Shohei Ohtani: The 'Best Baseball Player in the World' Isn't in MLB...Yet

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMarch 6, 2017

TOKYO, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 12:  Shohei Ohtani #16 of Japan is seen during the warm-up ahead of the international friendly match between Japan and Netherlands at the Tokyo Dome on November 12, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan.  (Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images)
Masterpress/Getty Images

TOKYO — New Year's night, a sparkling "2017" is brightly lit atop the Tokyo Tower, and the possibilities ringing in are endless. Proof? Inside apartments on the city's flat screens, a Japanese League champion and heartthrob is squatting behind a makeshift home plate in a studio attempting to receive his own pitches.

"Best baseball player in the world," one high-ranking official with a major league club flatly has declared back in the United States.

"He's…wow!" one veteran scout with a National League club exclaimed.

"All the stories you hear are real as far as the batting practice power and his ability to throw 100 mph," the international scouting director of another major league club said. "All the stories."

Shohei Ohtani is Babe Ruth come back to life a century later in Japan. In leading Hokkaido Nippon Ham to the Japan Series title last October as a starting pitcher and an outfielder/designated hitter, the Fighters won by virtue of both his power right-handed pitching and lethal left-handed swing.

He also is on deck to become the next Japanese sensation to star in the major leagues.

That's the reality.

Virtual reality, though, is what's keeping folks here glued to their big screens on this New Year's night. The television show is called Arashi ni Shiyagare, and the host is popular Japanese singer and actor Kazunari Ninomiya.

When Ninomiya takes his turn squatting behind the plate attempting to "catch" an Ohtani pitch using virtual reality technology, he not only fails miserably, but he's also visibly scared to death while doing so. To him, it looks like Ohtani's pitch is coming in at 200 mph. And yet, he knows there is no hardball zeroing in on him at all.

It's nothing to hang his head about. Because soon Ohtani steps in to bat, facing himself.

At the plate is the man who crushed 22 homers and hit .322 with 18 doubles, 67 RBI and seven steals in 323 at-bats last season.

On the mound is the man who went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings.

In the studio, the man who was named MVP of Japan's Pacific League for both his hitting and pitching prowess swings and misses twice before he connects with a pitch.

A photo of Shohei Ohtani celebrating the Nippon Ham Fighters' Pacific League title hangs in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
A photo of Shohei Ohtani celebrating the Nippon Ham Fighters' Pacific League title hangs in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame (via Scott Miller)

Even Ohtani has difficulty hitting Ohtani.

"That was an eye-opening experience," he tells me later in the winter, when I finally catch up with him. "It's hard to find opportunities to actually face myself and, to be honest, my pitches felt much faster than I anticipated.

"I actually think that whole experience broadened my visions as a baseball player."

The rest of Nippon Professional Baseball shudders.

The major leagues salivate.

Ohtani is dressed sharply for the program in a black suit and light blue tie. He has a baby face and an easy smile. He laughs a lot. Next up is a Wii-like baseball game called Pawapuro between Ohtani and Ninomiya, and the show host suggests to the slugger/flamethrower that if Ohtani loses, Ninomiya takes half of his salary, which last year was $1.83 million. More laughter.

They chat for a bit. Ohtani tells him that he feels more comfortable as a pitcher, because he is more in control. And he can focus more. But he's been hitting longer, so that comes more naturally.

The Fighters have told him they will post him after the 2017 season if he wishes—and that's one reason he continues to both pitch and hit: It makes him more marketable. He praises the Fighters profusely for allowing him this leeway. Their thinking is flexible, he says, and that's why he signed with them back in 2012. He was surprised that a team would allow him to do both, and he moved quickly when the offer was made.

The game of Pawapuro commences and, predictably, Ohtani wins. So now Ninomiya must fulfill one of Ohtani's requests—that's the deal. Ohtani gleefully orders him to walk around the set imitating a film director. He does, and everybody laughs.

Back in the States, the intrigue grows. When will Ohtani arrive? And who will sign him?

"He's a rock star," a high-ranking official for yet another club says. "No doubt about it."

