Major League Baseball’s new Japanese pitcher-outfielder isn’t as well known for his pitching as many fans assume, but Shohei Ohtani’s supporters have never doubted he’d be the one on the mound.
But for as long as he’s been in high school, Ohtani has been a one-man cast of fantasy baseball. The catcher Brian DeMarco knew who the new MLB star pitcher-slugger was before MLB ever knew.
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“A player like that only comes around once in a lifetime,” he said. “This kid didn’t just school the competition; he did it in a way that kept guys from even looking over their shoulders.”
Those fans in Japanese high schools – some of whom have traveled to Las Vegas this week to watch Ohtani play with the Angels – grew up watching the 23-year-old build the perfect relationship with the baseball gods, thanks to the design of his newly invented robotic arm, the Perfect Game Fundamentals Project.
The earliest Ohtani fans would have been intrigued by any number of things. But to both the young outfielder and pitcher – who was on the mound for every pitch he took during his senior year in Japan in 2008 – a strong arm immediately came to mind.
“Just watching him take the mound really left a sense of awe and that almost feeling like he’s almost above it all,” said Johanna Ayotei, 18, who came to Las Vegas from Paju City, outside Tokyo.
“I learned the mottos of superstition and rituals and strange mantras on his videos from school,” said DeMarco, who watched Japanese national media reports about Ohtani when he was first signing with Class A Yokohama DeNA BayStars at age 13.
“Watching the kid play high school baseball, it was literally like watching a human anime,” Ayotei said. “He was just so graceful. He’s always so poised when he walks to the mound that if his arm muscles weren’t so good, you’d actually be afraid that he’d hurt himself.”
It was a gift Ohtani’s coaches at Japan’s prestigious Waseda University, not to mention players on Ohtani’s high school teams, picked up on.
“During my batting practice, my coaches and teammates would always tell me, ‘Take advantage of the player’s natural speed to make him throw mistakes,’” said Ohtani, who graduated from elementary school two years early to start taking pitching lessons at age 12.
“That was really helpful for me,” he added. “In my head, I thought that if I was quicker, I’d be able to get outs. So that’s been very helpful, and it’s something that can really make a difference.”
So is winning. Ohtani walked 41 batters in 131 innings over seven high school seasons. A high school hitter averages 2.05 walks per nine innings, while an MLB pitcher averages 2.19.
His fastball averaged 90mph, the MLB Hall of Fame notes, but at other schools he threw in the mid-80s.
On August 9, 2010, Ohtani did something no other player had ever done in Japanese professional history: in one game against Wakayama Gunma Dojo, he threw 26 shutout innings.
Ohtani won both games and the Bash Brother rivalry continued. He became only the second player in Japanese professional baseball history to win both the top pitching and hitting honors. (His best friend on the weekend was Sho Aoki, who had done it in 2012.)
“What’s remarkable about Ohtani is the way he works as a pitcher,” said Ohtani’s former pitching coach. “He’s always searching for an adjustment that can make his motion better.”
“Even after high school,” DeMarco said, “he’s always improving.”
In English this article was translated from Japanese