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MLB: Here comes the Japanese Babe Ruth

How much does 23-year old Hoshei Ohtani want to play in the major leagues? According to league rules, a player joining the league after his age 25 season (or 6 years’ experience in foreign professional baseball leagues) enjoys free agent status. That means he can sign for as much money as he can get. Masahiro Tanaka landed a seven-year contract from the New York Yankees for $155 million in 2014.

Ohtani falls short on both age (23) and years of professional experience (5). He is considered an amateur player by MLB’s definition. As such, the Japanese phenom must play on a minor league contract that will pay him the major league minimum of $545,000 this year. He could have made roughly $2.5 million per year if he stayed in Japan and cashed out in the United States after the 2019 season.

But money doesn’t matter to this polite young player late of the Nippon-Ham Fighters. He simply wants to compete against the best. But will he be competitive? Early indicators show some promise.

Maybe with the intervention of Angels?

Ohtani was eligible for a signing bonus, which created a relatively minor bidding war for the Japanese phenom. The Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers had about $3.5 million to sign an international player, but in another “money-doesn’t-matter moment, Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angles for about $1.2 million less.

Interestingly, the “Babe Ruth of Japan” did not meet with the Yankees.

The rest of the Angels are rooting for their young teammate to be successful on the mound and at the plate. Several pitchers admit to some jealousy that Ohtani wasn’t steered away from hitting like they were as their careers progressed.

Team leader and All-Star, Mike Trout, has had fun with Ohtani, and taken him under his wing. To a man, the Angels have been impressed with the youngster’s attitude and desire to learn and improve. Ohtani has no interest in being Babe Ruth. He only wants to be a good MLB baseball player and help his team win games.

Is he really that good?

Shotani pitched in a regular starting rotation in Japan and was the designated hitter for a couple of games between starts. He usually was rested two days before each start. He has a career 42-15 record with a 2.69 ERA. His lifetime batting average is .286, including two consecutive seasons batting over .300.

Those numbers sound good but there are some questions. He has two seasons batting over .300 and two seasons under .250. His pitching has been a little more consistent, but 82 starts over five years is not an MLB starter’s workload.

In Japan, players get regular days off every 4-5 days. Ohtani was rested two of every five games. The Angels will use him as a sixth starter to keep his workload close to his history. But that will probably result in an inconsistent pattern of days pitching, batting, and resting. How he responds is anybody’s guess.

Japanese baseball is competitive, but it is not quite MLB baseball. Japan’s best hitters saw their slugging percentages drop 10-20% when they came to the United States. Ohtani took more than a few batting practice pitches deep, but he has only one single in nine real at-bats this spring. He looks patient, with three walks; but his detractors say he can’t get the swing going against MLB pitchers.

Most scouts expect him to be a better pitcher. His fastball topped out at 96 MPH, but scouts note that it has little movement and is very hit-table. Ohtani’s main weapon is his slider, and his change-up crosses the plate in the mid-70s. But a professional hitter sitting on his fastball will make him pay.

So far, Ohtani struck out 10 of the 12 batters he retired. He can obviously be dominant. But he also allowed four earned runs in four innings. It is expected that he will adjust his game to include higher percentages of sliders and other off-speed offerings, as have most Japanese pitchers over the years.

So… will he make it?

Coaches and scouts agree that Ohtani has a great shot of being a successful pitcher. They quickly mention how much faster he would progress if he wasn’t hitting and fielding, too.

The Angels are committed for the moment to help their new addition realize his dream of being a two-way player. It will be interesting to see how they respond if Ohtani is overwhelmed at the plate. Fan support might play a role in any decision to limit his plate appearances.

Should the Angels pressure the rookie into concentrating on pitching, his limited contract situation could make it easy for him to abandon his American dream and return to the Nippon-Ham Fighters.

For sure, everyone who has had contact with the Japanese phenom is rooting for him. Not only does he work hard and soak up coaching, he is respectful and humble. The combination makes it hard not to hope for the best.

Is he the next Babe Ruth?

Babe Ruth was never really a great hitter and a great pitcher at the same time. The only season he was both was 1918, when he started 19 games and led the Red Sox in ERA (2.22). He played the outfield 57 times that year and paced the team in home runs with 11. His best pitching years ended around that time. Ruth then became the fearsome slugger we know, mostly with the Yankees between 1920 and 1934.

If Shohei Ohtani becomes an accomplished hitter and pitcher at the same time, he will not be the next Babe Ruth. He will be the first Shohei Ohtani, which is exactly what he wants.