and 103 runs scored. As a pitcher, he went 9-2, with a 3.18 ERA. 

His two-way excellence helped him achieve an estimated Wins above Replacement player (WAR) rating — a measure of a player’s value in terms of how many additional wins he would be worth over a replacement-level or fill-in player — of 9.0, the highest in the league. It was no surprise that he was adjudged the league MVP.

In 2022, he was even more well-rounded. His pitching reached new heights, earning him 15 wins (and 9 losses) in 28 starts, 219 strikeouts, a stupendous 2.33 ERA, and 6.2 WAR just as a pitcher. His batting average increased to 0.273, with 34 home runs, 95 RBI and 90 runs. Ohtani had again reached elite levels both as batter and pitcher. His 9.6 WAR was second only to New York Yankees power-hitter and MVP Aaron Judge (10.6).

So, when Ohtani faced Trout, it was an elite match-up. 

Ohtani started with a slider that found the catcher’s mitt just outside the strike zone, for Ball 1. He followed that with a 100mph fastball bang within the strike zone. Trout whiffed — Strike 1. The next pitch was another 100mph fastball but it just missed the strike zone, for Ball 2. The fourth pitch was a repeat of the second — an accurate 100mph fastball, for Strike 2. The fifth pitch was a 102mph heater that kept low and missed the strike zone, for Ball 3.

Asked later about his strategy, Ohtani revealed that he decided to stick to fast balls after the first lower-velocity slider, as he sensed that Trout seemed to be expecting variety, not straight-up heat. With a full count (3 balls and 2 strikes), however, Ohtani decided to rely on precision and skill in his sixth pitch — a beautiful 87mph slider that swayed away from Trout’s bat-swing in a perfect trajectory, delivering Strike 3 and a 3-2 victory for Japan.

Over the course of a fortnight of baseball, Ohtani had a dream run with both bat and ball — 0.435 batting average with a home run and several key hits (including a pivotal ninth-inning hit against Mexico in the semifinals), a 1.86 ERA as pitcher and a vital save as closing pitcher in a nerve-racking final. His MVP selection was a no-brainer.

Winning a battle on two fronts

Being an all-rounder requires an inordinate level of skill and work. Batters need to develop strong levels of anticipation, hand-eye coordination, power and balance and require hours in batting cages to hone these skills. Pitchers need to build arm and shoulder strength and practise for hours and hours before their muscle memory can execute a variety of skills with precision.

Ohtani’s rigorous regimen has allowed him to maintain high levels in both facets, with his natural athleticism giving him the added advantage of elite speed when base-running and strength when power-hitting. He manned the outfield capably in Japan but has been spared those duties in the MLB because of the already heavy workload.

Ohtani’s elite numbers as both batter and pitcher make him an eye-catching outlier, with barely any precedence in the professional annals of America’s favourite pastime. One of the most unique athletes in the world, he is a bona fide unicorn.

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