Is Shohei Ohtani Being Set Up to Fail Amid Unprecedented Hype, Expectations?

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMarch 28, 2018

Fans try for a autograph from Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani, of Japan, before a spring baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Tempe, Ariz., Wednesday, March 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
B/R

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Legend of the Japanese Babe Ruth landed here in the United States long before Shohei Ohtani reported in the flesh to the Los Angeles Angels' spring training.

But when the Tijuana Toros roughed him up in a B-game, and he went through a 2-for-20 start at the plate with seven strikeouts, and the Colorado Rockies later drilled him for six hits and seven runs in one inning before he even obtained one out in the frame...after the superstar part of this equation failed to emerge, one looming question placed itself squarely between the Cactus League and the regular season.

Is Shohei Ohtani being set up to fail?

No one can read the future, and let's make it clear: It is ludicrous to place too much importance on a few weeks of spring training in the life of a 23-year-old. Every phenom needs time to grow, whether he's from Hokkaido, Japan, or Hackensack, New Jersey.

But after the feeding frenzy involving all 30 MLB clubs last winter that ended with the Angels' signing Ohtani for $2.5 million (plus a $20 million posting fee), there was an assumption the next step would be he'd contend for a Cy Young Award on the mound and a Silver Slugger award at the plate. And that anything less would be colossal disappointment.

"I think it's tough because ... where do you set the expectations as somebody watching?" Seattle Mariners superstar Ichiro Suzuki told B/R. "Because it hasn't happened before. And so I'm not sure how high or low...where do you put the expectations?"

No single player was watched with greater interest this spring.

And no single superstar-in-the-making looked so…human. So…unremarkable.

"I root for him to be able to do it because I feel like he's one of those special players that has the ability to do this," New York Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka told B/R.

"When you have that much expectation, that means your talent is at that level," Yu Darvish, Chicago Cubs starter and the player Ohtani idolized while growing up in Japan, told B/R. "From what I hear, Ohtani not only wants to answer those expectations but go above that level in both throwing and batting."

Maybe one day he will. But the early evidence this spring as the Angels dove into one of the most radical experiments ever is that this may take longer than expected.

Shohei Ohtani gave up eight earned runs in 2.2 innings pitched during A-games for the Angels in spring training.
Shohei Ohtani gave up eight earned runs in 2.2 innings pitched during A-games for the Angels in spring training.Masterpress/Getty Images

Ohtani is different than his predecessors, though. For one, he's younger. Darvish was 25 during his first season with the Texas Rangers in 2012. Ichiro was 27 and had already won seven batting titles in Nippon Professional Baseball when he went to Seattle in 2001. Hideo Nomo was 26 when he debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, same age as Daisuke Matsuzaka was when he first pitched in Boston in 2007.

Ohtani was so eager to play in MLB that he decided not to wait the two extra years that could have netted him a contract close to $200 million, according to USA Today's Bob Nightengale, instead signing for the MLB minimum of $545,000 a season. He is still 23, the same age as someone just coming out of college who perhaps would begin his career at Double-A. Also, he's attempting to pitch and hit. All while navigating a curious American media and a ravenous press contingent from Japan.

"I was amazed at how everything he did, everybody wanted a piece of it," Cleveland manager Terry Francona said of managing Matsuzaka in Boston in '07, referring especially to the Japanese media. "Did he throw a side day today? How many fastballs? How many curveballs?

"We tried to do all our homework, but there's a level of the media, so much thirst for everything the Japanese players do. For us, it was a nice, common workday. It amazed me. We tried to help him a bit; we tried to shelter him at times, to where he could just be a normal baseball player. Because everything he did was anything but normal."

The Angels this spring did not make Ohtani available for one-on-one interviews no matter how large the media outlet. Instead, they brought him to a press tent on many days after he pitched or hit, along with his interpreter, and he cordially answered questions in both Japanese and English. The team also limited Ohtani's exposure, often making him unavailable to the media while explaining it's Ohtani's wish to be treated like a normal player until he accomplishes something. The only exception was a photo shoot with Mike Trout for the baseball-preview cover of Sports Illustrated.

