Shohei Ohtani, Mended but Undaunted, Is Ready to Amaze Baseball Once Again

The Angels' 25-year-old superstar can finally resume his quest to dominate the game from the mound and the batter's box.
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“In whatever situation a person finds himself, he should not abandon his favorite ways and his special abilities. . . . A hero should go his own way.”

—Sakamoto Ryōma, 19th-century samurai

***

Angel Stadium in Anaheim has been turned into a grown-up’s playpen. Four thousand tons of dirt cover the baseball field, sculpted into giant peaks resembling a scaled-down version of the San Gabriel Mountains, in preparation for a February monster truck show. Workers on break operate remote-control versions of the real monsters, soaring, somersaulting and swarming the cordillera with comic imprecision. To see the faces of the controllers is to understand why the lever in their hand is called a joystick.

In the luxury suite of Angels owner Arte Moreno in an otherwise empty stadium, above it all, is the greatest two-way baseball player the planet has seen in a hundred years, granting his first one-on-one interview since arriving in the U.S. in December 2017.

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Shohei Ohtani, 25, is 6'4" with a broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, long-limbed physique that hints at the competitive swimmer he was in childhood. “But every time baseball was the most fun,” he says through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. “So I fell in love with it.”

Two-plus years after he left Japan to sign a six-year, league-minimum contract with the Angels—foregoing at least $200 million more if he had waited until this season—Ohtani remains deeply, madly, monogamously in love with baseball.

“I heard a lot of people say he’s pretty much just ‘baseball, sleep, baseball.’ They were not wrong,” says the Angels’ star centerfielder, Mike Trout. “He’s pretty big on writing things down, taking notes, trying to get better each and every day. He’s taking care of the little things. He wants to be perfect.”

There is a childlike wonder within Ohtani, most especially because he plays major league baseball like a Little Leaguer: He is a pitcher and he is a hitter. In volume and skills he does both like nobody since Babe Ruth.

Last season Ohtani hit the ball harder than all but four major leaguers (92.8 mph exit velocity). He runs to first base faster than all but five (4.05 seconds). In ’18 he threw his four-seamer harder than all but three (96.7 mph). Put another way, Ohtani hits the ball harder than Bryce Harper, runs to first faster than Trea Turner and throws harder than Gerrit Cole. After 210 games hitting and 10 pitching he is, statistically, a combination of Trout and Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg at those junctures.

“He is a generational talent,” says a general manager who tried to sign Ohtani out of high school. “You’re going to look back 30 or 40 years from now and say, ‘There was only one Shohei Ohtani.’ ”

This season Los Angeles plans for 4 1/2 months of full-on Sho Time. He should begin the season at designated hitter and join the rotation in mid-May. Even with two of the four highest-paid players in history on an average annual basis (Trout and newly signed third baseman Anthony Rendon), MLB’s premier defensive shortstop (Andrelton Simmons) and a new, curse-busting manager (Joe Maddon), the Angels need Ohtani to excel at both disciplines if they hope to win their first playoff game since ’09. In a best-case scenario, that would mean about 20 starts and 400 plate appearances, a workload not even Ruth reached before he quit two-way duty because it was too hard on his body.

Indeed, Ohtani’s pitching in 2018 was truncated by a blown right elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery. His hitting in ’19 “suffered” (he still slugged .505) due to a congenital left patellar condition that required season-ending surgery in September.

Therein lies the magic and the preciousness of Ohtani. Here he sits with a rebuilt elbow, a mended knee and a repaired right ankle: three operations in 24 months. Yet he persists in doing what no major leaguer has done for a hundred years—not because it’s a stunt but because he must.

“Of course, I like doing both,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest reasons I want to keep doing it: I have the capabilities to do it. When I’m actually out there hitting every day and pitching and running around, that’s when I feel the most satisfaction in baseball.”

When Ohtani plays baseball, the field is his grown-up playpen. It transforms, as if by mounds of dirt, a toy and a joystick, into a labor of love.

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***

Ohtani is the Nashi pear of ballplayers, the Pyrus pyrifolia of the diamond. The fruit is a delicacy reserved for guests or family gatherings, often given as a gift, so precious that each is encased in padding to prevent bruising. Nashi pear fields cover many of the hills around Kamagaya, a bedroom community of 110,000 that serves Chiba and Tokyo.

