Day 22 of 2022 baseball books: Oh, now you’re just a Sho-off

“Sho-Time: The Inside Story of Shohei Ohtani and the Greatest Baseball Season Ever Played”

The author:
Jeff Fletcher

The publishing info:
Diversion Books
256 pages
To be released July 12, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
The authors website
At TheLastBookStoreLA

The review in 90 feet or less

What does The Greatest Shoman do for an encore?

Just a lot of the same hard-to-get-your-head-around-it stuff.

For what it’s worth, we’re 44.444 percent into Shohei Ohtani’s 2022 season. In just the last two games, we’ve been told again — warned, actually — that what we’re watching is nearly unimaginable on a Major League Baseball diamond. We still have a hard time believing it.

A night after a career-high eight RBIs, including the second of two three-run homers in the ninth sending the game into extra innings, Ohtani throws eight shutout innings and posts a career best 13 strikeouts, ending another Angels’ losing streak. After the first two Royals hitters connect on singles, Ohtani strikes out two of the next three and doesn’t allow a hit the rest of the way, with just one walk. He retires 16 in a row at one point and the last seven batters he faces, at one time touching 100 mph in the seventh inning. In the process, he’s the first since Babe Ruth to record 100 career home runs at the plate and 300 strikeouts on the mound.

In between those games, there’s ESPN’s Olney on the air during a chat show warning that the Angels face a “looming crisis” ahead of Ohtani’s free agency at the end of the 2023 season – and the New York Mets with their GM Billy Eppler, who helped orchestrate Ohtani’s landing in Anaheim when he worked there, could be a favorite landing spot.

Let’s not panic or anything.

So already this season, we enjoyed this a story last May from The Athletic about how “One Moment at Fenway Perfectly Captured the Shohei Ohtani Experience,” most notably how he went out to the mound one inning to pitch against the Red Sox and forgot he still had his batting gloves in his back pocket. That was the game he struck out 11 with no walks in seven shutout innings of an eventual 8-0 win — and also hit a line drive so hard to the opposite field that he knocked his own No. 17 number of the pitcher’s slot in the manual scoreboard on the Green Monster. That’s the stuff of “The Natural.”

In early June, we had Ohtani ending the Angels’ franchise record-setting 14-game losing streak almost single-handedly – throwing seven one-run innings against Boston and hitting a well-timed home run to spark a 5-2 win.

Then on June 15, Ohtani, extending his hitting streak to 10 games, ropes a triple down the right field line with one out in the top of the ninth to break up a no-hit bid by the Dodgers’ Tyler Anderson. He then scores one pitch later to end the Dodgers’ shutout bid. It happened on the Dodgers’ Japanese Heritage Night with taiko drummers pounding in the distance. No matter how this publication in India seemed to mangle the translation of the story.

The current issue of Sports Illustrated even devotes six pages to his sense of humor. In “Goofball” (compared to the print edition that refers to it as “Funnyball”) writer Stephanie Apstein explains how that while “Ohtani’s English has improved, he still relies on (translator Ippei”) Mizuhara for nuance. But the language barrier is less imposing than it might seem, and besides, many gags require no interpretation: the weightless ball prank … his laughter — often directed at himself — is childlike and infectious.”

They said the same once upon a time about Fernando Valenzuela.

And this is all pre-2022 All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium. The drum keeps beating for Ohtani. Who wouldn’t just want to shake his hand, after shaking their head?

“I hope you don’t start taking that for granted. Like it’s old hat,” former Angels manager Joe Maddon once said about all this. “It’s just so unusual. It’s otherworldly, on this level of this game.”

Not to worry. We’ve also got 2021 to remind us what’s going on here.

So, once upon a time, Time magazine carried prime-time gravitas in the media world.

When it put Shohei Ohtani on its April 25/May 2, 2022 double issue cover, declaring he is “what baseball needs,” it definitely stood out — like something out of GQ.

Even trying to outdo the British GQ edition that already had him on the cover of its February 2022 issue, calling him “The Dominant Star of Modern Baseball.”

This Time magazine story with the “Sho-Time” screamer on the front also needed Ohtani’s image to carry the back end.

Inside the back cover, there is a full page glossy ad with Ohtani, in generic baseball apparel, promoting another aspect of his abilities. He hits, pitches and “trades .. he does it all” on the “official crypto exchange partner of MLB.”

Ohtani is currency these days. In dollars, yen, tickets, ratings, and whatever other stuff people are just making up.

It all makes dollars and sense based on what happened in The Year of Ohtani 2021. He performed as if he was as easy as playing in a video game. And he just continues to baffle and bedazzle.

