It's been a historic year for baseball. Mike Trout is unquestionably one of the game's greatest players and has been for years. However, this year he has stepped it up. He is on pace to record the greatest single seasonin the history of the sport, eclipsing Babe Ruth's 1923 season in which the Great Bambino was worth 14.1 wins above replacement, or WAR.
What's even crazier is that Mike Trout is not the most exciting story in baseball this year. He's not even the most exciting story on his own team, the Los Angeles Angels.
The Japanese import hit the disabled list on June 11, which was a huge blow to his rising star. He may be in for Tommy John surgery, which could sideline him for more than a year.
However, while we're eagerly waiting for his return, and for good news regarding the possibility of surgery, let's use this downtime to get to know this very special player.
The Shohei Ohtani Origin Story
Where did Shohei Ohtani come from? Most baseball fans are aware Ohtani hails from Japan, but few are aware of the depth of his storied history across the Pacific.
Ohtani was born into an athletic family. His father, Toru, played baseball in Japan's corporate league, which is of high enough quality to export major leaguers such as reliever Junichi Tazawa.
His mother, Kayoko, received recognition for his achievements in badminton. Young Shohei was bound to come out of the womb swinging.
He made a big splash on the Japanese baseball scene when his high school team played in Summer Koshien, a famous tournament that has birthed Japanese baseball legends like Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Masahiro Tanaka.
At that tournament, Ohtani threw a fastball that hit 160 kilometers per hour on the radar gun. That's 99 miles per hour, and it was a Japanese high school pitching record. He blazed his name into the minds of baseball scouts across the country.
If Shohei Ohtani were just a flame-throwing pitcher, he'd be plenty exciting, but what makes him such a tantalizing potential future star is the fact that he doesn't just pitch. He hits too.
Baseball has a history of stodginess, and there has been some resistance to the idea of Ohtani bridging the divide between hitters and pitchers. That's true not just in the United States, but also in his home country.
However, Ohtani has done nothing but prove the haters wrong from the beginning with his excellence on the mound and at the plate.
When Ohtani finished high school, his plan was to test offers from Major League Baseball teams instead of first becoming a pro in Japan. Even though he's in the U.S. now, things didn't initially go according to his plan.
That's because the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters had other plans.
Ohtani's Career as a Nippon-Ham Fighter
The Nippon-Ham Fighters drafted Ohtani with the first overall pick of the 2012 Nippon Professional Baseball draft, and they weren't just wasting a pick or eyeing a pie in the sky.
The Nippon-Ham Fighters put together a presentation called "The Path to Realizing Shohei Ohtani's Dream." The video presentation was double-edged. On one hand, it showed the difficulty minor league baseball players face in the United States with their low pay, extensive travel, and grinding seasons.
On the other, it painted Nippon-Ham as the place for Ohtani to incubate and become the best version of himself so that he could arrive in the major leagues a fully-fledged star.
That gamble paid off, and Ohtani rewarded the Nippon-Ham Fighters with some astonishing baseball.
Ohtani didn't arrive as a finished product, however. His first season in 2013 was thoroughly average and even disappointing for a superstar-in-the-making. Across 204 plate appearances, he recorded a triple slash line of .238/.284/.376. That's not exactly “Ruthian territory”.
Furthermore, he wasn't The Babe on the mound that year either. His ERA was 4.38, and his WHIP was 1.46 in just over 60 innings.
Then 2014 happened. That year, he pitched more than 155 innings and recorded 179 strikeouts on his way to an ERA of 2.61.
As a pitcher, he's not able to hit every day, so he doesn't have the at-bat totals you'd want from a typical hitting prospect. Still, his 2014 season at the plate showed great promise. He hit 10 home runs in 234 plate appearances and triple-slashed .274/.338/.505.
As the years in Nippon Professional Baseball wore on, Ohtani continued to rack up strikeouts on the mound and home runs at the plate, even throwing in a few stolen bases for good measure.
The End of the Beginning: Ohtani's Switch to MLB
This brings us to 2017, when Ohtani let the Nippon-Ham Fighters know he was ready to be posted to MLB.
The Japanese Posting System is an intricate web of rules governing the rights of players, Japanese baseball clubs, and Major League teams when it comes to Japanese players transferring from NPB to MLB.
In Ohtani's case, the Nippon-Ham Fighters had the option to decline his request, because he did not have the nine years of professional experience that are required for international free agency.
However, the club did want to help Ohtani realize his dream. Moving to the U.S. league was part of that dream, so the Nippon-Ham Fighters helped their star player with his transition.
