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OC Register: Most Influential 2018: From Japan to the Angels, Shohei Ohtani became a ground-breaking star

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The questions about Shohei Ohtani had been growing louder for years, ever since he began his climb toward baseball stardom in Japan. While he was a rare two-way phenom across the Pacific, the baseball world wondered if he could really succeed in the major leagues in the United States.

Just over a year after Ohtani selected the Angels to begin his major league career, it’s safe to say the answer is a resounding yes.

Ohtani has nudged the sport to loosen the grip on the notion that a player must be a pitcher or a hitter. Since Ohtani’s successful rookie season, the Angels and other teams have been more open to experimenting with others as two-way players.

RELATED: See the full list of the 100 Most Influential in Orange County for 2018

“He’s a special player,” new Angels manager Brad Ausmus said, reflecting on Ohtani’s first season in the majors. “If he was just a pitcher, he’d be a special pitcher. If he was just a hitter, he would be a special hitter. Now you’ve got both.”


    The Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani is congratulated in the dugout after his seventh inning home run against the Minnesota Twins at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)


    The Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani watches his seventh inning home run against the Minnesota Twins at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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    The Angels’ Shohei Ohtani smiles as Mike Scioscia jokes around during the first official Spring Training workout for pitchers and catchers at the Tempe Diablo Stadium complex in Tempe, Ariz. on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)


    The Angels’ Shohei Ohtani walks out of the clubhouse under a media swarm during the first official Spring Training workout for pitchers and catchers at the Tempe Diablo Stadium complex in Tempe, Ariz. on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Orange County Register/SCNG)


    Fans cheer on the Los Angeles Angels Shohei Ohtani as he prepares to pinch hit in the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners in Anaheim on Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)



Ohtani spent his rookie season achieving feats last accomplished by the iconic Babe Ruth. It had been nearly 100 years since Ruth succeeded as a pitcher and a hitter. Since then, no one in the majors had performed those jobs simultaneously at even an average level.

No one between Ruth and Ohtani had pitched 50 innings and hit 15 home runs.

Ohtani finished his season with 22 homers in just about half of a full-season’s worth of plate appearances. As a pitcher he won four games in his 10 starts, posting a 3.31 earned-run average. He struck out 63 batters in 51 2/3 innings, an elite rate.

“I didn’t know how my skills would play until I got there,” Ohtani said last month in a press conference in Japan. “But I had the confidence of having played in Japan for five years. … When I got there, and I saw the high level, I felt you still have to do your best regardless of what you’ve done in the past. I think that paid off, and I was able to … please so many people.”

Unfortunately – for Ohtani, the Angels and baseball fans – his right elbow finally succumbed to the rigors of throwing 100 mph fastballs. He suffered an injury that didn’t allow him to pitch all season. He had surgery just after the season, and won’t pitch again until 2020. He will still hit for the Angels in 2019.

When he was doing both in the early part of the 2018 season, those who watched him were in awe.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler, who had scouted Ohtani in Japan for years and was the point man in convincing Ohtani to pick the Angels, marveled at the 24-year-old’s debut season.

“Watching him on the mound and in the batter’s box was something I had never seen before … at the major league level,” Eppler said. “It was pretty special. I’m glad I got to watch it.”

It added up to Ohtani being named the American League Rookie of the Year, becoming the first Angels player to win the award since superstar Mike Trout in 2012.

Trout, of course, has gone on to become the consensus best player in the major leagues, on a path to having one of the best careers in the history of the sport. While he has made history with the sheer magnitude of his talent, Ohtani has done so because of his unique skill set.

Even Ruth was forced to choose eventually. After starring as a pitcher and hitter, by 1920 Ruth had essentially given up pitching to focus on hitting. The demands of doing both at such a high level were simply too great.

For nearly a century, the thinking persisted. Aside from the rarity of possessing the physical talent to succeed as a pitcher and a hitter, modern players are required to hone their skills with hours of preparation each day. They do drills, train in the gym and watch video, studying themselves and their opponents.

Could Ohtani really manage to do both, all while adjusting to a new level of baseball, a new language and a new culture?

“He came as advertised,” said Oakland A’s manager Bob Melvin, whose team faced Ohtani in his major league debut in April and frequently throughout the year as one of the Angels’ division rivals. “I was like ‘How do you do this? Both ends of it?’ He did it pretty seamlessly.

“We knew looking at the stuff that he would be a premier performer, but obviously I had no idea he was that good. He is. He’s unique in what he does. Maybe it opens up some avenues for other people to do it, but it’s not easy. He made it look easy.”

The Angels opened up an avenue in June, when they drafted William English, a high school player from Detroit, and announced that he would begin his climb up the minor league ladder as a two-way player.

In September, the Angels sent minor league hitters Jared Walsh and Bo Way to their fall instructional league program in Arizona to learn how to pitch.

Just this month, the Seattle Mariners claimed Angels infielder Kaleb Cowart on waivers, and announced that he would also learn to pitch. Cowart had struggled as a hitter in the majors but always possessed a strong arm.

The odds are still long that anyone else can succeed in the majors as a pitcher and a hitter, but Ohtani has given a glimmer of hope.

“Because of what (Ohtani) is doing, I think you’re going to see more two-way players going forward,” Ausmus said. “I don’t want to call it a fad. I think young athletes, and baseball players, are going to say, Hey, wait a second. Why can’t I do both?”

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