The ruins of “Isawa Castle” are in the city of Oshu, Iwate prefecture, in the region of Michinoku, better known as Tohoku on the northern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu. The construction of the castle dates back to the early 9th century, the year 802. Sakanoue-no Tamuramaro, then in the post of seii-taishogun (literally, commander-in-chief of the expeditionary force against barbarians) built it to the south of the flowing Isawa River at the order of the Imperial Court for the purpose of “making a conquest” of northern tribal people.
Situated about 10 minutes’ drive from my parents’ home, the castle must have been a point of strategic importance along the river in bygone days, with the sound of neighs of the herds of military horses filling the air. Its ruins are now in an idyllic-looking neighborhood. Little is to be seen other than thickets and plants such as apple trees.
This is the place where Shohei Ohtani, of Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Angels, was brought up.
The man who coached him in his boyhood was quoted as saying that Ohtani, though a left-handed batter, has the ability to belt home runs in abundance. He, however, developed the talent on where to place them, over the left-field fence, or opposite-field homers, for an unusual reason.
“He knocked it clean over the right-field fence in succession, often causing the balls to become missing as they dropped into Isawa River beyond the right field,” Ohtani’s former coach was cited as saying.
“As a ball was quite expensive for us, we were bewildered by the loss of the balls Ohtani blasted into the river beyond the right field. Subsequently, he acquired the technique to smash homers over the left-field fence, to prevent balls from falling in the river,” the former coach was quoted as saying.
This anecdote may be the key to understanding Ohtani’s batting style, known as the “Ohtani-fashion batting form.” He is said to crack opposite-field homers on the strength of his left-handed stroke, which is powerful enough to drive the ball over the opposite-field wall.
Several years ago, while assigned to the Sankei Shimbun’s New York Bureau, I heard from Takehiko Kobayakawa, a former infielder for Japan’s Hiroshima Carp, that it is especially amazing that Ohtani “show[s] a good batting performance despite an overwhelming lack of batting practice.” The reason for this is his need to spend so much time on pitching. However, it also suggests he may be a genius.
In the major leagues, there are quite a few hitters who bat the ball with a twist and bend of their wrists to hit the ball powerfully, even to the extent of letting you be concerned that they may be injured. Watching the batting practice of a left-handed batter at the time of the 2013 MLB All-Star Game, it was unforgettably impressive.
The batter, upon entering the batting cage, started hitting about 10 hurler-delivered balls to the opposite field, or the left field, with light strokes. Although I first thought he might be an Ichiro-type contact hitter, he then began hitting balls over the right-field fence one right after the other as if they were ping-pong balls. Instead of depending on the wrist, he appeared using the trunk of the body for applying the principle of leverage. The guy was Christopher Davis of the Baltimore Orioles, the home run champion for the same 53-circuit season.
The way Ohtani uses his body flexibly is much the same as Davis’. This is one of the reasons I feel Ohtani will be an outstanding player with the Angeles.
What, then, are the chances of Ohtani proving successful in achieving his goal on the other side of his two-way play—that is, good performance as a right-handed pitcher? At first, he was struggling with the grip and release of major league baseballs, which tend to feel a little slippery and have seams a bit unevenly distributed, compared to those of Japan’s pro baseballs. He also has to become accustomed to differences in the height and hardness of the pitcher’s mound.
Kazuhisa Ishii, a former hurler of the Los Angeles Dodgers, while in the United States in 2014, explained to me how hard it is for Japanese pitchers to become used to a firm mound. “In a children’s tug-of-war, for example, when the ground is firm, unnecessary loads are put on their elbows and shoulders, you know?” he said. Given the hardness of the major league’s pitcher’s mound, on which a hurler throws balls as many as 100 times with the velocity of up to 165 kph (102 mph), the burden he has to bear will certainly be severe.
However, many Japanese top-of-the-line pitchers—such as Hideo Nomo, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma, Masahiro Tanaka, and Koji Uehara—have all achieved success in the major leagues. Ohtani, for his part, will surely be able to work well once he gets used to the baseball environment in the United States.
To be honest, I was half-amused watching the TV broadcasts of Ohtani enduring a rough spring season of exhibition games after signing with the Angeles. It was really intriguing that the extremely talented two-way star, who showed such a high level of performance in Japan, was floundering. However, putting up with the hardships of the exhibition games might have been prerequisite for Ohtani in the run-up to fully honing his pair of swords—his two-way ability in both pitching and hitting.
Watching Ohtani, the way he is successfully addressing the challenge of becoming an American player—pitching and hitting regularly—is unprecedented in U.S. pro baseball history. And his talent, amid a galaxy of baseball talents from all over the world, is also leaving Americans, who are very particular about baseball, in silence and in awe.
I am interested to see whether Ohtani, at some point, will find that he needs to choose to focus on one, not both of his talents. According to Atsuya Furuta, a former manager of the Yakult Swallows, “We cannot tell a pitcher who is capable of hurling 160 kph (99.7 mph) balls to end pitching, and we cannot tell a batter who is capable of regularly hitting balls to the centerfield screen to end batting.”
I am confident that, the very day this incredibly talented baseball star gives up on the “two-sword approach,” he will become a different person and even stronger player. The “single-sword Ohtani” will unveil yet a sharper, further evolved sword of his own choice—pitching or batting in the major leagues.
Jun Kurosawa is deputy editor of the international news department at The Sankei Shimbun. He will be deputy editor of the sports news department starting May 2018.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)