JAPAN: BASEBALL STAR SHOHEI OHTANI IS BACK IN THE GAME

NICOLAS PAPA WRITES — It has been almost three years, but Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani is starting to show glimpses of the two-way talent that had previously made him one of the most anticipated players in the history of Major League Baseball.

The Los Angeles Angels player had sent the American baseball world into a frenzy when his former team, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball, announced in 2017 that he would be “posted.” The MLB and the NPB completely revised their posting system-the transfer system that operates between the two leagues and ensures that Japanese clubs are compensated when American teams take their players-in preparation for Ohtani’s long expected arrival. International signing laws stipulated that because Ohtani was under 25 at the time (23), his salary would be capped and MLB clubs could sign him to a reasonable contract while only having to pay the $20 million posting fee to the Fighters.

Ohtani’s ability to play two-ways as a pitcher and a hitter, which is extremely rare in the professional game, and his capped salary meant that nearly every team in baseball was clamoring to sign him. Some of the biggest and wealthiest teams in the sport- the Giants, Padres, Cubs, and Dodger – devoted an entire offseason to obtaining the jewel of Japanese baseball, but it was ultimately the Los Angeles Angels that secured his signature. Expectations were very high, as Americans eagerly anticipated the man billed as the greatest two-way player since Babe Ruth.

In reality, Shohei Ohtani’s time in Major League Baseball has been little but disappointing- marred by recurring injuries with only flashes of the ability expected. Five days after signing, Angels doctors revealed that he had a strain in the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Ohtani’s strong start on both the pitching mound and in the batters box then stagnated as his elbow problems worsened. Since June of 2018, Ohtani has only pitched three times and every outing has ended in disaster. Following the conclusion of the 2018 season, Ohtani’s UCL damage was so severe that doctors recommended the infamous Tommy John Surgery – a pitcher’s worst nightmare. Immediately after returning from rehabilitation to solely the batter’s box in 2019, Ohtani’s season would again be forced short by surgery to repair a bipartite patella in his left knee. Through 967 plate appearances, Ohtani has established himself as a competent hitter, posting a respectable batting average of .269 and a .340 on-base percentage, but his inability to pitch because of injury has kept him out of the conversation of being in the baseball elite.

Stratospheric expectations and constant injury mean that Ohtani is at risk of being labelled one of baseball’s biggest flops, but his recent 2021 spring training performances have given new faith to the idea that Ohtani is back. Two days after crushing a 468-foot home run, Ohtani’s return to the pitching mound drew applause as his fastball topped 100mph and he recorded five strikeouts against the power-hitting Oakland Athletics. He showed incredible command of his splitter, with his strikeout pitch renowned as “the most unhittable pitch in baseball.” Angels manager Joe Maddon has said that the organization is placing no restrictions on Ohtani this upcoming season, and he is expected to play full-time in a two-way role.

So, despite the unfortunate injuries but with still sky-high expectations, Shohei Ohtani is finally healthy enough to showcase his talents. Whether you are an Angels supporter or just a fan of baseball in general, rejoice that a two-way talent of his caliber is returning to the big leagues.

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