The Stadium in the Middle of Nowhere
Wooooow, fans said in awe as 18-year old Ohtani Shohei rounded the bases after hitting a home run. The opposing right fielder jumped from the warning track onto the outfield fence, searching for the home run ball’s landing spot. What the hell was that, a voice said in disbelief when the ball landed outside of the ballpark, an estimated 460 feet from home plate. It had cleared the defense-in-depth style outfield wall that separated high school baseball players from the industrial and commercial buildings nearby. Behind home plate, a high school girl jumped from her seat to snap a photo of Ohtani when he crossed home plate. As Ohtani left the field of play, the umpire tossed a fresh ball towards the catcher almost as an afterthought.
The path to Ohtani’s MVP began as he finished his home run trot with a jog to the dugout, high-fiving his teammates who were head-and-shoulders shorter than him. Light rain fell on the crowd as they sang in honor of the young man. One commenter on the video of Ohtani’s home run said, “It’s unbelievable that a guy like Ohtani Shohei came out of that middle-of-nowhere stadium.”
Beyond those outfield walls, Ohtani’s neighbors worked 10 or more hours a day, maybe in semiconductors or farming or the infamous dolphin harvest. Iwate Prefecture — the state where Ohtani was born and raised — produces half of Japan’s annual dolphin catch. But up in the mountainous area of Oshu City, where Ohtani lived, locals were more likely to spend their days processing cattle for meat distribution. Getting to Sendai, the nearest metropolis to Oshu, took 2 hours using the famed Japanese bullet train, the shinkansen. For a mere $60, one could leave Iwate Prefecture at 6 AM in the morning and be somewhere more known for baseball by 8 AM. For $120 and a 4-hour trip, one could make it to Tokyo — the center of baseball in Japan — and never look back. No cows, no farm fields, no semiconductor plants; just the big city lights and some of the best trainers, facilities, and competition in the world.
Yet Ohtani and his family remained in Oshu throughout his promising nascent baseball career. They could have gone somewhere more competitive, somewhere more known for baseball — a place where all eyes would be on Ohtani and pro scouts would watch his every move. Yet he and his family remained in rural Iwate, playing in that stadium in the middle of nowhere.
The first people to document Ohtani’s ascent were his friends and neighbors, taking photos with their first-generation smartphones. The iPhone had been introduced to Japan only 3 years earlier, and WiFi in rural areas of Japan was about as sketchy as a piece of fried chicken you might buy at the convenience store at 4 AM. In many rural Japanese cities, the buses featured wooden floors and the trains were hand-me-downs from the 1960s Tokyo metro. Whereas trains in Tokyo depart every 10 minutes, the trains on the local Tohoku line depart northward every 50 minutes and southward every 30 minutes; it’s always easier to go to Tokyo than to leave. The countryside moved slower in every way compared to the big city.
The MVP From Between the Mountains
Thus we enter the slow burn legend of Ohtani Shohei, the MVP from between the mountains. The man who didn’t move to Sendai or Tokyo to play fast-paced ball. The man who would claim MLB Rookie of the Year honors at age 23 and the MVP at age 27 — as the first truly successful two-way player in MLB since before the war.
The Japanese don’t need to number that war, for it was the last true war they fought. After “The Pacific War” or “The Fifteen-Year War,” as the Japanese called it, the country began a decades-long project of learning from the United States of America to become the beacon of American-style capitalism within the trenches of Maoist and Leninist-influenced East Asia. As part of the project of Americanization in Japan, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) formed in 1950 and modeled itself after American Major League Baseball. Throughout the 1950s, MLB intended that one day, Japan would be a lucrative source of baseball labor, much like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Puerto Rico would become. However, a misunderstanding in the 1964 contract of Murakami Masanori — the first Japanese-born Major Leaguer — resulted in a severance of official baseball relations between the NPB and MLB for thirty years. Only when Nomo Hideo dared to retire from his NPB contract and sign as an international free agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 did MLB see another Japanese player. 6 years later, the 27-year old Ichiro Suzuki arrived in MLB and won the AL MVP in his first year in Major League Baseball behind the prowess of his bat and his outfield arm.
