Shohei Ohtani has carte blanche to prove himself against opponents

For the first time in his professional career, the brakes have come off a fit Shohei Ohtani in 2021, and the Los Angeles Angels star has shown the world his much sought-after prowess as a two-way player. But some skeptics still call his performance a fluke.

Twenty years after Ichiro Suzuki became the first Japanese player to be named Most Valuable Player in an American major league, Ohtani is the favorite to be second after an unprecedented season in which he was one of the best. offensive players and a top-notch pitcher. in almost a full time role.

Long after turning pro in 2013, Ohtani was an experience. Even his first manager, who inspired him to throw and hit, treated him with extra caution in a world where few believed a player could have stamina, durability, skill and strength. mental to hit every day and throw every week.

When the Angels signed Ohtani in 2018, their management was also overly cautious. The club put him on the bench the days before and after he pitched and refused to let him hit as a pitcher.

Everything changed with the arrival of Joe Maddon. Shortly after the highly regarded veteran manager took over the Angels, he announced his intention for Ohtani at the Winter 2019 meetings, saying he liked the idea of ​​seeing him strike on the days he pitched.

“I love it,” he said. “Just because it doesn’t happen all the time doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Don’t treat your guys like Chinese dolls. Sometimes we go too far with protection. That’s 50 more batting appearances per season. “

After fitness issues hampered the Ohtani hitter and limited him to just two games on the mound in 2020, he reinvented himself over the winter with a new diet of nutrition and fitness. form. And after promising Maddon he would be candid about any physical issues, the skipper let him go against America this year.

All season baseball fans have heard references to Ohtani doing things that hadn’t been done in the majors for 100 years or more, or never before.

He did not lead the American League in the homers and did not have his third career “Babe Ruth season” with more than 10 throwing wins and more than 10 homers, and his batting average of .264 n wasn’t among the best, but he led the AL. in home runs by at-bat, in intentional goals and in triples.

According to Baseball Reference, Ohtani became the first hitter in an American major league with at least 45 home runs, 25 interceptions, six triples and 90 runs scored and scored, and that’s just his stroke. Ohtani also pitched 130 innings, a number he had topped in three of his five Japanese per season, but his highest total in the major leagues.

In 2021, Ohtani struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings – one of 11 pitchers, including fellow Japanese Yu Darvish, with over 120 innings that struck out batters almost as often.

A popular attempt to measure the offensive, defensive and throwing value of players is wins over substitution. Baseball Reference ranks at 9.0 WAR as No. 1 in both leagues in all categories, a whopping 1.2 wins better than No. 1.2, Philadelphia pitcher Zack Wheeler.

It was the kind of season Ohtani had strived for since being offered the chance to hit and throw in the winter of 2012 and 2013 by the Pacific League’s Nippon Ham Fighters, who made him their first choice in the 2012 Japan Draft.

Until the Fighters selected him, Ohtani was on the verge of signing with a major league team and was resigned to the idea that no major league team would consider the idea of ​​him being a player in the league. double meaning.

While fans loved the idea, many former professional players and scouts have strongly criticized the use of a teenager, throwing shots as fast as anyone in Japanese baseball, as a positional player. And although he only hit .238 as a rookie, he landed extra hits in 10% of his batting, an extremely rare feat for an elite 18-year-old pitcher.

Even in 2014, when Ohtani hit 10 home runs on 234 batters and went 11-4 as a pitcher, Nippon Ham manager Hideki Kuriyama treated Ohtani sparingly as a sometimes-hitting pitcher.

When a blister on his right hand limited Ohtani’s pitch in 2016, Kuriyama let him hit every day for most of the summer, and he subsequently helped propel the Fighters to the PL pennant. .

Ohtani has wanted to be both the best pitcher and the best hitter possible since he was a boy, but he faced skeptics from day one as a pro.

He said in 2017 that he’s convinced doing both makes him better at both, and after his 2021 season, it’s hard to argue that point. Although his offensive numbers dropped in the second half, his shot improved as the season wore on.

Many firmly believe that specialization in hitting or pitching is necessary, with full-time two-way production impossible to achieve at a high level.

One would think that the 2021 season of Ohtani would silence these critics. But playing in 155 of the Angels’ 162 games as one of the strongest, strongest, and fastest players in either league, Ohtani only set the skeptics to zero. . Now opponents are predicting that Ohtani won’t be able to do it again because, well … it’s impossible.

But after demolishing one seemingly impossible barrier after another, one can only imagine Ohtani relishing the thought that 2021 was not his summit but rather a base camp for his next ascent of the mountain he has been climbing since his time. childhood.

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