Shohei Ohtani Is What Baseball Needs

17 minute read

When Shohei Ohtani takes a seat on a shaded bench to await his turn in the batting cage at Los Angeles Angels spring training, the feeling is like a restaurant when a movie star is escorted to a table. Everyone pretends not to notice, but the mood in the room is suddenly giddy.

An All-Star pitcher who hits 46 home runs will do that.

Ohtani is a baseball savant doing what has never been seen in Major League Baseball history. The last player to both pitch and hit at an elite level was Babe Ruth, a century ago. But the Bambino stopped pitching relatively early in his career to concentrate on hitting. And no one ever called Ruth fast. Ohtani, the unanimous American League MVP, stole 26 bases last year.

And look at the guy. Baseball’s savior has the body of a Marvel superhero and plays with the joy of a child. In practice, when Ohtani laughs muffing a grounder, what carries across the infield could be the giggle of a cartoon mouse.

The start of any new baseball season brings hope, and baseball has never needed it more. Opening Day this year, April 7, comes as the so-called national pastime struggles with its declining cachet in America. The game has grown too slow—the average affair runs as long as Gandhi, more than three hours—and a bit stale, with a preponderance of home runs and strikeouts robbing its incremental drama. This offseason was dominated by a frustrating 99-day lockout that threatened to deprive fans of two great attractions: Major League ballparks freed from pandemic capacity restrictions at the start of the season, and a Japanese-born phenom building off a 2021 season that galvanized everyone but him.

“To be honest, I’m not impressed with what I did personally,” Ohtani, 27, tells TIME. His earnest eyes betray no false humility. “I think it was nice to have a good season, but what’s more important is continuity,” he says. “In that sense, this year is very important.”

Shohei Ohtani Time Magazine cover
Photograph by Ian Allen for TIME

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Ohtani’s extraordinary talent may contain the power to redeem not just baseball but also other data-driven sports that have superseded it in the American imagination. He single-handedly upended the received wisdom that excellence can flow only through slavish devotion to a single discipline: pick a sport, then a position, ideally before turning 8, and stick with it. A player who can throw a 100-m.p.h. pitch in one inning, and in the next hit a homer that leaves his bat at 110 m.p.h. challenges the tyranny of “analytics”—shorthand for the increasingly obscure metrics (DRS, WAR, FIP, etc.) that drive trades, salaries, attention, negotiations, wagering, and, some would aver, a lot of the joy from sports.

“With numbers,” says Angels manager Joe Maddon, “it’s almost becoming a socialistic version of sports, baseball especially. We all want the same thing, with the same player to be built the same way, doing the same things. We keep subtracting the human element. The whole world’s into specialization, and that’s why it’s becoming a little bit more boring. Our cars are all the same color!”

Maddon, who hails from “the liberal arts school of baseball—I want it all,” presided over the 2016 championship run of the long-benighted Chicago Cubs, who drew attention “like the Beatles.” Yet more people in the U.S. seem to obsess over football and basketball. “The thing that bothers me as much as anything: We’re not talked about as a national pastime anymore,” Maddon says. “Players can change that. But you have to permit them to be charismatic. You have to permit them to be great.”

That’s what the Angels did with Ohtani last year. He responded by recording 156 strikeouts on the mound and driving in 100 runs (the 100th was that 46th homer). He hit eight triples, tied for best in baseball, and swiped those 26 bases.

No one had ever done all these things in one season. And Ohtani did them with a quality—a lightness—that belies his size (6 ft. 4 in., 210 lb.) while reminding one and all that what’s being played here is, after all, a game.

“I don’t feel pressure that much,” Ohtani says of the season ahead. “I feel more excited.”

Ohtani was born and raised in Oshu, a small city in northern Japan where both his parents played on sports teams—dad, baseball; mom, badminton—sponsored by the local Mitsubishi plant, where his father worked. His father also coached baseball. “I only played on weekends, and I really looked forward to weekends,” Ohtani says, recalling his dismay when teammates took a loss hard. “I didn’t understand why they were crying, because I was just having fun. I remember that clearly … I was not practicing hard enough nor serious enough to feel upset about losing.”

That would change. By age 18, Ohtani’s fastball had been clocked at 99 m.p.h. and he was growing into the body of a power hitter like Hideki Matsui, the star New York Yankees outfielder whom he grew up watching. Japan’s top prospect in 2012, Ohtani was intent on accepting an offer from a U.S. team when the Hokkaiddo Nippon-Ham Fighters persuaded him to remain in Japan for the years he’d have to spend in the minors. Among the enticements: the Fighters would let him both pitch and hit.

“I feel like it brings out my unique rhythm,” Ohtani says. Had he opted to head to the U.S. from high school, “I would have probably been a pitcher, because most of the teams valued me as a pitcher.” Instead he spent five years as Japan’s marquee player, then signed with the Angels. The trajectory appeared set. Ohtani singled in his first at bat, won his first start on the mound, and was voted 2018 Rookie of the Year. But then he had elbow surgery; he was off the mound in 2019, and he felt “pathetic” at the plate. The next season was shortened by the pandemic. All the while, “the Ohtani rules”—restrictions imposed by the Angels’ then management, which barred him from the lineup on days before or after he pitched, to rest his body—limited his production.

