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Fact Files: Shohei Ohtani

By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.

It’s Sho-Time! In the world of baseball, the year 2021 belongs to the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani. The 27-year-old All-Star is not only a cultural icon, he’s also being heralded as the game’s greatest two-way player since the great Babe Ruth. Let’s learn more about the favorite to win this year’s American League MVP Award:

♦ Ohtani was born on July 5, 1994 in Oshu, Japan. Oshu is a city located about 250 miles north of Tokyo. Tributes honoring Ohtani are found throughout the community, including a metallic replica of his pitching hand that is displayed in City Hall.

♦ Ohtani and his older brother, Ryuta, learned the game of baseball from their father, Toru, who played the sport for most of his life. Shohei began playing little league baseball when he was eight years old. He modeled his game after Yomiuri Giants outfielder Hideki Matsui, who would later win a World Series ring with the New York Yankees.

♦ Ohtani was throwing 99 mph fastballs by the time he was 17, and he quickly established himself as the top high school player in Japan. Ohtani set his sights on joining Major League Baseball straight out of high school, going so far as to tell teams in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league not to draft him. Ohtani received interest from numerous MLB teams, including the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

♦ Willing to take a chance, the NPB’s Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters selected Ohtani with the first overall pick in the league’s 2012 draft. During the negotiating period, the club convinced the young star to play his formative years as a pro in Japan. By doing so, he would avoid the drudgeries of minor league baseball in the U.S., and he could also capitalize on his celebrity status by landing lucrative endorsement deals. Most importantly, the Fighters would let him both pitch and hit – something that was very important to him. Ohtani signed with the club for a reported 15 million yen ($131,000 in U.S. dipollars).

♦ Ohtani made his pro debut on March 29, 2013 at the age of 18. That season, he was 3-0 as a pitcher in 11 starts. He also played 51 games as the Fighters’ right fielder. He placed second in the NPB’s Rookie of the Year voting.

♦ He steadily improved as a professional player, garnering the NPB’s MVP Award in 2016. He later announced that the 2017 season would be his last in the NPB. He deemed himself ready to take his considerable talents to America. On December 9, Ohtani finalized a deal to join the Los Angeles Angels. He signed a six-year contract that would pay him the league minimum $545,000 per year, plus a one-time signing bonus of $2.3 million. (Under CBA terms, incoming international players under the age of 25 can only receive the league’s minimum salary. In February of this year, Ohtani signed a new two-year deal with the Angels that will pay him $5.5 million.)

♦ As expected, Ohtani made the Angels’ 2018 opening day roster. On March 29, in his first official at-bat, he collected a single off of the Oakland A’s pitcher Kendall Graveman. Said Ohtani after the game, “That [first] at-bat, I’m probably never going to forget the rest of my life.” Three days later, on April 1, he made his major league pitching debut, striking out six batters and picking up his first career win. On April 3, Ohtani slammed his first MLB homer. He homered again the next day, and again on April 6. On April 8, in his second start on the mound, he pitched six and a third perfect innings before allowing a hit.

♦ Ohtani was named the 2018 American League “Rookie of the Year.” For the season, he batted .285, had a .361 on-base percentage and finished with 22 home runs, 10 stolen bases and 61 RBIs. He also went 4-2 as a pitcher in 10 starts, with a 3.31 ERA. Most notably, he became the first major league player in nearly a century to hit 15 homers and pitch 50 innings in the same season. (The last player to accomplish this feat was Babe Ruth in 1919.) 

♦ Ohtani’s rookie baseball cards are hot items among collectors. There are 63 different Ohtani rookie cards, and many are quite affordable and easy to get. Others, however, are not. In September of 2018, an autographed “Superfractor” Bowman Chrome card sold for more than $184,000 in an online auction.

♦ Injuries curtailed much of Ohtani’s 2019 and 2020 seasons. But he still managed to set milestones. On June 13, 2019, in a game against the Tampa Bay Rays, he became the first Japan-born player in MLB history to hit for the cycle. On July 24 the following season, under 2020 MLB rules, Ohtani became the first player to automatically start on second base at the start of the 10th inning.

♦ Ohtani’s history-making achievements have continued in 2021. In July, he became the first pitcher and first Japanese player to participate in the league’s annual Home Run Derby. He also became the first player to be chosen for the All-Star game as both a pitcher and a position player. Ohtani donated his Home Run Derby winnings to the Angels’ support staff. On Aug. 28, he became the first player in franchise history to slug 40 home runs and steal 20 bases in a single season.

♦ When he was in high school, Ohtani predicted his future. He said he would win a World Series at the age of 26 (he missed in that one) and then get married and have three children. He also predicted he would return to Japan to live at the age of 41.

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