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OC Register: Shohei Ohtani reflects on decision to play for Angels and historic rookie season


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ANAHEIM – Shohei Ohtani said through his interpreter that “nothing crazy really surprised me on or off the field” in his first year as a major league player.

Maybe that means that Ohtani, the Angels’ 24-year-old rookie phenom, was the crazy and surprising one.

As he prepared for his 104th and final game of the season Sunday, Ohtani had already accomplished a feat many thought impossible. His 3.31 earned-run average was the lowest of any Angels pitcher who made at least 10 starts in 2018. His .362 on-base percentage, .568 slugging percentage, 10 stolen bases and .392 weighted on-base average trailed only Mike Trout. Despite losing 22 games to an  elbow injury, Ohtani established himself as baseball’s best dual-threat pitcher/position player in a century.

“Overall I was able to have fun and enjoy everything when I was playing on the field,” Ohtani said through his interpreter. “That’s a really good thing to take out of this season. Unfortunately I’m very disappointed the team wasn’t able to make the playoffs. I’ll try to come back stronger next year and hopefully next year we’ll be in the playoffs.”

Ohtani will undergo Tommy John surgery in the coming week to replace a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. When he is able to return as a hitter is uncertain. He will almost certainly not pitch before the 2020 season.

In hindsight, 2018 might just be an appetizer to an already historic career.

Ohtani and Babe Ruth (1919) are the only two players in major league history with 10 pitching appearances and 20 home runs in the same season. Ohtani and Ruth are the only players to hit 10 homers and wins four games as a pitcher. No one had ever hit 20 homers and struck out 50 batters in the same season before Ohtani.

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When he left Japan for MLB last winter, Ohtani was able to choose from 30 destinations. He was allowed to sign only the standard rookie contract under MLB’s international signing rules, in addition to a limited signing bonus. Since the maximum signing bonus allowed varied by less than eight figures from team to team, the cost to sign Ohtani was not prohibitive.

The Angels have missed the postseason each of the last four years. At 79-82, they are guaranteed a losing record in each of the last three. Does Ohtani regret his choice?

“I feel that I made the right decision, and I feel that I made that more every day that I come to the field,” he said. “Every game that I play, I feel more and more that I made the right decision.”

Rather than immediately accepting a doctor’s recommendation of Tommy John surgery on Sept. 6, Ohtani chose to play out the season as a hitter. He hit two home runs in that day’s game against the Texas Rangers.

The Angels were already on the brink of postseason elimination at the time, so Ohtani’s presence in the lineup merely offered incentive for fans to tune in – and for American League Rookie of the Year voters to keep an eye on Ohtani’s gaudy stats.

Among AL rookies with at least 300 plate appearances, Ohtani ranks first in OBP (.362) and slugging (.568), third in batting average (.286) and stolen bases (10), and fourth in home runs (22) and RBIs (61) through Saturday.

Ohtani said that the most difficult pitcher he had to face was probably Justin Verlander. The best hitter he had to face was Mookie Betts. He might be honored alongside both of them when baseball’s annual awards are announced in November.

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