By Matt Citak
Heading into this past offseason, there was one free agent that just about every team around the league had some level of interest in- Shohei Ohtani.
Ohtani was leaving Japan and heading to Major League Baseball in pursuit of something that has not been done in almost 100 years. The 23-year-old Japanese phenom came to MLB in an attempt to become a productive two-way player, something that has not truly been done since Babe Ruth accomplished the feat in 1919.
While there was a ton of hype surrounding Ohtani throughout the winter, the buzz around the young player seemed to temper a bit after an unimpressive spring training. The right-hander allowed eight earned runs on nine hits, including three home runs, in just 2.2 innings of Cactus League games. Things did not get much better from the plate, where Ohtani picked up just four hits in 32 at-bats, finishing spring training with a .125 batting average.
But, after making his regular season debut on the mound against the Oakland Athletics on Sunday, it seems quite clear that Ohtani has a promising, and potentially incredibly special, career ahead of him.
It was not a perfect start, but the 6-foot-4 Ohtani pitched six innings, allowing three earned runs on three hits with one walk and six strikeouts. That stat line certainly doesn’t jump out at you, but keep in mind it was the young right-hander’s first career start in the majors.
Ohtani hit 100 mph on the radar gun several times throughout the start, and finished his outing with a 97.8 mph average on his fastball. The 23-year-old did not seem to tire as he got deeper into the start, as he was able to hit 98 mph in his final inning on the mound. He retired 14 of the final 15 batters he faced, using a combination of fastballs, sliders, and splitters that kept Oakland’s hitters on their toes throughout the six innings he pitched.
It’s important to note that despite receiving all of this attention for being a two-way player, Ohtani is still trying to shake off the rust on the mound. He was only able to pitch 25 innings in Japan last year due to an ankle injury, and during spring training, even when he was throwing in minor league, intra-squad, and B games, he never threw more than 85 pitches.
On Sunday, Ohtani’s pitch count hit 92, and the raw stuff he displayed showed why he was such a sought-out commodity this offseason. The young right-hander induced 16 swing-and-misses. In the last 10 seasons, only one pitcher (Alex Cobb) generated more misses in his first career start. In fact, Angels starters beat that mark only three times in all of 2017.
While he looks ready to dominate on the mound, it remains to be seen just how long it will take Ohtani to get accustomed to hitting in Major League Baseball. In his hitting debut on Thursday, Ohtani went just 1-for-5, picking up a groundball single off Athletics right-hander Kendall Graveman in his first career at-bat.
However, things looked a lot better for Ohtani at the plate last night. Making his home debut in Los Angeles on Tuesday, the 23-year-old cracked a three-run home run in his first at-bat in front of the home crowd. Angels fans went crazy as they began to realize just how rare of a talent Ohtani truly is. Serving as the designated hitter, Ohtani finished the game 3-for-4 in what had to be a dream come true debut at Angel Stadium.
Ohtani could probably use a couple hundred at-bats in the minor leagues to get used to the pitching here, but because of his own pitching prowess, he will have to learn at the major league level. After spring training concluded, it seemed as if the Angels were going to have to show a lot of patience with the 23-year-old at the plate to start the year. But after his performance last night, we may not have to wait as long as we originally thought to see his full abilities as a two-way player on a near nightly basis. Nevertheless, Ohtani has already become the first player since 1920 to both start separate games as a hitter and as a pitcher within the first 10 games of the season.
The young phenom will continue to receive comparisons to Babe Ruth. The baseball legend is the only player in major league history to win 10 games and hit 10 homers in the same season, while Ohtani is the only player to ever accomplish the same feat in Japan.
There’s no denying that Ohtani still has some work to do to reach his true potential at the plate. But with a fastball that mirrors that of Noah Syndergaard, and a splitter that looks like Masahiro Tanaka’s, the Angels are more than willing to let Ohtani find his way with the bat while taking advantage of his pitching abilities every fifth day.
One thing remains crystal clear. Shohei Ohtani is a special talent, and his pursuit of something that hasn’t been done in 100 years should be applauded. Every move he makes is sure to get dissected by the media. But at the end of the day, we all need to sit back and simply enjoy each time this incredibly talented 23-year-old takes the field.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.