Ohtani Shohei through the eyes of his teammates Ohtani Shohei through the eyes of his teammates
Backstories

Ohtani Shohei through the eyes of his teammates

    NHK General Bureau for America
    Correspondent

    Ohtani Shohei was the center of attention throughout the 2021 Major League Baseball season. As a pitcher, he had 9 wins and 156 strikeouts; as a batter, he hit 46 home runs and stole 26 bases. He slammed a homer in his first at-bat of the season, and in his first start as a pitcher, he reached 100 mph on the radar gun. Even beyond the tremendous statistics, it was a season unprecedented in modern baseball: He became the first player ever elected to the All-Star Game as both a pitcher and a hitter.

    For these accomplishments, Ohtani received the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award, a rarely bestowed honor given to a person who has made a "major impact on the sport"; he was also named the Players Choice Awards Player of the Year, an annual award voted on exclusively by MLB players. In fact, Ohtani is still in the running to win the AL MVP, Silver Slugger, and possibly the Hank Aaron Award.

    All in all, Ohtani's season was like something out of a comic book. His teammates had a front-row seat to all the heroics, so we reached out to see how they felt about witnessing history.

    MANAGER JOE MADDON

    Proving the doubters wrong

    One cannot talk about Ohtani's historic 2021 season without mentioning this man. Joe Maddon has been named Manager of the Year three times, and in 2016 led the Chicago Cubs to a World Series victory — the team's first championship in more than a century. During spring training, he announced that Ohtani was a "full go" and that he "really [didn't] want to build in a lot of 'Shohei rules'":

    "I am not a big believer in rules. I think integrity really can and should replace rules. He's a man of integrity. When we talk, it's straight up. He's not going to dissemble, he's not going to not tell me the truth by making excuses or not being accountable… He and I and [his translator, Mizuhara] Ippei text every night prior to the next day, and there's never hesitation. There's never concern that he's going to say, 'Well, I've had a bad this,' a day or two or three days, whatever. 'No, I'm ready to go. I'm good. I'm good to go,' and when he shows up, he's full of energy in the dugout… He has established his own rules, which there should be no rules. It's his career. It's not me, it's him. It's not the Angels, it's his playing for the Angels… He's proven everybody that thought he could do it correct, and some others incorrect."

    Joe Maddon and Shohei Ohtani

    In 2018 — his first season in the MLB after making the transition from Japan — Ohtani had an operation to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow, a procedure known as Tommy John surgery. The following year, he had surgery on his left knee, and in 2020 an arm injury ended his season as a pitcher. These setbacks led many to believe that being a two-way player caused too much stress and fatigue. However, Maddon focused on a certain "expression" from his player:

    "You're sore. You're absolutely sore. I mean, even as a high school pitcher, I was sore the next day… Ask any other starting pitcher in this league what they feel like the next day, 'You think you could go out the next day and take four at-bats or five at-bats, hit home runs, run to first, steal bases, score from first on the double, if you could do any of those things?' And I'm betting not one guy says yes they can. And even if they did, they could do maybe one time, but not after the next start… He's got all of that, but the joy comes through the smile… He's got a complete joy for what he does, and don't underestimate the power of joyfulness in regards to being accomplished at what you do. You never get tired of it… I think it's important that [baseball] is fun and games. This is not life and death. Too many athletes consider it life and death, and not enough fun and games… He's always playing a game. He's playing a game and he knows that… When you lack that inner joy to doing what you're doing, things could weigh down on you. You can let them become overwhelming."

    OUTFIELDER MIKE TROUT

    Making perfect adjustments

    Mike Trout and Ohtani

    One of MLB's outstanding sluggers, Mike Trout is a three-time American League MVP and is widely regarded as the best player in baseball. He's undoubtedly the face of the Los Angeles Angels. Trout played well early in 2021 until a calf injury ended his season in May. He stayed with the team during rehab, though, and cheered them on from the dugout. As he talks about watching Ohtani play, Trout smiles at how happy he is to be on the same team. He then goes on to talk about Ohtani's ability to adjust on the fly:

    "I don't remember what game, but Shohei, in his first at-bat of the game, hit into an out on a fastball that was high and inside. I told him, 'Next time they pitch you inside, hit it to the right-field stands. Hit the outside balls to the left-field bullpens and hit the changeups and the slower balls straight back to center field.' And he did exactly that. It's amazing. I get so excited to watch him play."