The bad news both for Ohtani and for this month's World Baseball Classic is that the man who many believe is the world's best baseball player is on the shelf with an ankle injury. It is a blow to the WBC, which would have benefited immensely from his participation, and it is a blow to Ohtani himself because so many major league scouts and executives are jockeying for position to evaluate him, get close to him, woo him.

Of course, that might require getting in a bathtub with him.

It turns out Ohtani enjoys long baths. He also loves naps and likes to watch movies. At least that's what he tells the New Year's night TV audience in Japan. And while he's soaking in the tub, he's usually reading.

"He stays to himself a lot, but at the same time when you talk with him he opens right up," pitcher Anthony Bass, in camp with Texas this spring and a teammate of Ohtani's last season in Japan, tells B/R. "He's not shy. I can only imagine what he's going through. Everywhere we traveled, he was bombarded with people. Photographers. People wanting his autograph.

At the age of 22, Ohtani has achieved a level of fame that transcends baseball in Japan.
At the age of 22, Ohtani has achieved a level of fame that transcends baseball in Japan.Kenichi Iwamoto/Haikkado Nippon-Ham Fighters

"It was like he was LeBron James walking through the airport there. I think that's another reason he wants to come over to America. He won't get noticed as much."

Chris Martin, who pitched for Colorado in 2014 and the Yankees in 2015 before signing with the Fighters last year, chuckles.

"In Japan, the fanbase is a little more toward women, and I think they have huge crushes on these guys," Martin tells B/R. "They get to giggling. It's pretty funny to watch.

"I would just hear stories that he wasn't able to go out, that he'd have people surrounding him, asking for pictures, autographs, whatever. He kind of stuck to his room because of his status."

Both Bass and Martin agree that if anyone could star in the major leagues either as a pitcher or hitter, or both, it is Ohtani. Martin has heard comparisons to Josh Hamilton, because when Hamilton was first coming up, many people thought he could do it all, too. Bass was a teammate of Hamilton's briefly in Texas in 2015 and says the sound the ball makes coming off Ohtani's bat is similar to that off Hamilton's.

"I told him, 'You should come to the Cubs. They're a good team, they won the World Series, and you can hit,'" Bass says. "It's hard to get anything from him when it comes to his decision and baseball. He just laughs, jokes about how he wants to be able to hit. He likes when he's not pitching to be able to contribute in another way. He feels like he pitches better when he hits regularly. That's what he says."

The young Japanese players live in dormitories in Sapporo during the season, while their foreign counterparts live outside the city in three-bedroom apartments. Bass says Ohtani is a great teammate and very approachable, even if they did need to converse through a translator.

At one point last season, Bass acquired a remote-controlled drone from a vending machine in Japan. To break the boredom of the long season and to amuse his teammates, he would sometimes fly it in the clubhouse. That piqued Ohtani's interest.

"He'd like to play with it as well, try to land it on different teammates," Bass says. "On their heads, or on their hands. He did that a couple of times.

"We were all kind of having fun messing around. It was a cheap little drone, but it was fun."

The New Year's night television program is good fun as well, and Ohtani's sense of humor is easily evident. He is a good sport throughout.

"I, too, found it hilarious," Ohtani tells me regarding the host Ninomiya's shaky turn as catcher during which he was visibly terrified while attempting to receive one of Ohtani's virtual reality pitches. "But I can totally understand how he feels because, to be honest, I was a little scared myself."

Teammates and scouts say he handles the increasing pressure with grace and aplomb. Maybe it's because he's so young he doesn't know any better. Maybe it's because he accepts life on its terms rather than trying to wrestle it to fit his terms.

No matter the coping mechanism, Ohtani will need it. Already, he is regarded as the best overall player set to leave Japan for the States since Ichiro Suzuki, though some are careful not to draw too many comparisons.

Ohtani's potential move to the U.S. has created a buzz unseen in baseball since Ichiro Suzuki's arrival in 2001.
Ohtani's potential move to the U.S. has created a buzz unseen in baseball since Ichiro Suzuki's arrival in 2001.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Takashi Ofuchi is the Fighters' amateur scout group leader. Over lattes at a posh coffee shop in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo in January, he details the differences between the two stars through a translator. "They're both smart, but it's a different smartness," Ofuchi says. "Ichiro, in our world, is like a craftsman. He's focused mainly on one thing [hitting] and has intelligence in that.