When news of Ohtani's posting spread, nearly every team in MLB was part of the rumor mill. Would he only want to play in a big sports market like New York City or Los Angeles?
Would he want to join a storied club like the Chicago Cubs or Cincinnati Reds? Or would he prefer somewhere like Seattle because of its proximity to home?
Because of the posting rules governing Ohtani's specific case, every team thought they had a shot. Quite a few prepared video presentations similar to the Nippon-Ham Fighters' from 2012. Only this time, they were focused on providing Ohtani a long-term home where he could flourish and ride out the rest of his career.
Joining the Angel in the Outfield
Now we know that Ohtani landed with the Angels, and it's easy to see why. Mike Trout is a generational talent, and it speaks to Ohtani's intelligence that he'd sign with the team with the best player. With Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, and an aging-but-still-useful Albert Pujols, the team's lineup starts to look formidable
However, joining the Angels was not a sure thing, and it seemed like a coup for the team this winter. The Angels are not even the most popular team in their city, so it's clearly not only bright lights that affected Ohtani's decision.
Plenty of scout’s tout Ohtani's humility, which is a popular thing to do when it comes to star athletes. These real-life superheroes? They're just like us.
It's clear Ohtani is ambitious. Just check out the list of life goals he wrote in high school. It includes items like "win 3rd World Series," "break the strikeout record," and "throw no-hitter in my very last game."
With his choice of the Angels, it seems Ohtani might actually own the humility those scouts think of. It was a shrewd choice. It shows he wants to achieve great things, but he doesn't need a spotlight to do it.
Shohei Ohtani's Present
There was speculation before the 2018 MLB season began about the way in which the Angels would use Ohtani. Would they make him strictly a pitcher? It would seem a waste of his fastball to make him a full-time hitter, but was that a possibility?
So far, we've seen the team give Ohtani playing time as a hitter and a pitcher. He pitched during his turn in the rotation, and he hit on the days when he was off. Because of the toll pitching takes on the arm, they gave him more off days than usual, and he protested the time off.
It's clear the guy wants to play the game.
That makes Ohtani's trip to the disabled list all the more disheartening. We want more of Ohtani too. He has flashed quite brightly in his short time in MLB.
Take a look at some of his 2018 stats.
He hit six home runs in 129 plate appearances. That's a pace of almost 30 home runs in his rookie year
His on-base percentage is .372. If he had enough at-bats, that would qualify him just outside the top 25 batters in MLB in that category
His triple-slash line is .289/.372/.535.
His OPS+ is 150. As a rookie, Shohei Ohtani is already proving himself to be 50% more valuable than the average major leaguer
Surprisingly Great Compensation for Unsurprisingly Great Stats
It's good news that Ohtani is performing so well in his first MLB season. There was a lot of pressure for him to do so.
What makes the case for Ohtani's humility more than anything is his team-friendly deal with the Angels. He signed a six-year contract for the league-minimum salary of $545,000 per year plus a one-time $2.3 million signing bonus.
That may look like a lot to us, but it's actually fantastic savings for the Angels. Some experts have predicted Ohtani may be worth more than $200 million before the time he turns 30. Since this contract is bound to have ripples in not just baseball, but all of sports, it's clear that Ohtani is shaking things up in more ways than one.
What the Future Holds
Maybe Ohtani's most impressive stat is this: 23.
That's not his jersey number. He's not trying to be Michael Jordan.
That's his age.
23 is incredibly young for a player in Major League Baseball, especially for one with as impressive a resume as Ohtani. With Hall of Famers playing into their early forties, we could be witnessing the beginning of a decades-long career.
It's a shame that his career is on pause at the moment. The Angels have classified Ohtani's injury as a Grade 2 sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament. Baseball fans, especially fantasy baseball fans, know that UCL injuries are scary because they usually require Tommy John surgery to fix.
Obviously, the Angels hope to avoid this fate for their budding star not named Trout. They gave him injections of stem cells and platelet-rich plasma in his elbow. Three weeks after he received those injections, they'll reevaluate him. Let's hope for the best, for all our sakes.
Making New Memories
Ohtani's birthday is July 5, and it would be a wonderful present for him and the rest of the baseball world to hear that he'll return to action this year.
If not, we shouldn't rush him. The only thing worse than having Tommy John surgery, is rushing back the return from Tommy John surgery.
If nothing else, Shohei Ohtani has already provided baseball fans with many great memories from the 2018 season. He's a shiny new star in a year when it's easy to get outshined, even by his own teammates.