"Shohei has extremely high expectations," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "The bar is set high in major league baseball. What happens and how he is perceived by media and fans and what those expectations are is out of our control and out of the player's control."

Ohtani struggled at the plate as well as on the mound, scratching out three hits in 28 A-game at-bats during Cactus League play.
Ohtani struggled at the plate as well as on the mound, scratching out three hits in 28 A-game at-bats during Cactus League play.Masterpress/Getty Images

In Japan, starting pitchers work only once a week and, generally, Mondays are off days for the clubs.

There is no built-in downtime, however, in an MLB season. It's a six-month grind. That's why many around the game believe that while Ohtani may be a two-way player now, he won't be that for long. "The major league season is not some piece of cake," said Ron Washington, Darvish's manager in Texas and now a coach with the Atlanta Braves. "He's going to pitch every six days, and then he's going to hit [three]? Man, that's a lot of work. Pitchers do a lot of preparation anyway. For him to prepare to pitch and prepare to hit, that's a lot.

"I think at some point Mike [Scioscia] is going to make the decision he needs to make. ... He might go along with it for a while. But if any one of those things starts lagging, then I think the pitching is the thing, if that's his main suit.

In Japan, Ohtani's fastball regularly touched 100 mph, and he slugged .588 with 22 home runs and a .322 batting average at age 21 in 2016, his last full season (a right ankle injury that required surgery last October limited him to 65 games in 2017). On the mound in '16, he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and helped lead the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to the Japanese league championship.

Several scouts told B/R over the past year, however, and as evidenced this spring—however incrementally—that Ohtani's pitching is ahead of his hitting. This spring, according to the scouts' radar guns, Ohtani's fastball has topped out at 97 mph while mostly sitting at 92-93.

Whether he can successfully start on the mound once a week and help the Angels as a designated hitter or pinch hitter for three games between starts—the team's rough plan for his offensive availability—remains the game's most intriguing question. The Angels have tried to ease Ohtani's transition by going to a six-man rotation this season, rather than the normal five-man. But his spring struggles suggested maybe it would be better for him to start the season at Triple-A Salt Lake.

"I think when Darvish began to relax in Texas was when Darvish started thinking about what he had to do and not trying to do things for his country ... and trying to do things for his teammates," Washington said. "Once it became one focus, which was preparing for the game he had to pitch and not worrying about impressing other people, that's when Darvish began to do what he was capable of doing. And I think with this kid, they say he's a better athlete, and hey, if he can swing the bat then Mike is going to use him. I hope it doesn't affect his pitching.

"He's not going to dominate here like he did in Japan; that's assured. He's going to be successful, I think, but he's not dominating here ... because we've got dominating players along with dominating pitchers."

Ichiro Suzuki believes Ohtani's attempt to both pitch and regularly bat, in addition to his imposing frame, will ramp up the pressure on the Angels rookie to play well quickly.
Ichiro Suzuki believes Ohtani's attempt to both pitch and regularly bat, in addition to his imposing frame, will ramp up the pressure on the Angels rookie to play well quickly.Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Ichiro wonders if, in a sense, Ohtani might be cursed by having two-way talent.

"Usually when you turn pro, you get picked which one, pitcher or hitter," Ichiro said. "Obviously, in high school, you do both, and some guys are good at it. But you're definitely better at [one], and you turn pro in whatever that one is.

"This is a unique case where he's at a high level in both positions. He was able to get drafted and pursue both. I don't know how to express what he's going through, but he might be unfortunate because he can't choose. If you looked at it in a different way, usually you're able to give up one and pursue just one and focus on that. But now he's not able to. In a way, it's unfortunate now he has to really go after both."

Though they had not gotten together for dinner as of mid-March, Darvish was in touch with Ohtani via text.

"The advice I gave him is there's practice every single day, and you're playing games, so I told him to take days off," Darvish said. "Not days off from coming to the complex and practicing, but by taking an easy day to rejuvenate the stamina."

The differences between the game in Japan and the States are everywhere, if you know where to look, like in the palm of one's hand. That's where Ohtani found that the baseball is larger in the U.S. than it is in Japan. As his fastball velocity fell short of what he threw in Japan, and as a 33-year-old Tijuana outfielder named Dustin Martin, who never made it above Triple-A, turned on one of his fastballs and blasted it for a homer in the Toros game, you wondered whether Ohtani had found a comfortable grip on a different baseball.