"Ohtani, when you look at him, he has more broad intelligence. If you took baseball away from him, he could do anything else. It's that kind of smartness. You can see it in his range of fans. They go from the elderly to the young, men and women. Ichiro mainly has men fans.

"If Ichiro were the type of person who would look back at each of his chances in the batter's box, Ohtani would be the type of person who, if he didn't hit the ball, he wouldn't mind."

That doesn't mean he doesn't care. Both Bass and Martin rave about his work ethic. And when you play two different positions, there's twice as much work to do.

During the playoffs, his fastball was clocked as high as 102.5 mph. And during an exhibition series in November against the Netherlands in preparation for the WBC, he blasted a home run that still has people talking.

"Over in Japan, power is limited, and velocity is limited," Martin says. "He's a rare breed. People really enjoy watching it. I enjoy watching it. It's impressive."

At 6'4" and 189 pounds, Ohtani is, Bass notes, "kind of a man amongst boys in Japan, particularly when he's on the mound."

He cut an indelible presence off the mound in Japan, too, last summer. Ohtani's face was everywhere. Billboards. Newspapers. Television.

"We'd be walking through the airport, and people would do double takes and start following him," Bass says. "They'd want to take pictures. He'd have to kind of box himself in with a group of teammates so people would stay away. Security would even come over to keep people moving so they wouldn't block the walkway."

Ohtani draws a crowd no matter where he goes in Japan.
Ohtani draws a crowd no matter where he goes in Japan.Photo courtesy of Kenichi Iwamoto/Nippon Ham Fighters

No matter the attention, Ohtani remains pretty chill about life. "This may sound like a cliche, but I do not feel pressure at all when it comes to playing baseball, and this is being 100 percent honest," Ohtani says. "Playing baseball is genuinely fun for me, and I enjoy every moment of my time on the field, whether it's practice or game time."

Two questions hang over Ohtani in this pre-courting stage with major league clubs: when and where?

While the first requires an answer only Ohtani can offer, the second is a bit more complicated.

Multiple sources told B/R they could have envisioned Ohtani signing for $200 million or more, but the new international rules cap teams from spending more than $5 million on international free agents unless the international player they sign is 25 or older and has played at least six professional seasons. Ohtani is 22 and has played four.

Some in the industry think his talent is so exquisite that he should be grandfathered in under the old rules as a true international free agent. MLB sources firmly declare that is not going to happen, and though the timing may be unfortunate, Ohtani will be governed by the new rules just like everybody else.

So, will Ohtani post after the 2017 season? Or, might he wait until after the 2019 season for what surely would be a financial windfall?

"Personally, the new CBA rules do not mean much to me, and it is not going to stop me from going over to the States," Ohtani tells B/R. "The only thing that worries me is the other young players that might try to go overseas after me. I don't want to set the bar too low for them and have to get underpaid because of my decision."

His will be a precedent-setting case on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

What he ultimately decides to sign for will influence some of those who come after him.

And assuming MLB does not bend the rules and Ohtani can score only $5 million if he opts to sign in the States after the 2017 season, well, that means it will not only be the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers and other deep-pocketed clubs who will have a chance to sign him. It means mid- to small-market clubs may be able to box others out.

One B/R Japanese source thinks the San Diego Padres could even have an inside track, and given their working relationship with the Fighters, maybe that's not out of the question.

People around baseball believe Ohtani could command a $200 million contract in the majors were it not for a recent change in the rules covering the signing of international players.
People around baseball believe Ohtani could command a $200 million contract in the majors were it not for a recent change in the rules covering the signing of international players.Masterpress/Getty Images

Interestingly, the Padres this spring quietly hired Seiichiro Nakagaki as director of applied sports science, a position in which he will aid in strength and conditioning on the minor league side. Nakagaki is close with Texas ace Yu Darvish and joined the Rangers' organization from Hokkaido in 2012, when Darvish signed with Texas as a free agent. Ohtani idolized Darvish as he was growing up, so much so that he was given the ace's old number, 11, by the Fighters when he was drafted as an inducement to sign with them.