Those rules were discarded for 2021. It was a bold move in an era when “load management” is all the rage, managers yanking pitchers early in games for fear of taxing their arms, basketball teams sitting stars for entire games to preserve them for the playoffs. But Maddon and Perry Minasian, the new general manager at the time, say no one knows better than Ohtani what he’s capable of.

Ohtani talks to the media on Dec. 9, 2017, at Angels Stadium in Anaheim, Calif.John Cordes—Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

“There’s some guys that have a natural born instinct for what they do,” says Maddon. “You get to pitch as many innings as you want to, throw as many pitches as you need to. And when you need a day off, tell me. I’m not going to tell you.”

“I tease him about how programmed he is: ‘I eat at this time. I stretch at this time,’” says Minasian. “That’s not just during the season. I think he understands his work ethic. He’s really, really intelligent, picks things up quick, can make changes. His awareness is a different level.”

Ohtani was not only gratified to be able to resume the cadence that had become natural to him. Hitting even on days he pitches “helps mentally too,” he notes. “Sometimes I cannot hit or pitch well, but the next day I have an opportunity to make it up as a hitter, which is a good thing.” Baseball even instituted a new rule this season, effectively designed to keep Ohtani on the field as long as possible. When starting pitchers who bat for themselves—with the institution of the universal designated hitter this year, that’s basically Ohtani—are taken out of a game, they can stay in the lineup as the DH.

Ohtani owns a five-pitch arsenal—four-seam fastball, curve, cutter, slider, and a split-fingered fastball. Batters hit a minuscule .087 against the splitter. At the plate, Ohtani’s blasts are preposterous: 24 of his home runs left his bat at speeds of at least 110 m.p.h., tops in the big leagues. His feats are so impressive that at a game, almost everyone wants to see him play—even supporters of the opposing team. When he came up to pinch-hit in San Francisco last May, Giants fans booed when he was walked. “I had never seen anything like that,” says his friend and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. At the All-Star Game in Denver, Peyton Manning, Ken Griffey Jr., and David Ortiz wanted their pictures taken with him. “In sports, we’ve seen a lot of things,” Arizona Cardinals star defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who in March watched Ohtani at spring training, tells TIME. “One of the things that me, personally, and I think this generation, hasn’t seen is a guy able to do something that nobody’s seen.”

Off the field, there’s money to be made. Ohtani now earns north of $20 million a year from endorsements. He’s on the cover of the latest version of the popular MLB The Show video game; signed as a global ambassador for FTX, the crypto-currency exchange; and has deals with brands like Hugo Boss, ASICS, Kowa, and Japan Airlines. But he’s shown little interest in becoming a ubiquitous commercial presence like Michael Jordan or Manning. He has no Twitter account. In the last two years, he’s posted just 20 times to Instagram (but has 1.3 million followers).

Ohtani wants his play to do the talking, a refreshing stance, but one that may not help baseball generate more buzz in America. Another impediment: English as a second language. After four years in the U.S., his English is improving—“It’s pretty damn good,” says Mizuhara—but Ohtani is still much more comfortable speaking Japanese in settings like interviews. Last summer, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith sparked a controversy when he said on live TV: “I don’t think it helps that the No. 1 face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he’s saying.” Smith apologized for his comments, and Ohtani tells TIME, “I don’t feel pressured [to learn English]. I would prefer that I could speak English. My job is to play baseball, and that’s the reason why I came from Japan. It is important to spend time on communicating or expressing myself, and I recognize that communication ability could make a difference in my performance, and it is important. But I definitely prioritize baseball.”

The game could use a superstar. On a list of athletes whose name is recognized by Americans over the age of 5, you have to run past 53 others before you reach an active Major Leaguer: 30% of Americans know Giants third baseman Evan Longoria, a former All-Star years past his prime. “He may be getting a halo effect from the actress Eva Longoria,” says Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the Q Scores Company, the firm that conducts this market research. He’s not totally joking.

What’s the problem? Some of it’s built into the game. In basketball, LeBron James can be involved in every play he’s on the court for. But even a multipurpose outlier like Ohtani comes to the plate just once every nine batters, and starts on the mound once a week or so. The length of an average nine inning game is up 31% since 1975, largely because managers change pitchers nearly twice as often.