"The biggest adjustment is the ball itself," Darvish said.

There are other subtle differences, such as mounds that are about the same size (10 inches high) but constructed out of harder clay in the majors, as opposed to a more powdery dirt in Japan. To some pitchers, this can make the major league mounds seem higher. And there are the not-so-subtle differences.

"Early on, he had a lot on his plate, man," Washington said of Darvish. "I had a conversation with him about everything he got on his plate and how he has to figure out a way to be Yu Darvish. I can't tell him not to worry about his countrymen, but I said when it's time for you to pitch, it has to be you against the enemy. It can't be you against the enemy and try to impress your countryman and try to impress the people here in the United States and try to impress your teammates. That's a lot."

Yu Darvish was counseled early in his major league career that he shouldn't pitch to impress his teammates but focus on shutting down the opponent.
Yu Darvish was counseled early in his major league career that he shouldn't pitch to impress his teammates but focus on shutting down the opponent.Matt York/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Ohtani will face plenty of pressure-filled moments. He already is.

"I feel like every outing is a learning experience," Ohtani said after one Cactus League game.

"Hitting-wise, adjusting isn't going to be as big as pitching," he said after another. "It might be a little tougher to make the adjustment pitching-wise."

"He had a really good fastball, I thought," said Colorado's Charlie Blackmon, who drew a walk and chopped a single up the middle in two plate appearances against Ohtani this spring. "But he was kind of all over the place. He wasn't pitching ahead.

"He has good stuff. If he harnesses it, he'll be good."

For now, Ohtani remains no sure thing.

"When I first came, the people in Japan, I think, had high expectations, but I don't think anybody here did," said Ichiro, the first position player to emigrate from the Japanese league to the majors, though the expectations point is debatable.

"Everybody saw that I was small. But if you look at Ohtani, he's big. Those expectations might be different for him because he looks like a guy who's been over here."

At 6'4" and 203 pounds, Ohtani definitely looks that part more than the 5'11", 175-pound Ichiro.

But now, with the hype machine going full blast and a target squarely on his back, can he play the part?

"I think he's going to have a hard time," said Kazuhisa Makita, 33, who faced Ohtani last year in Japan and signed a two-year, $3.8 million deal with the San Diego Padres in January. Makita played on the same Japanese national team as Ohtani a few years ago and considers him a friend.

"At the same time," Makita continued, "knowing his abilities as a fellow ballplayer and fan, I hope he succeeds. It's going to be tough. It's going to be his first time seeing [MLB players] on both sides, as a pitcher and as a hitter."

Said the Yankees' Tanaka: "I believe he can do it. I think it's a similar situation to when he made the leap from high school to professional baseball in Japan. ... He dealt with the pressure, and he obviously overcame it and performed at that level. So I think he's going through a similar situation right now, making the leap from professional baseball in Japan to playing over here. And I personally believe that he will be able to do this."

Though Masahiro Tanaka had success facing Ohtani in Japan, the Yankees starter also believes Ohtani's experiences with rising up various levels in Japan will serve him well making the jump to the majors.
Though Masahiro Tanaka had success facing Ohtani in Japan, the Yankees starter also believes Ohtani's experiences with rising up various levels in Japan will serve him well making the jump to the majors.John Raoux/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

At 29, Tanaka is six years older than Ohtani and has had his share of success against the rookie. Career, Ohtani is 0-for-11 against Tanaka, though the Yankees right-hander points out that those at-bats came when Ohtani was just 19 and a rookie in Japan.

So now when you face him in a game here, Tanaka was asked, will you strike him out three times or four?

Before the interpreter even translated the question, Tanaka deadpanned: "Five."

With a comedian's timing, he then chuckled.

"I think it's good for baseball," Francona said. "I was on that Japan trip, what, five years ago and saw him as a young pitcher. I didn't see him hit.

"These things are good for baseball. They might not be good for your team when you're playing them, but it's really good for baseball."

            

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

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