Ohtani would love to continue as a two-way player, but the economics surrounding Major League Baseball may limit his options.

"If he gets Clayton Kershaw-, Zack Greinke-area money, do you want a guy running around the bases and playing in the outfield when he doesn't pitch?" asks one longtime international scout. "Certainly, he could pinch hit coming off the bench, like [Chicago Cubs manager] Joe Maddon used those guys last year. It would be like having an extra player. He's a good runner, a 70 runner (on the scouts' 10 through 80 scale, with 80 being the highest). You add some value that way, but, again, it gets back to if you invest all that money."

Echoes another high-ranking official with an American League team: "He's going to get all of this money, but what happens if he goes on the DL with an oblique strain and he was your No. 2 starter?"

"I think he'll end up pitching, but I think some team is going to let him do both," one NL scout predicts. "The conclusion I'm hearing from a lot of people who have seen him is that, in the end, he's probably a pitcher."

As always, it likely will come back to the money and market. The near-consensus from multiple sources holds that a smaller-market team with less external pressures that signs him for fewer dollars, such as the Padres, perhaps could afford the flexibility to allow Ohtani to both hit and pitch. Whereas, if it is the Yankees or Red Sox or Dodgers who get him, the high-profile signing, pressure to win and external noise surely would lead them to negotiate with Ohtani that he plays only one position.

It was only a little more than four years ago, of course, that another team in another country was faced with these hard questions. And when representatives from the Fighters first met with Ohtani on Sept. 26, 2012, according to the club's internal notes obtained by B/R, he told them that his desire was to bypass Nippon Professional Baseball and sign with a major league team right out of high school.

Though a gifted hitter, Ohtani has a desire to pitch as well, which may complicate his potential role with a major league club.
Though a gifted hitter, Ohtani has a desire to pitch as well, which may complicate his potential role with a major league club.Masterpress/Getty Images

When the Fighters nevertheless made him the No. 1 overall pick in the NPB draft in October 2012, Ohtani reiterated: "I am determined to go to the major leagues. There isn't any possibility of me accepting the offer."

"I want to have the skills of a top major league player," Ohtani told Fighters representatives in a meeting a week later. "I want to be a pioneer."

That changed a month later, however, when Masao Yamada, the club's general manager, explained how difficult statistically it is for young players to succeed in the majors and floated the idea that Ohtani could both hit and pitch for Nippon Ham.

According to the club's internal notes, "Ohtani smiled and seemed interested in the suggestion."

"After seeing Ohtani succeed both hitting and pitching, we felt, in a way, with humans we try to make categorizations," Ofuchi tells B/R.

"If you become a professional baseball player, you're either a hitter or a pitcher. It's a set way of thinking.

"But if a person has the possibility to do everything, we need to look at that person and his talent and bring his skills along all at the same time. It's like Michelangelo and Einstein. They could do art and science, everything."

In other words, why put boundaries on genius and creativity?

"As a scout, I have to look at the person and his abilities and see if this high school player was capable," said Ofuchi, who is entering his 12th season as a Fighters scout and was instrumental in helping convince Ohtani to sign with the club.

"Ohtani is the player who changed my way of thinking."

The first time Ofuchi ever saw Ohtani play, it was Ohtani's second year in high school, and he was "tall, but thin and not that strong." He was a famous player at the time, but he wasn't a "major" player, the scout says. He just didn't stand out much.

But that changed by Ohtani's final year in high school, at the Spring Koshien—a national high school invitational tournament that ranks as one of sport's most popular attractions in Japan. Facing fellow high school phenom Shintaro Fujinami, who now pitches for the Hanshin Tigers, Ohtani walloped a home run that Ofuchi still vividly recalls today.

"Speaking technically, it was very beautiful," Ofuchi says. "I had never seen anything like it before. I thought it was perfect."

That was a far cry from what he thought of Ohtani's pitching at the time. Ohtani's control was erratic because his "pitching form" (i.e. mechanics) "was not completed," Ofuchi recalls. According to the scout, his arms were too long and his balance wasn't good.

