Jung Money: Angels’ Ohtani is living up to the hype

Ollie Jung | Daily Trojan

When I wrote my column previewing the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2018 season last week, I didn’t even consider discussing the “other” L.A. team based less than an hour southeast in Anaheim. In my mind, there wasn’t much to discuss: The Angels haven’t made the playoffs in four years, and a combination of injuries and ill-advised contracts have mired them in mediocrity since Josh Hamilton’s third and final ill-fated campaign with the Halos what feels like an eternity ago.

In retrospect, it was a blatant oversight on my part. One week into baseball’s new year, Anaheim and rookie sensation Shohei Ohtani have stolen the show, already rendering the defending National League champion Dodgers an afterthought.

Of course, we are seven games into the Major League Baseball season (for what it’s worth, the Angels are 5-2, one game out of the lead in the AL West). Proportionally speaking, that’s like being midway through the third quarter in Week 1 of the NFL. A team that “steals the show” this week could easily finish 2018 with the worst record in the league. A player who looks bound for a career year could be in Triple-A by next month.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to overstate the impressiveness of Ohtani’s introduction in Anaheim. This isn’t to say that the 23-year-old will prove to be an elite, big-league player, but considering the expectations that accompanied the two-way hitting pitcher from Japan over the offseason, it’s remarkable that Ohtani has emerged from his first week in the majors with a 1-0 record and six hits in 14 at-bats.

Ohtani was always going to face unrealistic expectations after arriving stateside bearing the label “Japan’s Babe Ruth.” But there was a reason for the hype: He debuted in NPB as a teenager, the Japanese big leagues (widely considered the strongest league in the world outside MLB), and quickly established himself as one of the best pitchers in the country — who also hit for a career .286 mark. Ohtani was named MVP when he was 21, mashing at a .322 clip with 22 home runs while also compiling a 10-4 record on the mound alongside a 1.86 ERA.

The two-way potential had pretty much everyone in the U.S. — scouts, coaches, executives and fans alike — salivating. There hasn’t been a dominant pitcher-hitter since the Bambino himself, and even Ruth gave up pitching to focus on his bat when he was 25 (he toed the rubber in a total of five times after 1919).

That’s why it was surreal to watch Ohtani club a game-tying 2-run home run off of reigning Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber on Wednesday. It was the rookie’s second dinger in as many days, off one of the game’s filthiest aces, no less. Ohtani’s two-for-five day at the plate actually lowered his average to .429 across four games.

By the way, this performance came three days after Ohtani debuted as a pitcher, picking up the win with six innings of 3-run ball against the Oakland A’s. He flashed a dazzling repertoire, including a fastball that hit triple digits as well as a wicked splitter. All the damage against Ohtani came on a 3-run homer in the second inning, after which he didn’t allow another hit.

There is a question of durability, however. Swinging the bat between starts will likely be a significant challenge for Ohtani: The majors’ five-man starting staff has already historically caused fatigue issues for Japanese imports, who are used to playing on a six-pitcher, once-per-week rotation. Ohtani will have to adjust to making around 30 starts a year instead of 20 and grinding through a 162-game schedule instead of Japan’s 144-game campaign.

But if Ohtani can stay healthy to be an all-around asset throughout the season, his versatility could truly give the Angels an edge. At the very least, his days slotting in as designated hitter will give his team additional depth pinch-hitting and for defensive replacements. Maybe Ohtani’s bat even allows Anaheim to forgo an extra bench player in favor of carrying another bullpen arm — a magnified advantage come the postseason. After wallowing in irrelevance for years, Angels fans must surely be dreaming of playoff baseball now that their team’s gamble appears to have paid off.

The whole experiment almost went off the rails before the start of the season, too, when Ohtani endured an absolutely atrocious Spring Training. His 27.00 ERA and .107 mark at the dish sparked discussion that the Angels’ 20 million dollar man could begin the year in the minors. It was likely Ohtani’s price tag that kept him on the big-league roster. Ironically, Anaheim’s reluctance to bury its multimillion-dollar investment in the farm system opened the door for the past week’s unprecedented breakout.

Will Ohtani develop into a uniquely elite weapon not seen in baseball for a century? Or will he ditch one trade to focus on his strength, just as Babe Ruth did? Perhaps he will merely prove to be a novelty item, quickly forgotten after he fails to adapt to the big leagues. But none of those questions matter in 2018. For now, we can simply enjoy “Sho-Time” while it lasts — an audacious stunt once reserved for video games and a bygone era now playing out in front of our eyes.

Ollie Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Jung Money,” runs Fridays.