Certain levels of fanfare come with the title of “Japanese Babe Ruth.” Shohei Ohtani brought it all to Oakland over the weekend.
No. 17 Angels jerseys roamed the Oakland Coliseum for four days straight. Thousands of red-clad fans lined the right-field line of the lower box seats as the 23-year-old warmed up for his first start as a pitcher Sunday. The Athletics issued more than 200 credentials to members of the Japanese media. But all the attention put on the 19,176th player in Major League Baseball history, as No. 19,022 Matt Chapman said, was merited:
“The way he pitched (Sunday) he deserves it.”
Before making his move to the states this winter, Ohtani spent five seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of Japan’s Pacific League winning the Pacific League MVP in 2016. As a pitcher, Ohtani went 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA, 1.076 WHIP and 624 strikeouts in 85 games. As a hitter, he slashed .286/.358/.500 with 48 home runs and 166 RBIs in 403 games — 19 homers and 67 RBIs per 162 games played.
Things did not go as well in his first big league Spring Training.
He got just four hits, all singles, in 32 at-bats (.125) and struck out 10 times while driving in just one run. But he got off the schneid straight away, poking the first meaningful pitch he saw past Oakland first baseman Matt Olson for a single last Thursday.
And things went even worse on the bump in Arizona, where he allowed nine hits and nine runs (eight earned) in just 2-2/3 innings of work (27.00 ERA).
As Los Angeles skipper Mike Scioscia said Sunday, though, pitchers can never wait to get out of Arizona, where breaking balls don’t break quite as sharply and mistakes are magnified in the thin desert air.
For Ohtani, who said through personal translator Ippei Mizuhara that he was equal parts excited and nervous leading up to his first start as a pitcher, the effects of the humidity-free Arizona air were felt most when throwing his out-pitch. Ohtani may feature a high-90s fastball, at times touching triple-digits, and a snappy slider, but his got-to weapon is the splitter. And the splitter arrived in Oakland. He said:
“I did feel a little difference in the weather, the humidity. It was a little easier to throw.”
Martín Maldonado, the Angels’ Gold Glove winning catcher, concurred, saying the splitter looked like a different pitch Sunday. So did Chapman, whose three-run homer on a hanging slider in the second accounted for all the offense the A’s could muster against the starter.
After the game, Chapman said the split-finger fastball looked like the four-seamer Ohtani had been using to blow away his teammates to that point but had “a lot of bite.” The second-year slugger likened that pitch quality of Ohtani to another former Japan League star, Yu Darvish, who has made four All-Star appearances since coming to the states in 2012. The big difference, however, is that Darvish’s heater tops out at about 95, not the ghastly 100 of which Ohtani is capable. Said Chapman:
“I haven’t seen too many guys throwing that hard with a split-finger off of it. It’s tough.”
A’s manager Bob Melvin acknowledge the same difficulty:
“He’s got a compliment of pitches, and anybody that throws 98 miles per hour that means you’ve got to start you bat pretty early which makes his off-speed stuff effective.”
Not only was Ohtani’s fastball cruising at 98, Chapman said the natural cutter movement made it even harder to barrel. And he used the combination to compile six strikeouts in 6 innings of work, starting with Marcus Semien, the first Athletic to face the rookie. Semien was introduced with 98-mph gas to start the game, followed by back-to-back splitters (81- then 83-mph) and finished with an 87-mph slider that whipped out of the zone at the last.
“You could see how he can get hitters out, not just the velocity but all of his pitches — he used everything.
“He had really good stuff and showed really good command today — was able to move the ball in and out, up and down.”
He also showed the poise that was well-represented in the scouting report Scioscia received from Japan. The poise that Scioscia said could end up being his greatest strength. The poise that allowed a 23-year-old rookie, battling nerves in front of thousands at the stadium solely to see him, to get past a three-run homer on a hanging slider in the second inning to slam the door, surrendering just a walk over the next 4-2/3.
There is no question that Ohtani has a complete tool belt. He’s got the velocity, the finishing pitch and the mental toughness to be a star. And Chapman didn’t seem to be very excited about the prospects of taking 15-plus at-bats against him year in and year out:
“He’s going to be a tough guy to face.”