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Ask a very knowledgeable baseball fan, “Why is Shohei Ohtani so popular?” and the answer will probably be something like this: “Because he throws 100 mph and hits a ton of home runs … he’s the only guy in the entire league that is capable of dominating on the mound and at the plate.”
Shohei Ohtani is a popular Major League Baseball player because he’s a very good player at both the plate and on the pitcher’s mound, something very rare in the top level of baseball. In fact, one would have to look as far back as Babe Ruth’s early years to find an outstanding pitcher who could also slug with the best of them.
It’s called a “2-way player,” meaning someone who can pitch as well as play in a regular batting lineup when not doing mound work. Long ago baseball ~ as in football later on ~ became specialized, so pitchers only pitch (for the most part), and hitters don’t pitch (except very rarely).
After a few seasons marred by injuries and the pandemic, Ohtani is having a breakout year with the Los Angeles Angels. His statistics finally match what baseball experts knew all along: he is a special player.
However, play on the field doesn’t tell the whole story about Ohtani’s popularity. Here’s a look at the whole picture.
Major sports stars today are not judged only for their exploits on the diamond, field, rink, or track. Because of all the various types of media today, they have become a package ~ where everything from their looks to what they wear, what they say, and their conduct matters.
Add to that how their prospective sport chooses to market them, and you get a pretty solid idea about Ohtani’s rise to magazine covers and news headlines. Here are reasons, beyond the big 2-way player anomaly, why Shohei Ohtani is so popular.
Today’s media in America loves to sensationalize, and once signed to an MLB team, Ohtani brought promise of spectacular results. That was almost enough initially to make him a star before even playing an inning in the top U.S. league.
It doesn’t hurt that Ohtani has matinee-idol, youthful good looks, and presents himself well overall to be a specimen of stuperb physical fitness. How you look is extremely important in an image- and video-heavy media environment. (Think about it: when was the last time an overweight athlete was on a magazine cover?).
Baseball fans in America, and around the globe for that matter, love a positive, smiling presence from the players who dominate their sport. Even during setbacks like the injuries that kept Ohtani off the field until 2020, he conveyed a positive attitude and overall sunny take on his stature in the game. “Upbeat” is how one media outlet described him.
(In baseball especially for some reason, personalities make headlines. Look up Mark Fidrych in the late 1970s as an example … even Pete Rose had a peculiar personality, which played well in the media).
That Ohtani speaks a rather exotic language, is very modest for his young age, and possesses incredible talent and potential, makes him a rather unknown quantity overall. Even though his statements are translated into English, his personality on the field hasn’t yet shown through ~ maintaining a somewhat mysterious element to his persona.
All the major sports in America have taken a beating in one way or another the past 2 decades, whether for performance-enhancing drugs, or labor disputes (and strikes), bloated salaries, periodic arrests for misbehaving, etc. Now more than ever before, the MLB is cognizant of the public’s perception of their sport as a product that must compete for the buying public’s attention.
So … MLB marketing gurus have spotlighted Ohtani well, perhaps much more early on than he deserved considering how long it took him to match expectations (pretty much from 2018 to 2021). Ohtani is something the MLB showcases as an example of the future of its sport.
None other than USA Today recently called Ohtani a “Freak of Nature” for his astounding, versatile baseball skills. Those, along with many other positive intangibles as noted above, make his transition from a Japanese farm town to America’s 2nd-largest city all the more fascinating.
His popularity stems from an extraordinary mix of baseball talent, looks, personality, maturity, humility, charm, attitude, friendliness, innocence, humility, and marketing.
The key, most baseball experts will say, is how long he can maintain his unprecedented workload. He’s still very young, in his mid-20s, but down the road many baseball gurus say he’ll have to pick one or the other: pitching or batting.
Question: How is Ohtani doing in the 2021 season?
Answer: Exceedingly well. Follow his MLB page for updates, but by mid-May he had at one point become the first player since Babe Ruth (100 years ago!) to start a game as a pitcher while at the same time leading the MLB in home runs. He has thrown pitches at 101 mph, and hit balls over 450 feet. By mid-May he had a minuscule 2.10 earned-run average, and 40 strikeouts in just over 25 innings pitched. Batting-wise, a quarter into the 2021 season, he led his team in home runs, runs, doubles, RBIs, and even stolen bases.