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  • Shohei Ohtani boasts a higher strikeout rate than Clayton Kershaw and better home run rate than Bryce Harper. The question now is: Which big league team will let him play both ways?
By Jon Wertheim
April 06, 2017

This story appears in the April 17 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here. To see more from L. Jon Wertheim’s interview with Shohei Ohtani, watch this week’s episode of 60 Minutes, airing Sunday April 9 after The Masters.​

It is an early March afternoon, hours before a Japan League exhibition game, and Shohei Ohtani can't find a catcher. So he takes a cart of balls to the outfield, paces off 60 feet and begins throwing into the padded wall. It is baseball’s equivalent of an omakase menu: Ohtani grips baseballs with his right hand, goes into his windup and torques his 6' 4", 215-pound frame, much of it muscle. Extending his right arm, he manipulates the balls through the air in precise flight paths that seemingly defy the laws of physics. Mostly, though, he sends them whistling through the air, popping into the wall so that a sound like gunfire echoes through the empty Sapporo Dome.

An hour later Ohtani is back on the field. Only this time he’s a lefty and he has a bat in his hand. He steps into the cage, rakes his front foot like a bear marking territory and begins taking his cuts. Unleashing a swing that is at once violent and elegant, he sends drives searing up both lines. Mostly, though, he unleashes towering shots that sail over the walls in left, right and centerfields and register a mournful doink as they bounce off metal seats.

There are, so to speak, no two ways about it. The most compelling story in baseball is playing out in the city of Sapporo, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. The central character is a modest 22-year-old who lives in a drab team dorm and doesn’t drink alcohol or own a car. And he is about to test baseball’s conventional wisdom in a way Moneyball never did.

It’s not just that Shohei Ohtani pitches and hits—it’s that he has few peers at either discipline. The reigning MVP in Nippon Professional Baseball, the world’s top league outside the majors, he won the NPB’s home run derby last season and threw the fastest pitch in league history, a 102.5 mph heater, topping his own record. “He’s so talented,” says his manager, Hideki Kuriyama, “it’s really tough to use him the right way, with the right balance.”

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As a starter for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Ohtani finished last season with a 10–4 record in 20 starts and a 1.86 ERA, averaging more strikeouts per nine innings (11.2) than Clayton Kershaw. He relies primarily on his explosive fastball, supplemented with a splitter, a slider and an occasional changeup or curve. As a designated hitter, he had an OPS of 1.004, with 22 home runs in 382 plate appearances, a better long-ball rate than both Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. 

For the past four seasons the Fighters have benefited from what players call “Ohtani moments.” Like the time he hit a home run on the first pitch of the game, then took the mound to throw eight shutout innings, striking out 10. Or the time he hit a ball through the roof of the Tokyo Dome. Or the time an opposing batter conceded that he didn’t aspire to get a hit off Ohtani; he simply wanted to make contact. Or when, in the fourth game of last year’s Japan Series, he doubled twice before singling in the walk-off winning run in extra innings.

“I’ve been seeing this up close,” says Brandon Laird, a former Yankees infielder, now one of the four permitted gaijin, or foreigners, on the Fighters. “Trust me, it’s silly to us, too. It’s a see-it-with-your-own-eyes type thing.”

And odds are good that, soon, you will be able to do just that. Ohtani is coy when asked directly, but even the Fighters’ executives admit that this will likely be his final season in Japan. Then he’ll head to the majors and try to become the first player in a century—since a guy named Babe Ruth—to take his spot as both a pitcher in the rotation and a hitter in the everyday lineup.

Ohtani isn’t just endowed with power, arm strength and speed (he stole seven bases last year). He also possesses this critical asset: leverage. He is too measured and reserved to make demands, mind you. But MLB teams know the rules of engagement. If they have any shot of signing Ohtani, they must accommodate his preference for having it both ways.

*****

The Ohtani origin story begins in the somnolent city of Oshu, 300 miles north of Tokyo, where his father, Toru, played for a semipro team sponsored by the local Mitsubishi plant. After a shoulder injury at 25, Toru went to work full-time at the factory. When he wasn’t working, Toru would drill with Shohei and coach his summer teams. He was happy to let his son hit and pitch. Toru’s wife, Kayoko, a former top badminton player, didn’t see the need for her son to specialize either.

Imitating both his favorite hitter (Hideki Matsui) and favorite flamethrower (Yu Darvish), Shohei hardly performed at a level that presaged greatness. But he was singularly devoted to improving. He ate a dozen bowls of rice a day to put on bulk and detailed his baseball goals with a series of spreadsheets. Then, benefiting from a growth spurt in high school, he began throwing in the upper 90s and cranking moonshots. Soon scouts from the majors began making stealth missions to Japan and dotting the stands at his games.

Ohtani says that the physical demands of both starting and batting cleanup have never been an issue. Nor has he had a problem harnessing the focus his unusual skillset required. The real “mental stress,” as he puts it through an interpreter, came from the suggestion by some fans and media that his failure to commit fully to either pitching or hitting meant that he wasn’t serious about his career.

