By Carter Cromwell
Yes, it’s early. Yes, Major League Baseball is just one month into its six-month regular season marathon. But, yes, Shohei Ohtani has shown signs of becoming the two-way star he was in Japan and MLB fans have been waiting for.
After leaving Japan to sign with the Los Angeles Angels and having a promising 2018 rookie season at the plate and on the mound, Ohtani had Tommy John surgery and was not able to pitch in 2019. He then had his left knee worked on toward the end of that season. In 2020, he was diagnosed with an elbow injury after two rough outings and didn’t pitch again. He was a disappointment at the plate in 2020, as well, batting just .190.
But his first month of the 2021 season has been good, often spectacular. With April now in the books, he’s batting .283 with a .972 OPS, eight home runs, and 19 RBI. As a pitcher, Ohtani is 1-0 with a 3.29 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.
Ohtani’s early season hasn’t always been smooth: there have been ruts, such as 13 walks in those 13.2 innings of pitching, along with 27 strikeouts in 88 at-bats. Also, he went 16 days between starting games on the mound because of a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand.
Yet, there have been several bold reminders of the amazing things Ohtani can do on a baseball field:
- In one game, he fired a fastball at 101.1 mph and hit a 451-foot homer run at 115.2 mph.
- In another contest, he hit a double with an exit velocity of 119.2 mph, one of only five hits that have topped 119 mph since MLB started using Statcast in 2015.
- On April 26, he became the first player in nearly 100 years to start a game on the mound while simultaneously leading (tied for the lead, actually) in home runs. The last? Babe Ruth in June 1921.
- And for a big guy (6-4, 210) and a designated hitter, no less, he’s shown excellent sprint speed. He currently ranks 19th among major leaguers at 29 feet per second (Washington’s Trea Turner is first at 30.7).
Again, yes, it’s early, but Ohtani has so far created the most excitement of the eight Japanese imports in MLB.
Of the remaining seven, pitcher Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres was consistently the best through April.
Coming off an outstanding performance in the truncated 2020 campaign, he’s continued the roll in his first year with the Padres. In the season’s first month, he had a 3-1 record with a 2.13 earned-run average and minuscule 0.89 WHIP. He struck out 49 batters and walked 11 in 38 innings.
So far this year, batters have made less good contact against Darvish than in previous years.
If the average exit velocity he’s allowed on batted balls in play (85.5 mph), and hard-hit rate (28.4%) for April were to hold up for the entire season, they would be the best of his career.
In contrast to Darvish, veteran starters Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins and Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners have had their struggles, though the latter has had good moments.
Maeda was the ace of the Twins’ staff in 2020, but he did not perform at that level in April. He’s 1-2 after the first month with a 6.56 ERA and bloated 1.76 WHIP. He’s allowed 36 hits and seven home runs in 23.1 innings. He gave up three home runs in each of two consecutive starts.
In the third year of a three-year contract, Kikuchi had earned-run averages higher than 5.00 his first two seasons. So far this year, he was effective in his first two starts, not good in his next two, and outstanding in his most recent one – a victory over the Houston Astros in which he pitched seven innings and allowed just one hit. He struck out seven batters and walked none. For the first month, Kikuchi was 1-1 with a 4.40 ERA and 1.14 WHIP.
Now to the two newcomers to MLB this season – starter Kohei Arihara of the Texas Rangers and reliever Hirokazu Sawamura of the Boston Red Sox.
The 28-year-old Arihara, in the first year of a two-year, $6.2 million contract, has been inconsistent, posting a 2-3 record, 5.76 ERA, and 1.40 WHIP in 25 innings. Sawamura, 33, is 1-0 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.15 WHIP after 10 April outings. He is working on a two-year, $3 million contract.
That leaves the two position players from Japan – outfielder Shogo Akiyama of the Cincinnati Reds and infielder/DH Yoshi Tsutsugo of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Akiyama has been trying to get back on the field after suffering a hamstring injury in mid-March during spring training. He has yet to play in the regular season, but the latest reports indicate that his return is imminent.
Tsutsugo, who found the going difficult in his first season with Tampa Bay in 2020, has continued struggling. At the end of April, he was batting just .175 and had 22 strikeouts in 63 at-bats.