The 2021 American League MVP, the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award, the MLB Players Association Player of the Year honor, a Sliver Slugger award, and participating in the All-Star game as the starting pitcher and lead-off hitter a day after nearly winning the Home Run Hitting Contest are just among the things allowed to be placed on the display shelf at this point.

Here’s a book to go with it.

Jeff Fletcher, who has been covering the Angels for the Southern California News Group the last 10 years and on the MLB beat since ‘97, had already started to write an Ohtani tome in 2018. But things derailed when Ohtani’s UCL issues flared up and his already brief MLB career could have been doomed. It was wait-and-see from there.

(Smart move. For what it’s worth: In November of 2018, Sports Publishing LLC tried to crank out a half-baked composite Ohtani bio, a skimpy 140 pages from previous reporters work. We weren’t that into the hype of it with our April, 2019 review.)

But after what Ohtani did a season ago, the project begged to be revived, and not just as a rehash mashup.

“My goal was to go beyond a surface-level description of what he did in that amazing season, providing the context that explained it,” Fletcher writes about why he pitched it all again.

To everyone’s benefit, he does that and then some.

If Chapters 10-through-15 ultimately provide all the nitty and gritty of that 2021 season — from spring training, the first half, the All-Star Game, the second half team collapse and the assessment of experts about what just happened — it’s the necessary chapters one through nine that thankfully take all this from its beginnings to where it all makes a lot more impact.

That’s all the important stuff of Ohtani’s time playing in Japan, the negotiations to get him with the Angels, his arrival and first spring training in ’18, a couple of surgery issues with his arm and knee, the challenges of ’19 and ’20 (including the death of his locker room neighbor Tyler Skaggs, who shared the same agent, Nez Balelo), and the successful rebuilding of his workouts and regime through the advanced technology available at the Driveline Baseball organization.

We also get an historical sense of what other Japanese players did in American in previous careers amidst overhyping, which made Ohtani “the most fiercely pursued player to come on the international market in the history of baseball,” Fletcher writes.

The season before Ohtani’s ’21 breakout comes as he was more in tune with his body, what needed to be done, and about 100 years after “Babe Ruth stepped into former boxer Artie McGovern’s gym to get in shape with sprints and medicine ball throws and more, a concept that was just as cutting-edge at the time,” Fletcher reminds us.

He also notes that the Angels “treated him like a fragile artifact for most of his first three seasons in the big leagues, and you couldn’t blame them … Even when Babe Ruth did it in 1918 and 1919 he said the physical demands were too great” as he transitioned from pitching to hitting. “Ohtani by contract came to the majors specifically to be a two-way layer and it was up to the Angels to ensure that he could handle the workload.”

If not now, then when?

Also keep in mind, in the less-than five full seasons, Ohtani has already had four managers and two general managers, so the disappointments he had in the two seasons prior landing on blackjack in ’21 can’t be discounted.

Those previous two seasons, Ohtani once said, were what he described as nasakenai, which translates to, among other things, “pathetic.”

Now, it’s the fourth game of the regular season, at Angel Stadium, with only 13,000-plus in attendance because of COVID restrictions, the Angels faced the Chicago White Sox in ESPN’s first prime time Sunday Night contest.

Within the first 15 minutes of the game, the 26-year-old Ohtani touched 100 mph on the speed gun from the mound and hit a ball 115 mph for a home run at the plate (that traveled some 450 miles). It was also the first time he pitched and hit in the same game.

“No one else in the big leagues accomplished both those milestones in the season,” Fletcher notes, also pointing out that only six percent of pitchers have reached 100 mph in ’21, and only five percent of hitters produced contact of 115.2 mph.

This, after Ohtani gave up seven runs in 2 1/3 innings with five walks in his final exhibition tune-up against the Dodgers a week earlier.

“Let’s stay out of his way, let him play baseball and see what happens,” said Maddon, whose job this season couldn’t even be saved by what Ohtani has been doing.

Non-spoiler alert: Even if the reader knows what happens next, next, next – the Angels suddenly have no room for Albert Pujols, the “reverse double-switch” game Ohtani played some right field after he was done pitching so he could stay in the lineup, a go-head homer with two out in the ninth at Boston in May, the whole Colorado All-Star game break-out moment – the content feels fresh and important.

Such as a reference to how baseball researcher Eric Fridén tracks a stat he called “reserve power,” which measures the way a pitcher’s velocity increased with the pressure of the situation. Ohtani’s average fastball in 2021 increased from 95.3 mph with no runners in scoring position to 96.8 mph with runners in scoring position. Fridén said he had been tracking the statistic since 2008, and by his measure Ohtani’s reserve power over the course of the 2021 season was surpassed by only future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander and reliever Andrew Miller. Miller had done it just once, and Verlander had done it for seven seasons.