At 18, Ohtani spoke openly about heading directly to an MLB organization and skipping the Japanese draft. The Dodgers were reportedly closest to signing him as a pitcher, but there was plenty of competition—so much so that interest cooled among NPB teams, fearful they would waste a draft pick on a kid who would choose to play on the other side of the Pacific.

The Nippon Ham Fighters may have a name that does not invite serious treatment. (For the record: the food processing company Nippon Ham sponsors the team. We’re not talking about pugnacious pork products.) But the organization, based in Sapporo and known for its shrewdness, took a novel tack with Ohtani. “They approached me, ‘What do you think about doing both?’” he recalls. “I definitely wanted to try it. I still thought I had a chance to be a great hitter at a professional level.”

With Ohtani’s interest piqued, Fighters executives prepared a McKinsey-style presentation titled “The Path to Realizing Shohei Ohtani’s Dream,” a reasoned case for why he ought to stay in Japan. Exhibit A: Of the 60-plus Japanese players to make the majors, almost all were seasoned first in Japan (Miami Marlins reliever Junichi Tazawa being the only notable exception). Exhibit B: Darvish, whom the Fighters nurtured from 2005 to ’11 before his transition to the Texas Rangers. But the team also made an emotional appeal, relaying details about the decidedly unglamorous life of the minor leaguer.

While neither party will confirm the particulars, the team clearly seems to have made an agreement with the Ohtani family: When Shohei was ready to declare yosh ganbarimasu (“I’m gonna go for it”), the Fighters would not stand in his way. Rather, they would agree to “post” him, taking the negotiated fee from a major league team (currently $20 million), relinquishing his rights and wishing him well.

Wearing number 11 in homage to Darvish, Ohtani has improved each season. While his reported salary of roughly $2 million pales next to MVP wages in the majors, he supplements his income with various endorsements, including one from Asics. His face is emblazoned on the sides of trains and on billboards around Hokkaido, and his huge fan base includes middle-aged mothers interested in Ohtani not for his arm or his bat, but for his upside as a son-in-law. He’s done it all close to home, without any lonely late nights eating jalapeño poppers at a TGI Fridays in Chattanooga.

The commercial benefits to the Fighters are obvious, far exceeding Ohtani’s salary. The Fighters often play to capacity crowds in the 53,800-seat Sapporo Dome, where more than a dozen variations of Ohtani’s jersey are for sale. But now the experiment has moved to its next phase. “As a manager, [Ohtani’s departure to the majors], it’s going to hurt the team,” says Kuriyama. “But I want him to succeed.” Then he adds this advice to the next manager who will oversee Ohtani: “Please trust him all the way through.”

*****

Major league scouts, a species trained to go about their work with skepticism and discernment, struggle to find glaring weaknesses in Ohtani’s game. Now a partner in 2080baseball.com, Dave DeFreitas began scouting Ohtani when the kid was in high school. He believes, like most, that Ohtani’s “high octane” pitching is ahead of his hitting, likening him to Mets ace Noah Syndergaard. But, DeFreitas adds, “He could hit home runs in the majors tomorrow.”

While Ohtani doesn’t yet have an agent, he has the good sense not to eliminate potential bidders. He professes no preferred franchise or market. “I actually need to learn more about MLB,” he says. “I would like to be there when the talks are happening.” Of the American League versus the National, Ohtani will say only, “There’s good to both; it’s very hard to choose at this point.”

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It stands to reason that Ohtani is better suited to the AL, where he can pitch and then DH on off-days. (In Japan he doesn’t play in the games preceding starts—hence his relatively low number of plate appearances—a rhythm he’s likely to continue in the majors.) The Yankees, the team for which Matsui enjoyed great success, are an obvious candidate, especially since Brian Cashman has already told the Yukan Fuji News back in 2014, “Hey, if [both pitching and hitting] is what he wants, it’s hard to argue if he won’t sign otherwise.” Seattle, the market closest to Japan and a city that accommodated Ichiro Suzuki so hospitably, is another likely option.

In the NL, Ohtani would likely have to the play a corner outfield spot between starts, potentially a mental strain as well as a physical one. Luis Mendoza, who signed with the Fighters after pitching for the Rangers and Royals, notes at least one benefit, though: NL pitchers would hesitate to chase Ohtani off the plate, knowing that he could return fire with his 100-mph heater.

Wherever he ends up, Ohtani will challenge major league mores. For decades pitchers have all but been placed in bubble wrap, swaddled in satin jackets on the basepaths and taught to defer to position players when there’s a pop-up near the mound. Though Madison Bumgarner’s career average of .187 is comically low compared to Ohtani’s .322 mark last year, the Giants’ ace is considered the best-hitting pitcher in baseball. When manager Bruce Bochy permitted Bumgarner to hit for himself in an interleague game last year, it was considered a radical move. When Bumgarner tried to enter the Home Run Derby over the All-Star break, the MLB Players’ Association rejected the request.

