Alexander: Angels’ Shohei Ohtani is must-see TV
With all of the superlatives and all of the comparisons lavished on Shohei Ohtani in what is his first true season as a two-way player, this might describe his impact as well as anything:
Whatever he does, whenever he does it, people stop what they’re doing and pay attention.
The Angels’ pitcher-DH is doing things that have never been done before. The comparison to Babe Ruth, the default example of baseball greatness for more than a century? Ruth tried to balance hitting and pitching for a couple of years, 1918 and ’19 with the Red Sox, before Boston traded him to the New York Yankees. But he figured trying to do both was too much, and anyway, he preferred hitting.
Many transcendent players have come through the game in the years since, but no one has come close to impacting it this way. Ohtani entered the weekend having eclipsed Hideki Matsui for the most home runs in a season by a Japanese player, and he did it in half a season after cracking his 32nd homer of the year on Wednesday afternoon against Boston. He’s the best pitcher in the Angels’ rotation (4-1, 3.49 ERA, 3.58 FIP, .195 batting average against in 13 starts). He will both pitch and hit in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Denver, he will participate in the Home Run Derby the night before, and in fact, various oddsmakers have made Ohtani the favorite to win it.
Ohtani has become a larger-than-life figure, and he has become so because the restrictions have been removed from his game. Manager Joe Maddon has given him the green light to determine what works best for him rather than adhering to a strict regimen, such as sitting out the days before and after he pitches.
Example: After Tuesday night’s start on the mound against the Red Sox, an impressive bounce-back after a bad outing in his previous start in Yankee Stadium, Maddon was prepared to give him the following afternoon off. And then …
“As I was walking out he was still here,” Maddon recalled. “And I asked, ‘how do you feel about (the next day)? And he wanted to go.’”
That was the afternoon Ohtani fouled a ball off his ankle, then another off the inside of his knee in the fifth inning. He backed out of the batter’s box and seemed in some discomfort, and Matt Vasgersian on the Angels’ telecast suggested he was looking like Kirk Gibson in ’88 at the moment, and wouldn’t he like to hit one where he could just jog around the bases.
And then? Boom! Ohtani turned on a 2-and-2 changeup from Eduardo Rodiguez and deposited it deep in the right field bleachers, 433 feet away, 114 mph exit velocity.
“He did it again! He’s a beast,” Vasgersian screamed, followed by a delighted cackle.
Another milestone for Shohei Ohtani
He hit home run No. 32 which breaks Hideki Matsui's record for most homers by a Japanese player in a major league season.
(via @Angels) pic.twitter.com/oNOgH3DDga
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 7, 2021
He’s done everything else, so why not dial up a longball on demand? The previous night he’d limited the AL East-leading Red Sox to two runs and five hits over seven innings and 89 pitches. A few nights before that, against the Baltimore Orioles, Ohtani walked with one out in the ninth, stole his 12th base of the season with two outs, then scored from second on Jared Walsh’s single, his walk-off slide home – and the arms raised celebration from a prone position – another moment that would go on the highlight reel.
Shohei Ohtani scores to walk-off the Orioles. pic.twitter.com/qaWRqMedQo
— Major League GIFs (@MajorLeagueGIFs) July 3, 2021
That might go in the memory bank alongside the 453-foot home run he hit off the D-ring catwalk at Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, which led Maddon, who managed nine seasons in Tampa Bay, to say, “Even in batting practice, I have not seen that.” (And you can also add his 463-foot bomb Friday night in Seattle.)
Ohtani is memorable, with the potential of doing something amazing every time he steps on the field. He is marketable, as those Japanese companies that rushed to sign deals with the Angels after his signing can attest. He’s likable; how many other pitchers would pick up the barrel of a broken bat, jog over to the hitter to return it to him and give him a pat on the back besides, as Ohtani did with Boston’s Christian Arroyo this past week? And he seems to be having as much fun doing this as the rest of us are having while watching him do it.
Shohei Ohtani is even more talented than you thought pic.twitter.com/xVJtxkbqY3
— Jomboy Media (@JomboyMedia) July 9, 2021
Game knows game. Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt – who recently joined Maddon’s favorite football team – and the Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant have both tweeted salutes to Ohtani, and Durant showed up at Yankee Stadium when the Angels were in New York last week.
It feels like a lot of people are talking about Shohei Ohtani but still nowhere near enough people are talking about Shohei Ohtani.
What he’s doing in baseball is insane.
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) May 18, 2021
Kevin Durant got some amazing seats to watch Shohei Ohtani — who he called a “different breed.”
Ohtani is also the AL MVP front runner imo. https://t.co/bCLwbQd1PS pic.twitter.com/ded25sqnZz
— Chris Milholen (@CMilholenSB) June 28, 2021
The main reason? As mentioned above, the limits have been removed. Ohtani might not be having the best season in the game’s history, but it’s easily among its most memorable precisely because he is being allowed to do what he set out to do: Pitch and hit, and exhibit all of his skills at the highest level possible.
And for a sport that struggles to market its stars and has a tendency to shoot itself in the foot as often as it capitalizes on an opportunity, Ohtani is a potential godsend. The All-Star Game is a mammoth opportunity to showcase this one-of-a-kind player.
“The guy’s gonna participate (in the) Home Run Derby, pitch in the game and hit in the game,” Maddon said. “That doesn’t happen, like ever. … I think even the non-baseball fan could really latch onto this and become interested. Just, ‘He’s doing what? He’s doing all this? I got to see this.’
“When he came over and I went (as Cubs manager) to the meetings for him to choose a team to go to, he came here to do two things: He came here to pitch and to play, to be a hitter. And that’s exactly what he’s doing. He can do both and this is what he wants to do. You kind of have some – I don’t know if it’s concerns, but it’s, ‘Can he actually do something like that?’ And he can. So this year that’s all we talked about from the beginning, and here he is doing it. Let him go play, support him, listen to him. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Ohtani, through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, seldom reveals much. When he was asked a week ago about whether Rays manager Kevin Cash, the American League All-Star manager, would consent to his pitching and hitting in the All-Star Game, he said: “I never had a choice in my professional career to pick where I pitch and hit. And I think as players we’re all like just pieces of the puzzle, and it’s all up to the manager how he’s going to decide to use me. And that’s all I can say for now.”
There are, of course, those who maintain Ohtani might be even better were he to concentrate on one thing exclusively. Hall of Famer and TV analyst John Smoltz is as intrigued as anyone with Ohtani’s two-way performances, but he told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that full-time devotion to pitching would enable him to refine his stuff even more:“His splitter is great,” Smoltz said. “His slider is great. His fastball command will get better. It has been good. It’s not what you think about when you think about elite. But that all would get better if all he did was concentrate on pitching.”
But what he has can be wicked.
“He’s got a 91 mph fastball, but he’s also got a 99 mph one, and you don’t know what you’re going to get at certain points,” catcher Max Stassi said after his start against the Red Sox, noting with a laugh that in one at-bat against Danny Santana, “he went 67 mph curveball and then the next pitch was a 97 mph fastball. That’s just not fair.”
Anyway, that’s the point. He’s doing something nobody else has done, he’s doing it at a high level – and, as Ohtani noted the other night when he faced Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi, “I try to get some pitching tips off of him while I’m in the box.” So one skill does complement the other.
Who else can do all of the things he’s done? That’s why Ohtani is must-see TV.
And that’s also why it’s incumbent on MLB to not screw this up.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter