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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 18: Shohei Ohtani comes to America

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

A lot of Japanese baseball players have made their mark in Major League Baseball in the past couple of decades. Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Masahiro Tanka and Yu Darvish have dominated, dozens of others have starred, and over 100 have made it on to big league rosters over the years. None, however, are quite like Shohei Ohtani, late of the Nippon Ham Fighters.

For one thing, not many of them were scouted by U.S. teams in high school and tempted to eschew Japanese baseball altogether like Ohtani was. He resisted that urge and chose to play in Japan, but it was thought of as only a matter of time before he sought to be posted to play in the United States. The thought was correct, as he’s now U.S.-bound at the age of only 23.

The bigger reason he was not like his predecessors is that his skills are truly unique. Ohtani is known as “The Japanese Babe Ruth” for his prowess as both a pitcher and a hitter. He has a fastball that has hit 102 miles per hour before and he routinely sits in the high 90s. He’s also an outstanding slugger who hits for both power and average. While his 2017 season was truncated due to injuries, in 2016 he posted a 1.86 ERA, struck out 174 guys in 140 innings across 21 games and hit .322/.416/.588 with 27 home runs as a designated hitter. Baseball hasn’t seen a two-way player like that since The Bambino, and even then Ruth gave up pitching after joining the Yankees in 1920, making only five more appearances on the mound after that, mostly as a gimmick or to mop up a mess.

Ohtani, however, has every intention of continuing to both pitch and hit. All of which made his journey to America fairly interesting.

Once he was officially posted by Nippon Ham on December 1, it was reported that Ohtani’s agents had sent a questionnaire to teams interested in signing him, asking them to detail how, exactly, they’d use Ohtani. Only one team — the Mariners — went public in saying that they’d let him pitch while allowing him to DH a couple of times a week. Other teams, anonymously, groused about having to answer the questionnaire, thinking it an insult and/or that Ohtani had already chosen where he wanted to play but was making them jump through hoops anyway. Given that current Collective Bargaining Agreement placed a severe cap on how much Ohtani could be paid, the grousing seemed particularly petty. If you can get an all-world talent for less than the price of a utility infielder, you jump through some hoops at the chance, right?

Ultimately, Ohtani chose the Los Angeles Angels. At the press conference introducing him, manager Mike Scioscia was somewhat vague about how he planned to use Ohtani on days he wasn’t pitching, but said that he definitely intended to allow him to both hit and pitch. We’ll see in a couple of months how, exactly, that will play out.

In the meantime, there continues to be some drama around Ohtani. Soon after his signing, someone with knowledge of his medical information — likely someone who works for a team that was unsuccessful in the Ohtani Sweepstakes and who was suffering from sour grape poisoning — leaked to Yahoo Sports that Ohtani has a partial tear in his elbow ligament. It is thought to be a minor injury and Ohtani is said to be able to pitch at full strength despite the ailment. Major League Baseball is investigating the leak and will likely punish whoever it is who released the confidential medical information.

Until then we wait for mid-February, when Ohtani — and scores of Japanese reporters and photographers — descend on Tempe, Arizona and Angels spring training to see if he can live up to the monumental hype.