Among these fields and commuters, about a mile down narrow roads from the nearest train station on Pear Street, is the minor league dormitory where Ohtani lives and trains in the offseason, just as he has since 2012, when he signed out of high school with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. The Fighters assigned him to Room 404, the room vacated by pitcher Yu Darvish after he signed with the Rangers.

During regular seasons with the Fighters, Ohtani lived in an 18-room team dormitory in Sapporo, maintaining the similar tight schedule of train-work-eat. (Players must bunk at the dorms for their first four seasons; Ohtani happily remained there when the obligation ended.) Since his MLB team does not have a dorm, Ohtani lives three minutes from Angel Stadium.

“It almost feels like a dorm because it’s so close,” he says.

He hesitates to identify how he spends his time other than his two passions: baseball and sleeping. (He gets nine hours of sleep, nods off on airplanes easily and cherishes naps, even sometimes before games.) “If I had to pick something other than baseball it would be playing video games with my teammates,” Ohtani says. “I play a lot of games with Simba, Andrelton Simmons. I don’t really go out too much. I don’t really leave my room. That’s about it.”

Ohtani lives in two different worlds. He is one of Japan’s most beloved and recognizable citizens. According to Nez Balelo, Ohtani’s agent at CAA, Ohtani is “at the top” for endorsement income among major leaguers, with the majority of that income from Japanese companies—such as Japan Airlines and Seiko—to which “he feels a connectivity.”

But even though Ohtani was the AL Rookie of the Year in ’18 and is the first player in league history with more than 35 homers and 15 steals in his first 162 games, the U.S. still affords him anonymity. “I can walk around here without getting mobbed,” he says. “It’s not like I don’t want to be noticed at all; no one noticing me is kind of lonely. But if it’s too much like in Japan, it gets too much. Somewhere in between would be really nice.”

***

Trout hit in Ohtani’s batting practice group during his spring training debut in ’18. “My first reaction was that he hits the ball farther than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Trout says. “I’ve watched a lot of guys with huge power take BP: [Giancarlo] Stanton, [Mark] Trumbo. . . . This was different.” So stunned was Trout that he asked Ohtani for his bat. “I had to check to see if it was corked.”

But then the spring games began, and major league pitchers continually beat Ohtani with velocity. He didn’t have a single extra-base hit during the exhibition schedule in Arizona. Ohtani had hit his whole life with a big leg kick, and Trout knew what was happening: “His timing was off. I was telling the hitting coaches, ‘He’s got to get his foot down. If he doesn’t, he’s going to be hitting nothing but rollovers to second base.’ ”

Says Ohtani, “I had a terrible spring training, hitting-wise. Well, pitching-wise, too. I wasn’t too worried about it. They were exhibition games.”

Eric Hinske, then the Angels’ hitting coach, was not so sanguine. Weeks of concern prompted him to intervene just before Opening Day. Hinske suggested Ohtani try hitting without the leg kick. It was a bold suggestion considering Ohtani, a .500 slugger in Japan, was just embarking on the transition to a more demanding league in a new country under intense scrutiny.

Trout saw Ohtani hitting in the batting cage before one of the final exhibition games. He no longer was lifting his front leg but simply picking up the heel and softly putting it back into the ground.

“He was launching,” Trout says.

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It was a massive last-minute change, like a diva deciding on the eve of a tour to sing in a different key. Ohtani slugged .564 in ’18, the same as Trout slugged as a rookie. While he says his biggest adjustment was to the velocity—“Everyone throws in the mid-90s”—Ohtani has slugged .655 against pitches 95 mph and faster over the past two seasons, sixth best in MLB and far better than the average of .398.

As good a hitter as Ohtani turned out to be, his work on the mound was even more spectacular. At 18 he threw 154 km/h, or 95.7 mph. The next year he reached 162 km/h (100.7). In ’16, he set a Nippon Pro Baseball record with a pitch at 164 km/h, then broke that a month later at 165 km/h (102.5).

With the Angels in ’18, he topped out at 101.1 mph, with an average four-seamer velocity of 96.7. Only Noah Syndergaard, Luis Severino and Nathan Eovaldi threw harder on average among starting pitchers.

As hard as Ohtani throws, the deception of his split-finger fastball is even more impressive. He threw 192 splitters in ’18. Like blindfolded children swinging at a birthday piñata, batters missed more than half the time they swung at the darn thing (53 of 95 attempts) and turned just two into hits.

