Three games, nine at-bats, and one pitching start into his career, Shohei Ohtani‘s play is growing his outsized hype itself.
Shohei Ohtani came to Major League Baseball with the hype that comes from a kind of connected disconnect. A perfect mix of social media exposure and foreign mystery that itself has become a foreign feeling (it’s surprising when news surprises us nowadays) made Ohtani known and unknown. He wasn’t as mysterious as Ichiro before him, but he was equally mythical. We had more knowledge on him than most foreign-born players, but that didn’t dampen expectations.
Ohtani’s first spring wasn’t particularly impressive, except that there was a narrative hedge built into how he’d do: if he did well, the hype was validated; if he did poorly, so too did Ichiro his first spring. The actual games would corroborate the hype.
Turns out, Ohtani’s first week didn’t just prove him legit; it became its own ballooning hype machine — with reason.
Ohtani debuted on Opening Day for the Angels as their DH and promptly pulled a single past first base in his first career at-bat. He’d end the game 1-5, but just the fact that the pitching prospect’s Major-League debut came as the DH for an American League team was at least cool, and at most exciting.
A few days later, Ohtani opened his big league pitching account. Taking the mound is the primary reason he’s here and against the Athletics, he showed why he deserved to be. If the skeptical take was that Ohtani was merely good at two distinct things, one of them was elevated to spectacular off of six innings of first-person experience. And if that sounds like small sample size hyperbole, know that hyperbole is the currency of hype.
He showed off a plus-velocity fastball that Baseball Savant says averaged 98 and the in-game gun clocked at a high of 100. Ohtani’s full repertoire, including a slider and a curve, danced around the plate. But It was the splitter that dropped out of the strike zone and off a cliff that stole the show. His splitter generated four of his six strikeouts on the day and was his most valuable pitch per Fangraphs. Twitter user @PitcherList caught one of his best sequences:
It wasn’t a perfect start—Oakland’s Matt Chapman tagged a dull slider for a three-run home run (Chapman will tag a lot of guys this year)—but it was mesmerizing, if only because over six innings his hype was real enough that it was again readjusted. One inning aside, he was great.
Then came Tuesday night. Back in the box, Ohtani took his first at-bat in front of his new home crowd:
Any concern about if he should play both ways was lofted over the right-field wall. Ohtani ended the night 3-4 and doused in energy drink. His upside skyrocketed again.
There’s nothing quite like the first week of baseball. For a sport that traffics in time, patterns, and sample size debates, the first week of baseball is a chaotic distillation that has too much excitement and too much doom in too little time with too much attention to stress patience, caution, or dampened expectations.
What’s ahead for Ohtani? Hot streaks and swoons just like every other player to ever play this game. His potential will adjust with every devastating splitter, every hanging slider, every hit and every strikeout. He had a 3-fer, he can have an 0-fer. He struck out six in six innings, he’ll have a two-inning disaster at some point.
Ohtani’s thrilling first week didn’t disappoint, but it didn’t meet the predictions built up for him either. Rather, in position to reveal his own potential, Ohtani is firmly responsible for his hype.
One week in, he kept it growing.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.
[Editor’s Note: In the Angels’ two games after this was published, Ohtani hit two more home runs. His hype grows beyond our deadlines.]