Wed, 31 May 2023

Relaxed Shohei Ohtani enters contract year off WBC success

Field Level Media
23 Mar 2023, 23:55 GMT+10

With his heroic effort complete, a world title secured and his team in the throes of a wild celebration, Shohei Ohtani turned away from the glee to pay respect to his vanquished opponent.

A simple bow, followed by a wave, face stern, eyes forward.

Between the lines, Ohtani carries powers and abilities outside the norm. Removed from the confines of nine innings, he shows the modesty of a superhero's alter ego.

As Japan's euphoria was in full roar following a team and a one-on-one duel the baseball world craved, Ohtani turned to the dugout of the defeated United States team for his salute.

The gesture seemed part recognition of Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout, whom he just struck out swinging to give his native Japan the World Baseball Classic title. It also read like appreciation toward a dugout full of MLB stars, who have been foils in his path to a unique level of baseball stardom.

"For one day, let's throw away our admiration for them and just think about winning," Ohtani said in a pregame speech to his Japanese teammates.

What followed was Japan's 3-2 championship victory and Ohtani getting through friend and teammate Trout to do it, and as a closer no less. On offense, he had a hit and a walk in the title game and batted .435 in the tournament to earn MVP honors.

"Just looking at the great lineup of the great players ... I mean, obviously, we have respect, but at the same time, it looks like we might be beaten down," Ohtani said afterward through an interpreter, on the comparison of talent. "So just forget about those kind of feelings. We're just even. We have to just beat them. I just wanted to bring that feeling amongst us."

Whether with the Angels over the past five seasons, or with Team Japan for three weeks this spring, Ohtani keeps setting a comic-book standard for the heights a baseball player can reach.

Nobody can command his popularity in the sport worldwide, and nobody has ever been able to merge elite-level pitching with superior hitting without trying to sacrifice one for the other.

Ohtani is as skillful as he is hard to define. He has been considered a once-in-a-generation talent, but no generation has seen this before, not even in Babe Ruth's time. Eventually, Ruth stopped pitching in order to become a transcendent hitter.

And Ohtani really isn't redefining the game either because it would take more than a development strategy or dogged determination from a young age in order to fashion a single player who can pitch and hit at an All-Star level.

This is something entirely new, and because of it, Ohtani could see a half-billion-dollar payday before Opening Day 2024 arrives. The 28-year-old superstar is due to become a free agent next winter.

"The first day I met him. he was great, a super nice guy," said the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar, the first player born outside of Japan to suit up for the country in the WBC, with the California native eligible because of his Japanese mother. "That was the first thing that popped out to me was he was so welcoming.

"But then he threw a bullpen, probably hit 100 (mph), and then we went in the (batting) cage. He was hitting balls 118 (mph). First (WBC) game, hits two home runs, and then I watch him squat 400, 500 pounds. There's things that you're like, 'Well, you can't make this up.' He gets off the squat rack, and then he's joking around. It's (inhuman) stuff. I've never, obviously, seen anything like it, and (then) for him to be a humble and genuine guy."

An 2021 American League MVP and an AL All-Star in each of the past two seasons as both a hitter and pitcher, Ohtani was expected to thrive on the WBC stage. The fact that he did, winning both of his starts to go along with a save in three outings, has raised his soaring profile, as well as the anticipation that he will become the game's highest-paid player.

Ohtani already set a record for the largest-ever raise for an arbitration-eligible player, when he agreed to a one-year, $30 million contract for the upcoming season. That is up from the $5.5 million he earned last season.

With his arbitration-eligible years complete after this season, Ohtani is set to hit the open market unless the Angels can cut him off with an extension. No matter what happens, the first $50 million-per-season contract could be ahead.

If it sounds unfathomable, the reality is that Ohtani is two elite players wrapped into one. He finished fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting last year and missed out on his second-consecutive MVP season only because Aaron Judge put on a historic power performance in 2022.

There was conjecture that Ohtani should have been the MVP anyway, even with Judge's 62 home runs, 131 RBIs and 1.111 OPS. Ohtani had 34 home runs, 95 RBIs and an .875 OPS on offense and was 15-9 with a 2.33 ERA in 28 starts on the mound. He had the fourth-best ERA among AL starters, and he struck out the third-most batters in the league (219).

Who ends up giving Ohtani a potential $500 million deal remains to be seen. The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants all are expected to be big players in the bidding.

Angels owner Arte Moreno was expected to sell the team but had second thoughts. He might look to bring back Ohtani on a long-term deal in a move that could enhance the sale price.

An Angels return to the postseason might also help the bottom line, although the real benefit would be in the perception of a franchise that has played in just three playoff games during the 12-year Trout era. The Angels lost all three of those games.

While Ohtani struck out Trout on one of his best sliders to give Japan the WBC title, each player showed he can lead a team when the stakes are high. But it hasn't happened on the major league level with the Angels, whose last winning season came in 2015.

Even with so much on the line for Ohtani in 2023, in a contract year and with the known desire to play more games of significance, the global star has appeared relaxed this spring while still exuding confidence.

Changes are coming, though. Ohtani plans on using a PitchCom device this season to send his pitch selections to the catcher instead of the other way around. If the added responsibility, not to mention the new pitch clock rules, is bothering him, Ohtani isn't showing it.

"It's the same one for everyone," Ohtani said just before leaving for the WBC, dismissing the concept that the pitch clock could be a detriment to his mound success. "Everyone has to adjust. But so far so good. I feel like I'm being a little bit rushed, but I think as long as I get games under my belt, I should be fine."

Asked about where he was wearing his PitchCom device earlier this spring, he played it coy.

"It's a good sign that you guys don't know," Ohtani said, drawing laughs.

Even superheroes have secrets to keep, after all. There is a level of the unknown that adds to a sense of invincibility. A wink and a smile can throw off the scent of a cold-blooded nature.

Ohtani has managed to master the art better than anybody before him, and his greatest mission still could be ahead.

--By Doug Padilla, Field Level Media

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