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Ohtani is great spark for MLB

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Nearly a month into the baseball season, it feels as if many teams haven’t gotten a chance to compete thanks to blizzard conditions halting play throughout the northern states. The prolonged winter has literally put the season on ice, calling into question the value of starting regular season play during April, when at least one third of home games cannot commence. However, one source of excitement has true baseball fans fired up throughout the chilly April: the emergence of superstar dual-threat Shohei Ohtani.

Advertised as the Japanese Babe Ruth thanks to his unprecedented dominance as both a pitcher and hitter with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the eagerly anticipated Ohtani elected to sign with the Los Angeles Angels during the offseason, introducing a dynamic presence that Major League Baseball hasn’t witnessed for decades. Despite his impressive resume overseas, many American fans have approached his debut with skepticism, citing multiple Japanese stars in years past that crashed and burned in the majors after being touted as baseball’s next elite talent. 

However, thus far Ohtani has been nothing short of a revelation in the far more scrutinous limelight, igniting a previously mediocre Angels team to a 15-8 record with a legitimate chance to challenge the world champion Houston Astros for the AL West crown. His fast start can only be described as a sensation taking the baseball world by storm, posting a .333 batting average and .997 OPS while averaging 11.4 strikeouts per game and a 0.800 WHIP on the mound. He’ll strike out the side in one half of an inning and smash a homerun of his own during the next. Occasionally you’ll find a national league pitcher who has decent power at the plate, such as Madison Bumgarner or Jake Arrieta, but Ohtani has tangible potential to become the best pitcher and hitter on a major league team.

Well, second best hitter. Los Angeles also features a pretty decent centerfielder named Mike Trout. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Even so, that’s extraordinary company to be grouped with. Plus, though Trout is baseball’s best position player, he can’t pitch – Ohtani clearly can. 

The 23 year-old Japanese phenom’s reputation as a once-in-a-generation talent has thus far proven prophetic, and witnessing his multi-layered success is nothing short of surreal. However, baseball’s more cynical spectators remain reluctant to jump on the hype train, soured to the idea that a superstar in Japan can smoothly transition to the major leagues because of recent history. 

With a few noteworthy exceptions such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, it’s been infamously difficult for Japanese superstars to successfully transition to the MLB in the past due to a much longer season, different texture on the ball’s seams and a greater variety of talented opponents. Even if a pitcher takes the baseball world by storm such as Ohtani has, it’s not unusual for them to succumb to serious injuries toward the end of a longer regular season than they’re used to playing back home – that doesn’t even include the marathon playoffs. Hitters likewise struggle to adjust to major league pitching that offers a drastic general upgrade.

It’s happened all too many times in the recent past. Masahiro Tanaka dominated the league in his first two season with the Yankees, but has since trended downwards in every major statistical category. The same could be said for Daisuke Matsuzaka during his time with the Red Sox. Kosuke Fukudome was touted as the next major slugger to come from the country, but bombed into obscurity after debuting with the Cubs. Even Yu Darvish seems to be on the decline, carrying his World Series disaster over into 2018 with a 6.86 ERA through four starts.

Pessimists are using this tangential evidence to derail the media attention surrounding Ohtani, but does this mean his success is doomed to fail? Not necessarily. For one, he’s only 23, far younger than most players who come over after having spent the prime of their careers reaching stardom overseas. This points to more durability. The Angels are also taking particular care not to exhaust their new phenom as well, as he’s only appeared as a hitter in eleven out of 23 games thus far. 

However, regardless of what the future may hold, I have to ask why ruthless scrutiny is the natural reaction to such a special talent like Ohtani. Here’s an unreal athlete accomplishing something that no MLB player has tapped into in decades, and fans’ instinct has been to tear him down at any hint of weakness. What should represent a turning point for a sport long rooted in tradition is being undermined by cynics unwilling to accept new possibilities. Ohtani is a miracle athlete that should be unanimously celebrated while he continues to thrive, and the fact that he’s not speaks poorly of baseball fans.

seidel1@stolaf.edu