Ohtani could be an ace one game and spend the next careening into outfield walls or trying to throw 350-foot strikes to home. Even as a DH he would expose his throwing arm to thousands of pitches. In almost 1,000 career plate appearances, Ohtani has yet to attempt a sacrifice bunt. “It’s going to be fun to watch teams adapt to this,” says Laird. “And that means his own team too.”

 

For all his other gifts, Ohtani’s timing is lousy. Had he decamped to the majors after last season, he would have been eligible for a hefty eight-figure annual salary. (The Rangers will pay Darvish $11 million in 2017; Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka will earn $22 million.) But the collective bargaining agreement signed over the winter—perhaps with Ohtani’s arrival in mind—slashes the earning potential of international players under age 25, treating them as amateur signees. Depending on a team’s revenues and pool money, the signing bonus falls between $4.75 million and $10 million. Worse, these players must accrue six years of service before they are eligible for free agency. All may not be lost, though. Multiple sources tell SI that there could be loopholes that allow Ohtani to avoid this cap. Still, his decision to stay in Japan this season may have cost him more than $100 million.

Ohtani shrugs. “As long as I have enough money to be able to play baseball and am enjoying baseball,” he says, “that’s all I’m asking for right now.” This is more than lip service: Ohtani is not exactly Babe Ruth’s equal in the Department of Sybaritic Living. Fighters sources say that Ohtani spends virtually nothing, lodging at the drab team dorms and reportedly living on less than the $1,000 a month his parents send him from his earnings. He takes team-subsidized cabs to games. He seems to spend mostly on fitness books and workout equipment. Depending on the sponsor that night, the Fighter Player of the Game will sometimes receive free bags of rice or salmon steaks or stalks of asparagus; Ohtani will happily take them, figuring it’s one less run to the grocery store.

As much for this genial humility as for his plate prowess and mound mastery, Ohtani has endeared himself to his teammates. He chats easily among the Japanese players. He practices his improving English with the gaijin. Teammates say that when they invite Ohtani to social functions, he’ll ask if they plan on drinking. If the answer is yes, he’ll quietly head back to the dorm. No judgments either way. Says Laird, “It’s like he’s the team’s star and also the team’s little brother.”

*****

Takahiro Nomo is a Fighters’ team translator. He also serves as a reminder of how quickly attitudes can change. For decades the game was a source of one-way trade between the U.S. and Japan: Mr. Baseball types headed east. In 1995 Takahiro’s father, Hideo, left the Japan League to pitch for the Dodgers, the first Japanese-born player to play in the majors in decades. It was a move so controversial that his parents cried and one of his NPB team’s executives resigned, disgraced that his player had departed.

Today, if Japan is a feeder system, that’s to some extent a point of pride. More than 100 players have tried to make the transition, with mixed results. Hideki Matsui made three All-Star teams for the Yankees and was the 2009 World Series MVP; Kaz Matsui batted .267 in seven seasons. Yu Darvish is 46-30 with a 3.31 ERA and three All-Star Game selections in his five MLB seasons; Masato Yoshii finished his five-year MLB career in 2002 with a 37-42 record and a 4.62 ERA.

Apart from being likened to Ruth, Ohtani will also face inevitable comparisons to Ichiro, the most successful Japanese major leaguer and a future Hall of Famer. But Ohtani resists such juxtapositions—he is just himself. He selects “Do Or Die” by Afrojack featuring 30 Seconds to Mars as his walk-up music, likes his phone as much as any other 22-year-old and gets animated defending Japan’s Captain Kangaroo Burgers over In-N-Out Burgers. After asking what the dress code should be for an interview last month, he expressed thanks that the answer was “casual.” He showed up at the appointed time, exuded uncommon warmth and, after apologizing for his work-in-progress English, spent the hourlong session with a smile spread across his face, waving hair out of his eyes.

The Ohtani Show could—no exaggeration—revolutionize baseball while providing an international star of rare wattage. But for now Ohtani is devoted to this season in Japan. “One of my goals was to win the championship, and we were able to accomplish that,” he says. “But at the same time, I didn’t feel like I was fully able to contribute in the championship. I wanted to win another championship where I’m completely satisfied and I felt like I gave my all and my full dedication.”

He’ll spend one more season in the comfort and familiarity of the Japan League. And so before a recent exhibition game against the Chunichi Dragons, the most captivating player in baseball took his spot along the leftfield line of the Sapporo Dome as a coach wearing a whistle around his neck put the entire roster through an elaborate calisthenics routine.

One of the stretches resembles a bow pose in yoga. Lying flat on their stomachs, the players bend their knees, grab their ankles and lift their upper chests and chins. They resemble the sea creatures inhabiting the Hokkaido coast. Sure enough, Laird, the uninhibited American, began barking like a seal. Spotting two U.S. journalists nearby, he shrugged, flashed a genial I-told-you-they-do-things-differently-here look and continued stretching halfheartedly.

Nearby, though, Ohtani was quiet and earnest, wearing a look of studied concentration. He placed his hands precisely around both ankles, lifted his head until it was parallel with the field and started rocking gracefully, his whole body save his lower abdomen suspended in midair. He held the stretch and smiled slightly, another exercise in balance, masterfully achieved.