When Brandon Laird took his baseball career across the Pacific Ocean, he had never heard the name Shohei Ohtani, just some unbelievable stories about “the Babe Ruth of Japan.”
“I was like, he can’t be that good,” said Laird, an infielder who had previously spent parts of three seasons in the majors.
“I heard so much about him, but I just wanted to see it. Right from the get-go, I saw him throw in an intrasquad game. It was effortless. High 90s (fastball) and breaking balls. … He proved it to me. He’s just a different player.”
Laird, an Orange County product who had played against the likes of Justin Upton, Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey in the minors, said that three years as Ohtani’s teammate with the Nippon Ham Fighters was enough to convince him.
“At his age, he’s one of the best, if not the best player I’ve ever seen or had the chance to play with,” Laird said of the 23-year-old Ohtani. “He’s almost like a 10-tool player, a pitcher and hitter who can do it all.”
When Ohtani hits the field with the Angels in spring training in less than a week, the baseball world will begin to see if he can live up to the hype as a pitcher and a hitter in the big leagues.
For now, those best suited to answer that question include Ohtani’s former manager, the scout who brought him into professional baseball and three of his former Fighters teammates with major league experience. The consensus among them is that Ohtani will succeed, although perhaps not as soon and perhaps not in the way some expect.
“I think he will succeed more as a hitter,” Takashi Ofuchi, the Fighters amateur scout leader, said in Japanese.
Added Hideki Kuriyama, the Fighters’ manager: “There’s a chance you’ll see another pitcher like Ohtani, but there’s little chance you’ll see a hitter like him.”
That would probably be a surprise to most in the U.S., because the general scouting report on Ohtani has been that he’s more advanced as a pitcher than a hitter.
Laird, who hit in a two-man batting practice group with Ohtani, said he sees Ohtani as a pitcher first, but his hitting is not to be underestimated.
“I got to see the show every day,” Laird said. “The last three years, I’ve seen him hit, he makes adjustments. He has a great approach. He’s a smart hitter and he has some of the most power I’ve ever seen.”
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds, Ohtani has more power than his frame would indicate, Ofuchi said. When he scouted Ohtani in high school, it was his hitting that showed the most promise.
Offensively, Ohtani developed quickly in Japan’s majors. As a 20-year-old with the Fighters in 2015, Ohtani hit .202 with a .628 OPS. A season later, he improved to .322 with 22 homers in 382 plate appearances, with and a 1.004 OPS. Last season, he hit .332 with a .942 OPS.
One of the lingering questions about how his hitting will translate is the way opposing pitchers treated him in Japan. Fearful of hitting him, few pitchers in Japan pitched him inside, according to some accounts.
“(Pitchers) have a high level of respect for guys; they don’t want to throw in and hit someone and hurt someone,” said Chris Martin, who spent parts of two seasons in the majors before pitching for the Fighters the past two years. “That’s not the case in the major leagues. He’s going to definitely have to adjust to guys throwing him in, and not letting him get his arms extended.”
Anthony Bass, who has spent parts of six seasons in the majors and pitched for the Fighters in 2016, said Ohtani’s power to the opposite field finally prompted some pitchers to try to pitch him inside. It didn’t matter.
Will Shohei Ohtani’s success in Japan continue with Angels? Former teammates, Japanese baseball officials think so
Orange County Register | Feb 12