Shohei Ohtani announced his intention to play for Japan in the 2023 World Baseball Classic last November, in an Instagram post that was well-received, to say the least.
The question that immediately followed was this: How, exactly, would Japan use its unicorn as it attempts to win its third WBC title? Japan won the first two tournaments (2006 & 2009), but didn’t reached the final in 2013 or 2017. Getting a third title in a priority.
One element of the team’s plan was clear in its first exhibition game: Have Ohtani hit a home run almost every time he comes to the plate. For any player who is merely a mortal, that would be impossible. For Ohtani, it’s just a challenge.
And this whole WBC thing is a welcome challenge for someone who lives to embrace challenges. He’s prepared to do whatever it takes for Japan.
“That’s my style of play,” Ohtani said, as reported in the Japan Times. “Not only pitching, but also hitting, and whenever the team needs me as a two-way player, I’ll give my best.”
His best is pretty incredible.
Is Shohei Ohtani pitching in the WBC?
Of course. You knew Japan wasn’t going to let a guy like Ohtani “just” hit. He showed why in Japan’s opener vs. China on Thursday, when he hit triple digits with his fastball and allowed just one hit, with five strikeouts, in four scoreless innings.
His MLB team, the Angels, made it clear from the get-go that there would be no restrictions from them on how he’s used. Lots of pitchers in the WBC come with restrictions, of course, because of the timing. It’s earlier in the year than MLB pitchers tend to throw “important” innings, because mid-March is just the beginning of ramp-up-to-the-regular-season time in a normal spring training timeline. Teams don’t want the change in routine to lead to injuries that might impact the regular season and a possible playoff push.
But the Angels basically left it up to Ohtani.
Which, let’s be honest, was smart on their part. Ohtani, who turns 29 in July, is a free agent after this season, and most in the industry expect that he’ll be wearing a different uniform starting in 2024. He’s yet to sniff the postseason in Anaheim, and he’s made it pretty clear that’s not going to be acceptable the rest of his MLB career.
From a baseball perspective, the smart thing for the Angels to do would be to trade him now and use the immense haul of talented players — the package it would take would make your head spin — to rebuild a franchise that has lots of needs. But the Angels have made it clear that’s not going to happen, and instead they used the offseason to try and make a playoff push in 2023, with the hopes that somehow they can convince him to stay long-term.
And, as you can imagine, putting any sort of restrictions on how Ohtani could help his country try to win the WBC probably wouldn’t sit well.
So he’s pitching. Of course he is.
There was a thought that maybe Ohtani could be used as a closer in the WBC. After all, Japan has a deep rotation of outstanding starters. Problem is, it would be difficult to warm up to pitch the ninth inning if he has to take an at-bat as the DH in the eighth inning, right? Even for Ohtani, that would be difficult. And, obviously, Japan wouldn’t take his bat out of the DH spot on the off chance they’d want to give him time to pitch an inning or two as a closer.
So that’s out. Ohtani will be part of Japan’s rotation. It’s a silly rotation, with Yu Darvish, Roki Sasaki, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shota Imanaga. It’s the best rotation in the WBC. Would be close to the best even without Ohtani.
With Ohtani? How cool would it be to see him on the mound against the stacked USA or Dominican Republic lineups in the semifinals or title game? Yeah, we can dream.
Is Shohei Ohtani hitting in the WBC?
Of course he will, folks.
It’s not just that Ohtani hit two home runs in the exhibition game, it’s HOW he hit one of those home runs, to center field, basically on one knee, ala Adrian Beltre.
He has a flair for the dramatic, doesn’t he? He didn’t homer vs. China, but he did go 2-for-4 with a double, two RBIs and one run scored.
He’ll team with Munetaka Murakami, another left-handed slugger, to give Japan a dynamic power duo in the middle of the lineup. Murakami set the NPB record for most home runs in a season by a player born in Japan, with 56. Ohtani, of course, hit 46 homers for the Angels in 2021 and another 34 in 2022.
Ohtani batted third in the exhibition game, playing DH. Ohtani did play 64 games in the outfield in NPB action, before he came over to play for the Angels, but don’t expect to see him out there in the WBC.
That probably will be about the only thing he doesn’t do, though.