Analytics have also encouraged a style of play that has made baseball less interesting for many: armed with more data, managers go to the bullpen in search of advantage, just as fielders now shift out of their typical positions to areas a specific batter is known to hit. This incentivizes batters to swing for the fences, rocketing the ball over these defensive “shifts.” And as players launch their bats at higher angles to loft homers, they strike out more often: 8.68 times per team per game in 2021, a 34.6% rise since 2000. Homers and strikeouts are dramatic, but their pursuit renders an already slow game more predictable. One of the most exciting plays in baseball, the triple, is near extinction: MLB saw just .14 per team per game in 2021, the second lowest total of all time. Stolen-base rates last season were the lowest in 50 years. The game is losing all manner of speed, a troubling development in a society with shortening attention spans. “There’s no question that analytics, while making teams more shrewd in terms of selecting talent, has definitely negatively impacted the attractiveness of the game to fans,” says Patrick Rishe, a sports business professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Ohtani pitches on Sep. 19, 2021, for the Angels in Anaheim, Calif.Jayne Kamin-Oncea—Getty Images

It’s a paradox. Baseball is awash in money. MLB’s new media rights deals are worth some $2 billion per year, a 26% increase from previous agreements. Ohtani’s teammate Mike Trout, who statistically ranks among the all-time greats, has a $426.5 million contract but lacks the sort of mass following that’s more common in other sports. And no one even pretends the game remains at the center of American life. “I have a class of 50 college-age students, and when we were talking about the Major League lockout a few weeks ago, it was hardly on anyone’s radar,” says Rishe. “Whereas if we were talking in the ’70s and ’80s to the same group of kids, they probably would say, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to solve this. Where’s my baseball?’”

“You know what,” says Billy Grisham, of San Pedro, Calif. “At our local Little League, the numbers have been down. Kind of a bummer, because when we were kids everyone was on a Little League team.” He was at the Angels’ Cactus League park with his wife and their 7-year-old son, who wore No. 17. Ohtani jerseys account for half of sales at the team store, including the model that has his name in kanji, the script of his native Japan—where baseball is still wildly popular, as it is in other East Asian nations. Ohtani is a big reason why: in Taiwan, ratings for Angels games were 84% higher than non-Angels games. In South Korea, MLB’s Ohtani-related social media posts drew 179% greater engagement than other posts.

If there appears to be no limit to the NBA’s global appeal, and the NFL dominates the American sports world, baseball is betwixt and between: extraordinarily popular in a handful of nations in the Caribbean and East Asia—in particular Japan—but no longer dominant in the country that in the ’70s and ’80s pumped out movies about a sport (Bull Durham, The Natural, Field of Dreams) thought to be quintessentially American.

And now Ohtani has arrived as if from central casting, his every move in some games tracked by a dedicated camera from the Japanese television channel NHK. A typical day found four U.S. and 25 Japanese sports journalists at Angels spring training, not counting the camera crews perched on a hill overlooking the camp. The man can’t walk on the street in Tokyo. “If he has to go to dinner, I make reservations and find the back ways,” says Mizuhara.

But in the country where he recorded the most phenomenal season in big league history? “We can go to Whole Foods and stuff,” Mizuhara reports. Ohtani’s certainly admired. Q Scores says 33% of Americans who know of him have a “very favorable” impression, No. 1 among all athletes measured by the firm; Michael Jordan’s score is 32%, Simone Biles’ 30%. But just 13% of Americans polled even know who he is.

No one watches Ohtani more closely than Ohtani. At spring training, Mizuhara stood by with a camera phone, recording every swing for review. “If you notice today, he took, I think, three rounds of batting practice,” says Angels catcher Max Stassi. “I don’t know exactly what he was working on, but he was working on something. And then he got what he wanted and he gets out.”

“He has that lightness to him because he puts the work in,” Stassi says. “That really frees him up on the field, because he knows that his preparation is second to none. Nobody’s ever done both at such an elite level, so there’s not, like, a template going into it.”

Ohtani, photographed on Jan. 23, was the unanimous 2021 AL MVPIan Allen for TIME
Ian Allen for TIME

Ohtani calls himself a “pioneer” for future pitcher-sluggers, as if there really will be more like him. When he says, “I don’t have anybody to compare myself to,” it’s not vanity speaking but a request for more data: “I can have a better understanding on how good my numbers are if there are more people and a bigger sample size.”

At another point he says: “If it was a choice between strikeout or home run, I would choose home run, because the probability of a home run is lower.” In a game reduced by data science to a binary—so many at bats are a strikeout or a homer—it’s possible to see Ohtani as analytics personified. But he knows analytics aren’t everything. Like his manager, Ohtani is a graduate of the liberal arts school of baseball, a slugger who savors not just attention-getting home runs and strikeouts but the joys of “small ball” (he stole second and third in one game). The slowness of the game is a quality “that we should cherish,” Ohtani says. “I feel like one of the strongest points about baseball is its long history. It has classical aspects that no other modern sports have.”

And now it has him.

He means it about continuity. Ohtani says he wants to reach the playoffs this year, and win a World Series. “I need to evolve,” he says. “While others are getting better every year, I cannot stay the same.” Baseball really needs Ohtani showcased in October, during the postseason, when more eyes are attuned to the sport. Los Angeles finished under .500 again last season; the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014. Ohtani winning multiple games on the mound—and at the plate—in a World Series would go down as among the greatest baseball stories ever written.

Don’t discount it from happening. Baseball may indeed get its swagger back. Because Ohtani is making a promise.

His best?

“It’s yet to come.” —With reporting by Shiho Fukada/Tokyo and Nik Popli/Washington

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