And then there are the fans …

Kaoru Iwase and her husband, Tomoyuki, show off their Ohtani memorabilia collection. From a Nov., 2021 New York Times story on Ohtani’s MVP Award.

How it goes in the scorebook

Ohtani homered (Upton scored): 2 R, 2 H. Royals 0, Angels 2.

That is from June 8, 2021 — my 60th birthday – when I decided that COVID messiness or not, I wanted to go to Angel Stadium to see Ohtani play. He wasn’t pitching, but was the DH and would be batting second.

Just listen to the sound of the ball hitting the bat in his first-inning plate appearance:

On page 176, it is duly noted:

“The Angels faced the Kansas City Royals and former top prospect Kris Bubic … In the first inning, the twenty-three-year-old lefthander threw Ohtani a 2-and-2 changeup that ended up over the heart of the plate. Ohtani blasted it 470 feet — the longest homer of his career. The ball landed in the seats just a few feet from the fence alongside the green batter’s eye.

“ ‘That’s the farthest ball I think I’ve seen hit here,’ said Maddon, who had spent twelve years as a major league coach or manager with the Angels. ‘I’ve never seen one hit there before’.”

Nor had we.

We sent a text to Mark Gubicza in the Angels’ broadcast booth, and he texted back the same sentiments — which he said live on the team’s broadcast. And we recall seeing some majestic Reggie Jackson blasts in that facility, as well as one that Barry Bonds seemed to hit into no-where during Game 1 of the 2002 World Series.

We had seats on the top deck nearly behind home plate. It was like someone teeing up a golf ball and launching it toward the 57 Freeway, aiming at the Honda Center. The height was as impressive as the distance.

The official statistics of 2021 recorded that Ohtani hit 46 home runs (third-most in the MLB), had a .257 average (above the league average of .245), a .592 slugging percentage and .965 OPS (fifth in the majors). As a pitcher, he was 9-2 record, 3.18 ERA and 157 strikeouts in 130 1/3 innings. His WAR numbers — 4.1 pitching, seventh in the AL, plus 4.9 hitting — added to a 9.0, more than one better than the 7.8 by runner up and pitcher Zack Wheeler.

In Tokyo, a man reads an extra edition of a newspaper reporting Shohei Ohtani winning the AL MVP on Nov. 19, 2021 (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Along with touching on how tourism jumped in Anaheim with Ohtani’s arrival and all the other domino effects of his success, one of the elements that could have been perhaps covered with more detail is how the ’21 season played out with Ohtani in the media – a platform that couldn’t always get a handle on the best ways to frame him.

There was plenty of misplaced attention given to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith mangling hot take about why Ohtani, on the eve of the All Star Game, might be bad for the game instead of good because he didn’t speak English in the media. As senior media writer Tom Jones said for “He came off as the guy telling foreign players to ‘speak English’ if they wanted to be accepted and truly represent a sports league in the U.S. And that is simply unacceptable.”

Ohtani was also included in Time magazine’s 2021 100 Most Influential People issue. In October 2021 print issue Sports Illustrated had him on its cover with a piece by Tom Verducci (written in July) that read: “He’s Not the New Babe Ruth. He’s More Amazing Than That.”

The media was also more proactive in comparing Ohtani beyond Ruth — going as far as a piece that shines a light on the exploits of the Negro League’s Bullet Rogan.

If any of this is mentioned, we must have missed it, but it provides another layer of where people are getting their most pertinent information and framing opinions.

All in all, among the media types who provide back cover blurbs to help give this book some juice — quick hits by the likes of the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Jason Stark, ESPN’s Buster Olney and MLB Network and Angels broadcaster Matt Vasgersian — the one that rings most true with us is from Gubizca:

I thought I knew everything about Shohei Ohtani because I had seen all of his games and interviewed him for the first time in Tempe in 2018, but I didn’t quite know the extent of everything he did to redesign himself on the physical and mental side until after I read (this book). I really appreciated learning about Ohtani’s dedication to be the best, starting from his days in Japan. I realized how much it took for him to get to this point, to have the best year in baseball history.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== A book excerpt from Baseball America here.

== Fletcher does a Q&A here:

== For collectors: How the book looks promoted on Amazon Japan:

== Last January, a quick 32-page paperback on Ohtani as part of a sports bio project came out (Lerner Publications, $9.99) to attract the 7-to-11 age reader (second-to-fifth grade).

== A March, 2022 story in the SoCal News Group by Fletcher: “How Shohei Ohtani turns baseball into child’s play” includes excerpts from the book.

== A May 15, 2022 look at all 100 of Ohtani’s home runs to date, sped up as time goes by:

2 thoughts on “Day 22 of 2022 baseball books: Oh, now you’re just a Sho-off”

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