But all that velocity caught up with Ohtani. After a start on June 6, he complained of a sore elbow. Doctors diagnosed a sprain and prescribed rest. He returned on Sept. 2 for a start against the Astros. His fastball hit 99 mph early in the game, but then dropped to as low as 92. The ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow was shot, a possibility the Angels feared when they signed him, based on his medical exam and a platelet-rich plasma procedure he underwent at the time.

While rehabbing his elbow last season, Ohtani played only as the DH. Even so, in spring training his knee began to ache. Ohtani was born with a condition occurring in 2% of the population called bipartite patella, in which two bones in his left kneecap remained separate and didn’t fuse. He played through the pain, which grew worse as he ramped up his throwing program. Ohtani hit .180 over 17 games before L.A. finally shut him down.

The knee surgery stalled his elbow rehab by six weeks, pushing his mound return to mid-May. (The Angels also consider the late start a wise governor on his innings, as he has averaged only 99 per year as a professional.)

Before he blew out his elbow, Ohtani strove to throw a pitch 170 km/h, which at 105.6 mph would be the fastest pitch in history. (Aroldis Chapman set the record, 105.1 mph, in 2010.) Ohtani still wants to reach that number. “Hopefully,” he says, “my ligament holds up this time to do it.”

***

Hokkaido is home to the Fighters and the Sakamoto Ryōma Memorial Museum. It is a measure of Ryōma's enormous importance to modern Japanese history that Hokkaido honors the samurai though he never set foot in the prefecture.

The Fighters’ drafting and signing of Ohtani in ’12 was a media sensation, especially because he had said he would sign with an MLB team out of high school. The Fighters won him over, in part with a 30-page presentation spelling out the failures of Japanese athletes, from tennis players to skiers, who went abroad at such a young age. Or it might have been because of their manager’s undergarments: Hideki Kuriyama wore lucky purple underwear to one meeting with Ohtani in homage to the main color of Ohtani’s high school, and he clinched the deal by choosing beige skivvies to honor the color of Ohtani’s family dog, Ace.

Kuriyama presented Ohtani with a novel idea: He could be both a hitter and a pitcher, a duality Ohtani had not considered possible until the manager included it in the 30-page presentation.

“Travel down a path no one else walked down,” Kuriyama told him.

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The Fighters introduced Ohtani on Dec. 25, 2012, at a news conference in a Hokkaido hotel that drew 150 media personnel. One of them asked Ohtani whether he liked Japanese history.

“There are parts I know well,” he answered. “Like the end of the Edo period. Sakamoto Ryōma? Yes, he is interesting.”

In addition to being a samurai, Ryōma was an activist and visionary. He was 17 when he saw the ships of Commodore Perry and the U.S. Navy pull into Edo (Tokyo) Bay. The sight of them made him envision a Japan that broke from its 264-year Tokugawa shogunate rule and isolation toward a country more connected internationally and guided more by the voices of the people. Ryōma worked to make that happen until he was assassinated at 31, dying by the sword.

Ryōma reputation enjoyed a renaissance during Ohtani’s high school years, marked by TV series, books and commemorative coins. It especially resonated with the youth of Japan, who viewed the rise of technology as the 21st-century version of Commodore Perry’s ships: a call to global partnership.

Ryōma is considered a founding father of Japan’s modern age, and Ohtani heeded his message: A hero should go his own way.

***

Shortly after Ohtani signed with L.A. and returned to Japan, a contingent from the Angels visited and put him through a series of tests to establish his strength and conditioning baseline. Ohtani scored well above average in all measurements but one, the vertical jump.

After the jump Ohtani asked

Eppler, “How was that?”

Eppler looked at the measurement and compared it with the historical bell curve for athletes. He was surprised, if only because Ohtani was near the top of the charts in everything else.

“Uh, good,” Eppler said. “Right around average.”

Ohtani looked crestfallen. Average? The word cut through him.

A month later Ohtani reported to spring training in Tempe. All the Angels went through the same baseline testing, including Ohtani. He took another shot at the vertical jump.

Team personnel looked at the number and said, “No, this must be wrong.” They told Ohtani, “Do it again.”

He did. Same number.