    The at-bat that Trout is referring to took place on July 2 against the Baltimore Orioles. In his first time up, Ohtani hit a pop fly to second on a first-pitch fastball that was high and inside. Then he took Trout's advice. During the first pitch of his second at-bat, he swung at another high-and-inside fastball, but this time he crushed it for a solo home run. In his third at-bat, he took a ball on the outer half of the plate into left field for his 30th home run of the year, this time a two-run shot.

    Ohtani hitting a home run

    Two days later, again against the Orioles, he scooped a low slider deep out of the park for an enormous 31st home run. That shot tied him with former MLB star Matsui Hideki for the most home runs in a single season by a Japanese player, a mark he would surpass just three days later against the Boston Red Sox.

    CATCHER KURT SUZUKI

    Changing the future of baseball

    Catcher Kurt Suzuki, a Hawaii-born fourth-generation Japanese American, signed with the Angels following the 2020 season. Despite being a 15-year veteran and having won a World Series with the Washington Nationals, he says that his year catching Ohtani was full of firsts:

    "What he's doing is amazing. I get amazed every day watching him do it, and just kind of thinking how he's not tired, or if he is, you can't see it… He's going out there, both sides of the ball, you can't say you're tired, because he's doing it every single day… I think it's changing the game. I think you might see more and more young kids want to try to do it. I think you might see more teams try to let kids do it."

    Ohtani and Suzuki

    Suzuki talked about playing with Ohtani from a catcher's perspective:

    "The talent was there. It's just a matter of going out on the mound every day and getting comfortable pitching in games, missing that much time being injured. But the more he goes out, he gets better every day. That's the one thing with Sho is he gets better every day, and he keeps improving. Believe it or not, he keeps getting better, which is, I think, scary to see, because right when you think he can't get better, he does something even better. And I think that's pretty cool to see."

    CATCHER MAX STASSI

    Unhittable even if batters know it's coming

    Max Stassi and Ohtani

    Max Stassi is the other catcher on the Angels roster, and he was the man behind the plate for many of Ohtani's most important and memorable starts.

    On September 19 against the Oakland Athletics, Ohtani was on the verge of becoming the first player since Babe Ruth to record ten or more wins as a pitcher while also hitting double-digit home runs in the same season. Although the start didn't result in a win, the game was memorable in another way: Ohtani threw eight innings of 2-run, 10-strikeout ball, and a staggering 57 of his 108 pitches (52.8%) were with his split-finger fastball, or "splitter." Until that point, his previous high was 33.3%, when he threw 28 splitters out of 84 total pitches in his fourth start of the season. In fact, according to MLB's Baseball Savant, Ohtani hadn't topped 16% since mid-June. Stassi explained the decision to throw that pitch an unprecedented number of times:

    "Him and Ippei were talking to me before the game, and he was telling me how comfortable he was with his splitter, and how he wanted to throw it more. Just kind of had a better feel for it than he had in the past… With his split-finger, it looks like a fastball, but it also can run various amounts horizontally and then drop vertically… I could tell from my vantage point that guys were sitting on it, and they still couldn't hit it. That's how good that pitch is, and it's the elite of the elite."

    Ohtani pitching

    While playing for the Houston Astros, Stassi caught his fair share of frontline pitchers, including Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. When asked about Ohtani's place among the best of the best, he talked about the parts of his game that stand out even against other elite arms:

    "What I think separates him along with the other guys is the mental side. He knows where he's at… I'm most impressed with him is, it's not really the results that he puts up, but the way he stays so level-headed day in and day out. Successes and failures don't faze him… He knows when to change it up, maybe to go with a certain pitch, or a certain situation.
    With him being a hitter, I think that's a huge advantage, as he knows what it's like to be in that box and face somebody that's got similar stuff to him, what they would think in this count, or when to kind of go against the grain or when not to. He's as good as anyone I've ever caught, and I've caught some really, really good pitchers… I think it inspires anyone when you see the greatest player in the world show the same guy every single day. You've got to take note of that."

    Admiring Ohtani Shohei as a person

    What came through during these interviews was an admiration of Ohtani's character as a person, an appreciation of his integrity, humility, and composure. Of course, his play on the field speaks for itself, but it's the process behind the play and his attitude towards it that leave the deepest impression on teammates.

    Ohtani smiling

    Perhaps that process comes naturally to him, much like how he instinctively picks trash off the field during the game. But because it's a player at the top of his sport doing this, it inspires us and drives us to do the same.

    By taking the initiative and setting an example, Ohtani elevates not only himself but those around him. That impact of Ohtani Shohei is certainly felt throughout the entire Los Angeles Angels organization.