The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
Ohtani-mania

Remember back in 1981 when Fernando Valenzuela took the baseball world by storm as a relatively unknown Mexican-born pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who won his first eight games of the season?  He fueled a period of “Fernando Mania” that had baseball fans excited all across the entire country, not just in L. A.

We’re witnessing a similar situation this spring, except now the national sensation is Shohei Ohtani, a Japanese two-way player with the Los Angeles Angels, who may well be the re-incarnation of a young Babe Ruth.

Unlike Valenzuela, 23-year-old Ohtani came into this season with a lot of hype from the recruiting period last fall involving virtually every MLB team, which eventually resulted in his signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

Baseball analysts and commentators speculated whether Ohtani would play as a pitcher or position player, since he had excelled in Japan in both capacities.  (In 2016, he posted a 10-4 record with a 2.12 ERA and .957 WHIP, while recording a .322 batting average with 22 HR, 67 RBI, and 1.004 OPS).  Of course, as part of their sales pitches, MLB suitors promised he could do both, even though most observers estimated his pitching ability was ahead of his hitting.  In reality, no major-league player had been effective as a routine two-way player since Babe Ruth’s early days in the majors over 100 years ago.

During spring training though, Ohtani wasn’t overly impressive as a hitter or pitcher.

In his first outing as a pitcher, the slender right-hander struggled with his command, and his fastball wasn’t topping out like it has been advertised.  But most people were quick to write off his performance as just needing more time to adjust to the major leagues.  He was better in his next appearance, recording strikeouts for all eight outs in 2 2/3 innings, but still gave up two runs on four hits.  However, he did display an effective slider as his secondary pitch.

Ohtani was then relegated to pitching on the back diamonds for the rest of the spring.  In his last tune-up against minor-league hitters before the season started, his performance was still uneven, as he walked five batters, hit a batter, and threw two wild pitches.

As a hitter, he wasn’t the same player he was in Japan either.

All in all, his stats for the spring included an 11.77 ERA and a .107 batting average.  He didn’t fulfill the expectations initially set for him from his Japanese career, but it was speculated he just needed more time to adjust, including some time in the minors to polish his game.

However, the Angels took a gamble and kept Ohtani on the major-league roster as they broke spring training camp.  Perhaps they were thinking they couldn’t send him down to the minors from a marketing standpoint.

And then Ohtani demonstrated why spring training stats can sometimes be misleading. Here’s a recap of his first few major-league games:

  • Opening Day:  he got a hit in his first at-bat as the Angels’ DH.

  • April 1:  he won his first start as he pitched six innings, yielding only three hits and a walk while striking out six.

  • April 3:  he went 3-for-4 including his first home run and three RBI

  • April 4:  he went 2-for-5 including a two-run home run off Cleveland’s ace Corey Kluber.

  • April 6:  he homered in his third straight game

  • April 8:  in his second start, he flirted with a perfect game, when he struck out 12 batters before giving up a single in the 7th inning.

  • April 12:  he hit a three-run triple

Ohtani’s combination of having a homer in three consecutive games and posting a double-digit strikeout game as a pitcher in the same season made him only the third player in history to accomplish this feat.  Babe Ruth did it in 1916 and Ken Brett in 1973.

These are the kinds of performances baseball fans had expected, and Ohtani is now fulfilling the pre-season hype his signing had originally generated.  Not surprisingly, the comparisons to Babe Ruth immediately emerged, and Ohtani-mania is well underway.

Of course, Ohtani isn’t the first Asian pitcher to attain significant notoriety in Major League Baseball.  Before him, there were Hideki Irabu, Hideo Nomo, Chan-Ho Park, Chien-Ming Wang, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and most recently Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish.  Most of them achieved periods of success  in the United States, and Ohtani appears to be on a similar path.

Through April 13, Ohtani is batting .367 (11-for-30) with five extra-base hits, including three home runs, 11 RBIs and three walks in the eight games in which he batted this season.  He’s been just as impactful on the mound, going 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 18 strikeouts over 13 innings.  Ohtani was scheduled to make his third pitching appearance on Sunday against Kansas City, but the game was postponed due to weather conditions.

The fans in Los Angeles surely welcomed Ohtani this season.  Even though the Angels already have the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, they’ve played in the post-season only once in Trout’s seven seasons.  They’re hoping Ohtani’s bat and arm can provide the extra boost to get them a playoff berth this year.

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