The surrealistic sweepstakes is over, apparently, never mind how enough baseball watchers seemed exhausted by it. Japanese two-way star Shohei Otani has agreed, apparently, to sign with the Angels. In Japan, he pitched like Juan Marichal and hit like Babe Ruth. If he’s going to do likewise in the United States, the American League made only too much sense.
There’s probably no likelier candidate for an early baseball burnout than the rare two-way player who can pitch in regular rotation and play the outfield. Bringing Otani aboard to the Angels means he can pitch in regular rotation and tax himself no further than being a designated hitter between starts. That’s the least of the Angels’ problems now.
Otani isn’t the first Japanese star to inspire rounds of heavy hype before playing a single American major league inning. But it’s possible that the hype thrown in his direction might have been the heaviest. And nobody in baseball with the proverbial two brain cells to rub together pretends Otani will have it simple.
“This is not just signing a player,” an unnamed baseball executive tells ESPN. “It’s somebody who’s really talented in a lot of ways — in both sides of the game. He’s 23 years old and coming from another country, and all of that makes him unique. When he pitches, it will be an event. When he hits, it will be an event. This is such a big story in Asia.
“I’m not saying it’s a playoff-game atmosphere, but suddenly you look around and you’ve got fifty media—not fifteen or twenty,” the executive continued. “You don’t have five people covering your team during a road game, but 35 to 40. You have to prepare for all those dynamics. There’s something different than in the typical course of a day.”
The good news is that there’s precedent for comparably-hyped Japanese players surviving big pre-appearance hype. Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, and Hideki Matsui come to mind at once. The bad news is that there’s precedent for being crushed once the American experience proves too overwhelming or demanding. Hideki Irabu and Tsuyoshi Shinjo, call your offices.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia may have his work cut out for him in one way. Just ask Bob Melvin, the Athletics manager whose charges included Matsui near the end of his fine American career.
“There’s a contingent that’s just reporting on one guy, so you have to be patient and answer all the questions and understand every question they have is going to be about that guy,” Melvin told ESPN. “There’s a press [briefing] before the game, and then another half of one that you know is just gonna be about that player.
“And they have to write something every game,” Melvin continued. “The guy goes 0-for-4 and nothing happens, and they still have a story to do. From the manager’s standpoint, there’s quite a bit more that goes into it.” And, from the players. Some established Angels might not feel comfortable with the relentless media attention given a slumping player. Even if they’ve had tastes of that with Mike Trout’s rare slumps.
Scioscia and the Angels’ brass will also need to pick the brains of the Nippon Ham Fighters to learn just how Otani maintained himself between his pitching starts and his batting appearances. Two years ago, he pitched 140 innings and batted 382 times. The Angels can use that information to shepherd his work load reasonably. At 23 years old, Otani isn’t even close to his absolute prime age seasons just yet.
But there’s another wrinkle. The word even before Otani decided the Angels had what he was looking for was that baseball government was likely to launch an investigation into the wherefores, the nuts, and the bolts of the Otani process.
In light of such things as the Braves’ heavy discipline over international market wrongdoings—including general manager John Coppolella being put on the lifetime ban list, after they were found diverting signing bonuses from five prospects by giving inflated bonuses to older players qualifying under different rules—you couldn’t necessarily blame commissioner Rob Manfred and his staffers for promising even heavier consequences if anyone played tricks in the Otani sweepstakes.
The Angels benefitted from the Braves’ plight. The Braves’ penalties included losing a passel of prospects; the Angels pounced and signed infielder Kevin Maitan. Days before landing Otani, the Angels sent a prospect to the Twins for cash, enabling them to hang for keeps in the Otani sweepstakes. The Mariners did likewise for likewise. Oops.
The Angels beat out the Mariners, the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Padres, the Giants (it might have been fun to see Otani get into batting practise contests with Madison Bumgarner, as David Schoenfeld pointed out puckishly), and the Rangers.
Some might have thought the Dodgers had an edge considering the large Japanese-American community in Los Angeles itself. Others might think going to the Angels might lessen that kind of pressure for Otani. On the other hand, think of the fun the Angels can have promoting Otani on Mike Trout’s team. Including a few batting practise contests.
Just remember: He doesn’t have to be the next Babe Ruth. The Angels would settle for him being the first Shohei Otani. Their pitching staff can use the help. And their lineup won’t exactly suffer from him being batted appropriately in the order on his DH days, either. Who knows? It might mean an American League West at minimum.