Following Ichiro’s MVP debut, pundits declared that the Japanese had “arrived” or “caught up” to MLB. A famous book emerged from this era, The Meaning of Ichiro, which proposed that the Japanese players arriving in MLB were changing the American game. Yet, as MLB pitching staffs increasingly deployed relievers and lessened the importance of starting pitchers, the fantastically expensive load-bearing starters like Matsuzaka Daisuke (who cost the Boston Red Sox nearly $60 million just to have the rights to sign) were almost obsolete by the time they arrived in MLB. As a home run surge took over the latter half of the 2010s, contact-based Japanese hitters struggled to find footing. As free-agent contracts in the NPB began to inflate to attract world-class talent to their league instead of MLB, there was more reason than ever for Japanese players to remain domestic than to move abroad. In 2021, only 5 Japanese nationals appeared in an MLB game, out of the over 1,000 players who trotted onto the field over the course of the season.
When Ohtani won the AL MVP in 2021, MLB ran this promo showing the “meeting” of the first two Japanese MVPs:
The only two Japanese-born players to win MVP.
— MLB (@MLB) November 19, 2021
The tweet conveniently omits the fact that Japanese players weren’t allowed to play in MLB until the mid-to-late 1990s; since then, another 61 Japanese nationals have been employed by MLB, out of the over 6,600 players who have appeared in that time frame. In other words, less than 1% of MLB players in the past 25 years have hailed from Japan. That’s a slow burn, indeed.
And now one of those players is completely revolutionizing the way MLB could operate in the future.
Two Way Today
Should we be accustomed to thinking that excellent baseball players are generated out of a specific geography? In the 140+ year history of Major League Baseball, only 63 Japanese-born players have appeared in an MLB game. Only 5 Japanese players are currently rostered by an MLB team. In perspective, there are more MLB Players from Panama, South Korea, and Columbia than Japan. There are nearly six times as many Cuban-born players than Japanese players; Cuba is an embargoed country that is ostensibly the enemy of the United States, whereas Japan has long been the bastion of American-style capitalism in Asia.
Although Ohtani won the AL MVP award unanimously, many complained that Ohtani — who led the 2021 Los Angeles Angels in Games Played as a position player, Games Started as a pitcher, home runs, and innings pitched — didn’t lead MLB in any single category of counting stats. How could the most valuable player not even be the best player in a single category?
Although the detractors to the Ohtani MVP case were numerous, the case against Ohtani as MVP generally stemmed from Ohtani’s “lack” of playing time in the field. Perhaps the most famous case came from the MLB Network, where legendary pitcher Pedro Martinez detailed his case for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as MVP because Guerrero played more innings in the field.
Ohtani vs. Vlad Jr., Matty V vs. Pedro. The AL MVP debate rages on!
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) September 30, 2021
Meanwhile, Canadian television personality Sid Seixeiro argued that Guerrero — who tied for an MLB-leading 48 home runs — was more important to his team’s playoff run than Ohtani.
Vlady Jr. is the true MVP. At some point the word “valuable” matters.
— Sid Seixeiro (@Sid_Seixeiro) November 18, 2021
North American audiences simply haven’t seen a player like Ohtani before, or at least in our lifetimes. Sure, there are modern pitchers who can hit: Dontrelle Willis, Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Greinke come to mind, but none of these pitchers are or were true threats at the plate. And, there are hitters who can pitch — and we more or less tune into the game to laugh at them when it happens. As such, there’s a significant stigma against the two-way player. Playing as both a hitter and a pitcher — despite being an important facet of the National League heritage — is often considered a skill reserved for high school or college players. So often we hear about prospects needing to choose their focus — pitching or hitting — when they arrive in MLB. Yet, the arrival of Shohei Ohtani has opened the doors to those players who might want to be a legitimate two-way player in MLB.
As MLB and the MLBPA discuss the next collective bargaining agreement — which will likely include a Universal DH — we could see more players who are aligned precisely with Ohtani’s skill set. Part of the confusion among the North American public is in how we categorize Ohtani: is a two-way player a pitcher that hits? Or is he a DH that pitches?
Real Impacts for the Imaginary Manager
Fantasy sports provide a unique vantage point to evaluate players outside of the insular MLB microcosm. According to the Razzball Player Rater, Ohtani was the fourth-best overall hitter and 33rd-best starting pitcher for fantasy baseball 2021. In other terms, on your average fantasy baseball team, Ohtani was your best hitter and either your 2nd or 3rd best pitcher. And, he did that while (very likely) costing you only one draft spot. What’s more, he actually got better as a pitcher after the sticky tack ban; some of this improvement was to be expected because Ohtani was in a very long recovery from Tommy John surgery.