It was true: Ohtani jumped 10 inches higher than he did the first time he tried it, four weeks earlier.

“People train all winter for it, and if they improve by 2 1/2 inches that’s a lot,” Eppler says.

It stood as the third-highest vertical in the organization’s history. Eppler came to find out that after Ohtani learned he earned an “average” grade he scoured videos to learn the techniques on ways to improve: how to load your hips; how to use ground forces; how to use the entire foot, including the heel, at push off; how to swing the arms. He not only studied the movements but also mastered them quickly.

“It’s not as obvious from an outside perspective,” Eppler says, “but whenever people sit around talking about the most competitive players in football, basketball or any sport, he deserves to be in the conversation.”

Before each season Ohtani asks the Angels to send him video of all the pitchers in the AL, with a heavy concentration of starters and especially those from division rivals. As his pitching schedule gets penciled in—he generally starts once a week, on Sundays, because Monday is the most common scheduled off day—he asks for video of opposing hitters from his likely opponents. “Back in Japan I never used to study,” he says. “I felt like I never really needed to. Once I came over here I felt the competition was a lot higher so I wanted to use that to my advantage.”

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What might those numbers look like at the end of this season? I tell Ohtani about a statistical model that forecasts what he will do this year. We will play a game: I will tell him the numbers, and he will tell me if he would accept them.

“Hitter: 421 plate appearances, .282 batting average, 21 home runs, 71 RBI.”

“Hmm,” he says. “That’s a good area. It’s really realistic. I wouldn’t take it, though.”

“OK. Pitcher: 12 starts, 5–4 with a 3.89 ERA.”

He laughs. “If I had a 3.89 ERA with our offense, I’d probably win more than five games,” he says. “I would definitely not take that. We’ve got Rendon now.”

***

Babe Ruth was playing golf in Los Angeles before the 1920 season when somebody asked him whether he intended to pitch. “Not if I can help it,” the big guy replied. “I think my pitching days are over. I would rather go after them in the outfield.”

For all of Ruth’s two-way legend, he kept up both disciplines regularly over a span of just 202 games: from May 1918 through the following July, when he was 24. (He pitched only three times over the final 51 games that year.)

Ohtani has been an active two-way player in the big leagues for just a 63-game span in 2018, during which he hit or pitched in 43 of them before his elbow gave out.

Maintaining his health through a season requires particular discipline. Los Angeles regularly administers strength and flexibility tests on Ohtani, as clubs do for all players, but his take longer. The Angels also track not just his games played but also the rigor of each one, down to how many times he dove back into first on pickoff attempts.

They also have a person dedicated to monitoring Ohtani’s energy level, sleep, soreness and nutrition and will ask him nearly every day about his assessment of those patterns. If any of the monitors indicate a 5% or greater deviation from Ohtani’s baseline, the Angels issue an internal “yellow light” on him. It’s the signal for everyone involved—trainers, coaches, the manager—to proceed with caution with his workload.

Maddon has talked about letting Ohtani bat in games he pitches, but if that happens it won’t be until late in the season. The Angels will begin with the protocols that applied to Ohtani in Japan: a day off before and after each pitching appearance. “Relative to our position in September I might [relax] those a little bit,” Eppler says. “Or in October, as my mentor Brian Cashman would say, all bets are off.”

Ohtani’s heaviest workload occurred in ’16, when he made 20 starts and had 382 plate appearances. “My short-term goal is playing out the year with no setbacks and injuries,” he says. “And whatever the Angels have me scheduled to do, I want to fulfill that schedule.

“It’s hard to set long-term goals, especially when it comes to individual awards. Because if I continue to do both I’m not going to get enough starts to win the Cy Young or enough at bats to win MVP or Silver Slugger. So I don’t try to focus on individual awards. Of course, it would be nice to win them, but the only long-term goal is winning the World Series.”

During the Edo period in Japan, people planted Nashi pear trees to repel misfortune. The fruits are treasured not just for their beauty and flavor but also as symbols of seasons—spring when their white flowers blossom and late summer and early fall when the golden orbs ripen—and are so revered they are given as gifts.

This is how an uninterrupted double-duty season of Ohtani should be received. Not as a wonder of athleticism, an homage to Ruth, the flourishing of a generational talent or a simple expression of love of a complicated game, though it is all that. But as a gift.

This story appears in the MLB Preview issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.