“Ohtani is not going to hit 60 homers,” Whiting said in reference to the single-season major league mark that Ruth set in 1927 and then stood until 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61. For one thing, Whiting noted, Ohtani — who is listed at 6 feet 3 inches and 189 pounds by Baseball Reference — does not have the imposing physique of a slugger, at least by American standards.
For another, the most home runs Ohtani hit in any Japanese season was 22, in 2016, although that number came in only 323 at-bats.
“He will probably do better as a pitcher,’’ Whiting predicted. “Playing both positions is probably too much to ask.”
A more accurate comparison, Whiting, Sasaki and others said, is to measure Ohtani against Yu Darvish, who, like Ohtani, played for the Nippon-Ham Fighters before moving to the major leagues. Darvish made the switch in 2012 and since then has compiled a 56-42 record as a member of the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Darvish has never been a two-way player, but he, like Ohtani, began pitching for the Fighters at age 18, in 2005. Over seven seasons, he compiled a 93-38 won-lost record with a 1.99 earned run average. Ohtani, in five seasons with the Fighters, put together a 42-15 record with a 2.52 E.R.A.
Those numbers, similar in how good they are, suggest that Ohtani, if nothing else, should be an effective pitcher in the United States.
Eishi Yamagata, who has covered the Fighters for Kyodo News, said he thought the American perception of Ohtani was somewhat overblown, but he believed Ohtani would not feel overwhelmed by pressure to live up to the fanfare he will encounter in the United States.
“Even if he gets unfair expectations from American fans, he is a live-and-let-live type of person,” Yamagata said. “He has not changed as a person.”
What has changed, apparently, is the way Japanese players who leave for the United States are perceived by the fans they left behind. Hideo Nomo, who pioneered the first wave of Japanese pitchers coming to the majors, was considered something of a traitor when he departed for the United States for the 1995 season.
But immediate success with the Los Angeles Dodgers quickly led to Nomo’s starts being broadcast on giant outdoor screens in Japan. Fans became enticed with the possibility that their homegrown stars could challenge the best players in the world.
And that sense of general good will in Japan now extends to the players who have followed in Nomo’s footsteps, like Ohtani.
“There’s a little bit of regret, but also do well,” said Ira Stevens, who runs Scout Dragon, a site that produces data on Japanese players. Of Ohtani, he added: “He’s trying to challenge himself at the highest level.”
Ruth analogies aside, there is little question that Ohtani has been the most popular Japanese baseball player in recent years.
He is the face of train advertisements and even appears on billboards at the Tokyo Dome, home of the rival Yomiuri Giants. In sporting goods stores, Ohtani-model gloves are best sellers, going for about $450 each.
Kumiko Konno, who was recently shopping at the Fighters’ team store next to the Sapporo train station, wanted to purchase as much Ohtani merchandise as possible before it went out of stock, since items for former players are not easy to come by. She said she had twice traveled to Arizona to watch spring training expeditions by the Fighters and each time had brought Ohtani some chocolates — his favorite, she said.
“He’s great at pitching and batting,” said Konno, who is old enough to be Ohtani’s mother and showed a cellphone picture of him signing an autograph for her. “But he’s also cute.”
But there is also another word Konno used in reference to Ohtani — “nitoryu,” which refers to the difficult, two-sword technique that is credited to a venerated 17th-century Japanese warrior named Miyamoto Musashi. Other fans said the same thing, including Shigeki Sarodo, a research fellow at Nippon Sports Science University in Tokyo.
In other words, being able to both pitch and hit may evoke images of Ruth for American fans but something much different — swords from the 17th century, for instance — in Japan.
“I think that kind of stuff is very familiar to us,” Sarodo said. He said Ohtani was “not the person to compare to Babe Ruth, but a Japanese hero in a more popular way.”
At play, too, in the different perceptions of Ohtani here and in the United States, may be the ease with which myths arise around Asian players from a distance.
For instance, when the Boston Red Sox paid over $51 million in 2006 for the right to sign the Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, the legend of his gyroball pitch had begun to captivate American audiences. Although what exactly constituted a gyroball seemed open to interpretation.
“Matsuzaka and the gyroball was such a joke to me because he didn’t throw the gyroball,” Whiting said.
Similarly, perhaps, when Ohtani, in 2016, hit a long drive that became lodged in a panel in the Tokyo Dome ceiling, it was not all that different from what has occasionally occurred in domed stadiums in the United States. Still, it created a sensation of sorts among American fans.
LeiLani Nishime, an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington whose area of research includes Asian-American media representations, said stereotypes of the “mysterious foreigner” remained prevalent in American popular culture.
“In Japan, there are many examples of Asian athletes and a whole range of labels and behaviors represented,” Nishime wrote in an email. “In the U.S., we have so few examples that each example is significant and has repercussions beyond that one athlete.”
Or, as Sarado put it, “Shohei Ohtani himself is not really mysterious for us.” Nor, it appears, does Japan consider him the second coming of Babe Ruth.