If we use Rudy’s Point Share system, Ohtani was tied for the 7th best overall player in fantasy sports last year. If we weight his value by position, he was $5 more valuable than his closest competitor, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Put another way, he was 10% more valuable than the next closest fantasy player. In a game of edges, that’s a nice head start. And, of course, it helps us fans to say, without a doubt: Yes, Shohei Ohtani was the AL MVP in 2021. Playoff roster be damned!
At a glance, it seems very likely that Ohtani’s numbers can repeat in 2022. Ohtani, as a pitcher, finished 11th overall in K-BB% for the 2nd half of 2021, with a 3.45 xFIP matching his 3.45 FIP. Each of these numbers were well within range of his 2.84 ERA, letting us know that his stats weren’t dramatically affected by luck (although his ERA should be expected to be slightly less stellar in 2022). Ohtani as a hitter had a slightly worrisome 14% swinging strike rate, but the Salt Lake Bees batters surrounding him led to a 37% zone rate — in other words, opposing pitchers tried to pitch around Ohtani and often gave him garbage, but Ohtani still raked despite having to swing regularly outside the zone. Actually, let’s put that in perspective: out of the 132 batters with enough plate appearances to qualify, Ohtani saw the 4th fewest strikes in MLB in 2021. Imagine: 2 out of every 3 pitches you see are out of the strike zone, yet you still manage 46 HR, a .335 ISO, and a .393 wOBA on a team where Jared Walsh (128 OPS+) was the only other above average hitter on your team for most of the year; the remaining batters weren’t even close (and Mike Trout only played in 36 games so just stop that argument right there).
In short: in 2022, Ohtani should have a slightly healthier team to support him. Imagine what he could do as a hitter with even marginally better support. All the peripherals point to Ohtani’s production stemming from skills, and in fact, his luck could stand to improve a bit from last year.
Of course, we can always worry about Ohtani’s health. I did last year — a ton. We saw Jack Flaherty and Elieser Hernandez lose their seasons to aggressive batting and baserunning. Ohtani hadn’t pitched in 2 years, and the Angels kept marching him out there every 5th day as if they had a chance at the playoffs. Certainly, Ohtani has never missed shoulder day at the gym, but pitchers far more rubber-armed than him have had stricter limits when returning from serious, sustained injuries like Ohtani suffered. At this point, observers can be more or less certain that Ohtani’s poor 2020 hitter showing was more of a result of his Tommy John surgery. His BABIP plummeted to .229 and was bolstered by his paltry 17% line drive percent and a 43% hard hit rate. In other words, Ohtani’s 2020 hitting was, literally, weak. Now that we see Ohtani healed — and in fact, probably the healthiest he’s been since his Rookie of the Year season — we could be looking at the player that adds to most value to your fantasy baseball team in 2022.
It’s extremely early in the draft season — so this take might change come March — but if you put me in an important league and asked me to draft 1.01 right now, I would take Ohtani. Even a regressed Ohtani that is 15% less valuable than his MVP season would still be a top 3 overall pick. Now, if I can get a player with top hitter upside and top 20 pitcher upside with a single pick, I’ll take that risk right now.
From a more restrained standpoint, I have Ohtani as SP35 on a per-inning basis in my early ranks, and he’s sitting in the mid-40s when incorporating Rudy’s IP projections. However, if Ohtani blows past his innings projection or can command the ball like he did in the second half of 2021 for the duration of an entire season, then we’re looking at Ohtani finishing the season in contention for the Top 20 Starting Pitchers, especially if the Angels can notch a few more wins. We’re talking about the kind of player that we simply cannot project in the same way that we’ve projected other players, which brings plenty of opportunity for upside.
Speaking of the health of the Angels, if we see a season where Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon play, say, 100 games (twice as much as their last two seasons, on average) — we could see a dramatic increase in performance for Ohtani. Oh, what’s that — you want me to take you to flavor country for your best ball teams? It’s very likely that if you’re drafting in the middle-to-late part of the order, you can get an Ohtani/Mike Trout combo to start your draft. How insane is that? I mean, the good kind of insane, not the bad kind, where your membranes are affected. Walsh and Rendon are going around rounds 8-10 at the time of writing, and they could provide massive upside if healthy. With the Angels basically having the same odds of making the World Series as the Detroit Tigers, you could find yourself with a very cheap yet very high upside stack that very few people are chasing. Of course there’s risk — but that’s the name of the game. I’m excited about Ohtani for 2022, and with a few instances of luck helping him out on the Angels team, we are likely talking about a league-winning play for 2022.
Let’s chat down in the new comments section — what do you think Ohtani Shohei means for 2022?