But those batting skills…"perfect."

Ohtani's batting stroke has impressed coaches since he was in high school.
Ohtani's batting stroke has impressed coaches since he was in high school.KAZUHIRO NOGI/Getty Images

So, too, were his manners. Ofuchi still recalls a plane flight the two took shortly after the Fighters had drafted Ohtani four years ago. As they were disembarking from the plane, Ohtani graciously handed Ofuchi his sports jacket.

"For a high school student to do that in Japan … it's not what everyone does," Ofuchi says. "At that moment, I felt even if he became rich with money, it won't change him. He acts formal to adults and elders, and it is a kind and humble thing to do."

Now, the intrigue surrounding Ohtani is growing sharper by the day. For the $20 million posting fee—the money a major league team must pay to the Fighters for the right to negotiate a free-agent deal with Ohtani whenever the team posts him—the majority of MLB clubs are expected to show interest. Meanwhile, the tea-leaf reading is underway. One scout says he thinks the fact the Fighters are trying to build a new stadium to replace the Sapporo Dome is an indication they will post Ohtani after this season—they need the cash.

Whenever they post him, the race will be on in earnest.

"I never thought a professional team in Japan would let me do both hitting and pitching before I was drafted, so I can only imagine that it would be a tougher decision for an MLB team to let me do both," Ohtani tells B/R. "Personally, I would love to do both in the MLB, too, but, ultimately, it is going to be the organization's decision, so I would have to leave that up to them."

"He's a front-line starter," one longtime international scout says. "At the same stage, he is emotionally and physically more mature than Darvish was. He has a better fastball and better command of his fastball. He's a real good athlete."

Yet, says one club's international scouting director, "with that kind of tool set, you're going to want to explore all your options. I don't think it's too crazy to explore both."

Adds an MLB executive: "You cannot downplay the physicality of the player, the athleticism combined with that size and strength. The only thing that I would caution, I do think that we forget that Nippon Professional Baseball is not the major leagues. … And that's not diminishing this player's ability or future abilities."

In other words, to those who may take it for granted that Ohtani may step right into the majors and blast 40 home runs, whoa, slow down.

"I just wonder how he's going [to adjust]," continues the executive. "Over there, there's not a lot of real travel. They get Mondays off. It's pitching every seven days instead of every five [for a starter]. He can adjust; I don't think anyone's going to question that. It's just the idea of … I read somewhere where someone said he could play three days a week and pitch every fifth."

That's great in theory, the executive says. But when the season's grind begins…

"Whatever market he goes into, yes, he's going to be the guy, but he's not going to get hounded as much as he's hounded over there from the media, tabloids, etc. That experience has taken place. Now, failure? He's had a little, not a lot. All indications are he's a smart young man, and credit to Nippon Ham. They've done a good job with him. They've protected him in some ways and demanded from him in others."

As of this winter, Ohtani had yet to hire a western agent who will ultimately steer him into the major leagues. Representatives of Scott Boras have been spotted in Japan. If fellow Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees' starter, advises Ohtani, that could play well for his guy, Casey Close. And given Ohtani's reverence for Darvish, perhaps he could wind up with Arn Tellem.

And now, after the superb start to his professional career, capped (so far) when he led the Fighters to the title last autumn, it is clear that Ohtani will have to make a decision soon.

Indeed, the possibilities ringing in are endless.

"Of course, MLB is more diverse; there are a lot of players from all over the world," Ofuchi says. "It is a higher level than Japanese baseball. If some U.S. scouts say he is the best player in the world, maybe he is. But I haven't seen Ohtani play in the major leagues, so I don't know that to be true.

"He has the ability to overcome his challenges. I think most major leaguers overcome their challenges physically, but he has the intelligence, also."

It is another tool in Ohtani's very well-stocked set. Pitch, hit and think…maybe he really is Michelangelo on the mound, Einstein in the batter's box. No matter how much of this is reality and how much is virtual reality, one thing is clear: MLB teams will be jockeying for position to find out for themselves, and very soon.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.