Graphic by Francisco Valladares/Athletics Editor

Striking Out the Myth

Shohei Ohtani is showing that Asian athletes are not less capable than their American counterparts.

By Jarrod Castillo Staff Writer

Imagine being an international baseball player, living in a new country, with an overwhelming amount of pressure to succeed for your home country and an even greater amount of people wishing for your failure.

That is the life of Los Angeles Angels rookie phenom Shohei Ohtani. Dubbed the Japanese “Babe Ruth”, Ohtani is known for his impeccable command of pitches and his incredible power swinging the bat.

Despite Ohtani’s clear-cut talent, scouts and fans alike questioned whether his game would translate to the MLB. This isn’t something new in the United States, as asian athletes are usually heavily hyped when they decide to make the leap to the Major Leagues.

In 2016, his last healthy season playing for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan, Ohtani hit 22 home-runs with 67 runs batted in (RBI), posted a .322/.416/.588 line and an on-base plus slugging (OPS) of 1.004 in 104 games, per baseball-reference.com.

OPS is a hitter’s ability to get on base and hit for power. That last number is critical as a .900 OPS or higher is considered to be elite, showing that Ohtani can hit with the best of them.

As a pitcher, Ohtani had a 1.86 earned run average (ERA) in 21 games and 140.0 innings, per baseball-reference.com. For reference, the average ERA for MLB pitchers in 2016 was 4.19, which shows that Ohtani is an elite pitcher.

Although his early statistics in the U.S are comparable to those in Japan, some scouts felt that Ohtani’s game was still not developed enough to make an impact in the MLB. One scout in particular said that Ohtani was almost like a high-school baseball player because of his perceived inability to hit MLB-caliber pitches.

“He’s basically like a high school hitter because he’s never seen a good curveball,” the scout said in a piece by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. “He’s seen fastballs and changeups. And you’re asking a high school hitter to jump to the major leagues?”

As a hitter in the MLB, he has hit three home-runs on back-to-back-to back nights, with one of them being a 450-foot, 112 mph blast against reigning Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber. As a whole, Ohtani is batting .364/.417/.773 with an OPS of 1.189.

In addition, Ohtani has pitched two MLB games and currently has a 2.08 ERA with 18 strikeouts. 12 of those strikeouts came in his second start against the Oakland A’s, where he had a perfect game going into the seventh inning.

Because of Ohtani’s stellar play to start the season, Passan apologized to the Japanese star in a column after Opening Week, where he regretted putting too much stock on what scouts said about him during Spring Training. In the piece, one international scout describes how to properly judge Asian players.

“It is safe to assume you are learning the first lesson of scouting Asians,” the scout said. “Never evaluate them in Spring Training. They are on their own program. Ichiro [Suzuki] and [Akinori] Iwamura didn’t hit a ball hard or to the right side of shortstop their first spring.”

Japanese leagues are considered to be inferior to the MLB by some, which leads to many international athletes from Japan being written off. This misconception has not only affected Ohtani, but also the aforementioned Ichiro Suzuki.

An outstanding baseball player in Japan, the 27-year old rookie Ichiro was known for his slender frame, unorthodox hitting stance and having a cannon for an arm.  

His powerful throwing was showcased when he threw out Terrence Long from right field to third base, some 250-300 feet, in 2001. A great defensive outfielder, he’s won 10 Rawlings Gold Glove Awards in each of his first 10 seasons.

Along with having a great acumen for defense, Ichiro has accumulated 4,363 hits in both Japan and the MLB, becoming the all-time “Hit King”. However, the previous “Hit King”, Pete Rose, was initially dismissive of Ichiro’s accomplishment because he tallied 1,278 hits in Japan.

“I don’t think you’re going to find anybody with credibility say that Japanese baseball is equivalent to major-league baseball,” Rose said in an interview with USA Today. “There are too many guys that fail here, and then become household names there, like Tuffy Rhodes. How can he not do anything here and hit (a record-tying) 55 home runs (in 2001) over there?”

For the longest time, Asian athletes have always been seen as over-hyped and not seen as equal to American athletes, for various reasons. However with Ohtani proving his detractors wrong, it’ll only be a matter of time before Asian athletes can be seen on the same pedestal as the Americans.