Shohei Ohtani, Into the Future

Shohei Ohtani has already done it. There’s a video on YouTube you can watch if you want to — hundreds, actually, but I’m thinking of one in particular. Over 22 minutes long, and all of it beyond belief. There is the best pitcher in the league, with the diving splitter, with the fastball no one can catch up with; there is the best hitter, with his OPS over 1.000, launching baseballs with such power that they seem to disappear off the bat, flying over scoreboards, into streets, to the very furthest reaches of where you could imagine a human being could hit a baseball. And it is the same person, just one person, doing both of these things. You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it. But you can see it, right now. Back then, too, people saw it. Millions of people: watching from their homes, from bars, from the stands, where they held up signs, held their breath, waiting for the next feat to come.

This was in 2016. Ohtani was only 21 years old.

***

It’s hard to believe that the spring of 2018, when Ohtani played his first games with the Angels, was only three years ago. It seems like so much longer. Partially because so much happened so fast. One moment, it was the Ohtani Sweepstakes of 2017-18, with the number of teams being gradually narrowed, the reports trickling in, each fanbase eventually resigning themselves to his absence, except for the one that won out. There was a brief time of dreaming, all smiles and photoshoots, slotting his name into imaginary batting orders alongside Mike Trout — and then it was time for spring, when it didn’t matter and you didn’t have to worry about it, except it did, and you did, too. Those first few outings — the walks from the mound, the strikeouts at the plate — the crowing from fans who would have you believe they never wanted the guy in the first place, the reports from anonymous scouts saying it wouldn’t play, it couldn’t play, not here in the big leagues.

But it played. From the very beginning, it played — like it had been scripted. A solid, winning start — a home run, launched, with the bases nearly full — a high five to an imaginary line of teammates, and then the real celebration. A perfect game taken into the seventh inning. More trips around the bases. He’s already done it. Why not again? Why not now, with even more millions of people watching?

And then, of course, it ends. No dream can stay perfect for so long. Human bodies break down — every single one, without fail. The drive to look backward grows stronger. More of life lives only in the past.

***

It was June, mid-June, and the Angels were in that classic place: two games under .500, just hovering. They were playing in St. Petersburg. Within a few minutes of the game beginning, Ryan Yarbrough was in trouble. Ohtani gave it a capital T.

It was only six weeks since his first game of the season, the beginning of his on-field rehabilitation from Tommy John. The dream of having him as a two-way player was on ice. Was anyone even thinking about history? Was he, as he slid into second with a leadoff double in the third? Or with two out in the seventh, when he sent a ball, perfectly placed, down the right-field line, sailing into third, barely able to keep his balance as he stopped on the bag? It was the first cycle hit by a Japanese-born player in the major leagues, and it came in the middle of a season that wasn’t supposed to be where the history was made, where the full potential was on display. A body in recovery, it turns out, can be capable of far more than anyone could imagine.

There was a year after that, of course, played in empty stadiums, weighed down by pain. There was loss — so soon after that day in June, so pervasive throughout the past year. That moment of possibility fulfilled is long gone. To look back on it is to feel a sharpness that days of fear and mourning have dulled: a flash, too bright for your eyes, lingering even after to you close them.

***

The last year has felt so much like an ending. So many of us have lost so much. And it continues, too, even now, this immensity of grief. I stare, every day, through my little window of pixels, at the image that appears: bright lines mowed in the grass, the same players as last spring, the people sitting out in the sun with their families. As if it was a different time — as if that world were still accessible. Someday it will be, of course, I think; someday, I hope, not too far away. But even then, what has been lost can never return. A life gone is a life gone. There are things that can only be looked back on, never fixed, never recovered or healed. A scar fades, but remains a scar.

Through the window, Ohtani launches a home run over the batter’s eye in that bright stadium. He hits 100; his splitter dives. It is like it was in 2016, when he achieved the impossible. It was like it was on the day of his first home run, as the ball leapt off the bat, carried, carried, the roar growing until it exploded — all the people there, everyone else watching, transported. He has already done it, and he does it now. It is possible. And in the future, somewhere currently unseen, he could do it again. We could be there again.

Utopia has already been here. That good and perfect place — it appears in slivers, in half-seconds that stay in your memory, in a glance or a color or a touch. A warehouse full of lights and loud music, or a bright field in the daylight. Sitting on the couch, or driving down an empty road. After the fire, a sound of sheer silence. It is in so many times and spaces. It is in the past, but it is present: you carry it with you. The good place, of course, does not exist. That’s why it must still be imagined. That’s why we have to look for it.





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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Curacao LL
Member
Curacao LL

I think I’m jumping off this hype train until he focuses on either batting/fielding or pitching in an effort to be great at something instead of serviceable two-way.

What have we seen over parts of three seasons?
OPS 843 — good, but out of the DH spot, not great.
FIP 3.89 — good, but only 53.1 IP.

Why not pick something and try to be elite?

“But, but but, INJURIES!”
OK, but staying heathy is a skill in itself. Being a two-way player amplifies injury risk. And with a 26 man roster, the value of a two way player is mitigated vs., say, a theoretical 20-man roster. There are enough specialists to cover stuff off.

Why not try to be a stud pitcher or corner OF, instead of just the answer to a trivia question?

Billsaints
Member
Billsaints

Because he can do both and we don’t really know if it amplifies risk because noone has ever done it.

rhdx
Member
rhdx

The fact that nobody has ever done it is at least mild evidence that it amplifies risk.

Dieter Von Wolfhausen
Member
Member
Dieter Von Wolfhausen

I hate to say it but I agree. when he first came over, and before he got injured, the slightest little bump would push back starts or put him on the bench. for example, one time he stole a base, slid wrong, and then missed his next start and several days of AB’s.

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

The sad thing in life is you only get one crack at it. It’d be great if we could run Ohtani three times: the player, the pitcher, and the player/pitcher, and see which one was best. Can’t do that, though.

My instinctual pick would be player, especially if the rumors of how well he would do in right field are true.

I also wonder how well that arm of his could be preserved while he went full steam as a player? Maybe when he gets on the wrong side of 30 and his bat slows a bit and his legs slow a bit, he could go back to pitching and have a long second career, his arm having been mostly preserved by not having the stress of 5-7 years of pitching on it.

Drew Fairservice
Member
Member

This comment made me irrationally angry. Thanks, for that.

rhdx
Member
rhdx

How angry an innocent comment seems to have made people is odd. It is entirely reasonable to think Ohtani would be a more valuable player if he picked either hitting or pitching – it is probably the case. As long as the Angels are willing and Ohtani wants to play both ways, great for him and I hope he succeeds, but he would probably produce notably more value just hitting.

Mark Davidson
Member

WHOOSH!