Collectors and MLB Welcome Japan's "Ruthian" Prospect
by Kevin Glew
He's been called the Japanese Babe Ruth.
And baseball praise doesn't get any loftier than that.
So can Shohei Ohtani, a hard-throwing right-hander and hard-hitting left-handed batter, live up to the hype?
The Los Angeles Angels, who won the major league sweepstakes for the two-way phenom, sure hope so.
"I think he can be successful doing both [pitching and hitting in the major leagues]," said David Saba, who collects rookie cards of Japanese players. "He's just going to be limited in both capacities, so he's not going to get 500 at bats and throw 32 starts. That's just not physically going to happen. But he can be a super utility player in both roles where he'll give you 26 or 27 starts and pitch every six days and contribute with 250 at bats in a part-time DH role. So if he's giving you 26 or 27 quality starts and 250 quality at bats, that's an extremely valuable player."
Long-time Japanese baseball card dealer, Gary Engel, offers a similar assessment. If Ohtani's health holds up, Engel believes this multi-talented 23-year-old can be a strong two-way player in the majors.
"Babe Ruth didn't hit 60 home runs when he was still pitching, so if Ohtani hits 20 home runs and hits .300 and wins 15 games ... let's face it, no one has done that in a long, long time," said Engel.
And judging by the demand for his cards in the U.S., Ohtani does have his share of believers. After his press conference with the Angels on December 9, 2017, Topps produced the first card of him in an Angels uniform through its Topps Now program and made it available for 24 hours. The card sold 17,323 copies to set a Topps Now sales record.
"I wasn't blogging when Ichiro [Suzuki] and [Hideki] Matsui came over, but I think there's certainly more buzz over Ohtani than any other player who's come over in the last 10 years," said Dave McNeely, a veteran collector and founder of a popular Japanese baseball card blog (http://japanesebaseballcards.blogspot.ca/).
Saba has noticed the same trend.
"I think the demand for Ohtani has reached a fever point and it will only grow if he has even moderate success because of what he's trying to do [as a two-way player]," he said.
Ohtani, himself, seems to want little part of the hype. If he craved the spotlight, he could've signed with the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, or even the cross-town Dodgers.
"What mattered to him most wasn't market size, time zone or league but that he felt a true bond with the Angels," Ohtani's agent, Nez Balelo, said in a statement after his client chose the Angels. "He sees this as the best environment to develop and reach the next level and attain his career goals."
Born in 1994, Ohtani was raised in Oshu, Japan. When he was a child, his father, Toru, would come home from work and play catch with him for hours, and Ohtani began competing on a weekend Little League team when he was eight.
While pitching for Hanamaki High School at age 17, he reached 99 mph on the radar gun to smash the record for the fastest pitch by a Japanese high schooler. His arm made him the most touted prospect in his home country, but even while he was in high school, the 6-foot-4 righty expressed an interest in playing Major League Baseball (MLB).
"It was rumored that he was going to sign with the Dodgers out of high school," noted Saba.
The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, however, took a chance and selected Ohtani with their first pick in the October 2012 draft and managed to convince the flame-throwing teen to sign with them. One of the key selling points was that the Fighters would allow him to continue to be a two-way player.
Ohtani debuted with the Fighters as an 18-year-old in 2013 and posted a 4.23 ERA in 13 appearances, while batting .238 with three home runs. He enjoyed a breakout season the following year, going 11-4 with a 2.61 ERA in 24 starts and added 10 home runs.
In 2015, he was even more dominant on the mound, leading the Japanese Pacific League with 15 wins and a 2.24 ERA while finishing second in strikeouts (196), but he batted just .202.
The ensuing year Ohtani put it all together, when on top of registering a 10-4 record with a 1.86 ERA in 21 mound appearances, he also hit .322 with 22 home runs and led the Fighters to a Japan Series title. For his efforts, he was named to the Pacific League Best Nine team as both a pitcher and a designated hitter. Speculation ramped up after that season that he would head to the major leagues, but he remained with the Fighters for one more campaign.
Unfortunately, his 2017 season was disrupted by an ankle injury, and he was limited to five starts as a pitcher (3-2, 3.20 ERA) and batted .332 with eight home runs in 65 games as a hitter. Despite his injury, Ohtani asked to be posted so he could play in the U.S. in 2018, and almost every major league team expressed interest in signing him.
The Angels say they will use Ohtani as a pitcher/DH. There has been speculation that because Ohtani only started one game a week in Japan that the Angels will employ a six-man rotation.
While some doubt he will be able to both pitch and bat in the majors, McNeely points out that people had these same reservations in 2013 when he joined the Fighters, but they were proven wrong. "I'm kind of viewing this the way that I wished I had viewed Bo Jackson's announcement to play in both the MLB and NFL simultaneously - he might not be able to do it, but it's going to be fun watching him try," he said.
Though Ohtani has already been featured on a couple of pre-rookie American cards, his true U.S. rookies will be in 2018 products. Still, there has been no shortage of Japanese Ohtani cards. He has been featured in every BBM set (some consider the BBM brand to be the Japanese equivalent of Upper Deck) since 2013 - including on dozens of cards during his rookie season. He was also highlighted in Calbee and Bandai Owners League sets during his first Japanese campaign.
Here's a rundown of some of Ohtani's key Japanese and American cards:
2013 BBM 1st (#183) and 2nd Version (#554) Cards. The 1st Version card (#183) presents a photo of Ohtani in a pitching motion, above his team name, number, position, and name. There's a rookie card logo on the top left.
In Saba's opinion, this card is the Japanese star's defining rookie. "It's his first card in a flagship set," he commented.
Of the seven submitted, there have been six PSA GEM-MT 10s.
His 2nd Version rookie single (#554) pictures him after a swing, about to run to first base. This card, too, has a rookie card stamp on it.
There are seven PSA 10s and two PSA MINT 9s.
2013 BBM Rookie Edition (#42). There are two variations of this card, one depicts him in a pitching pose, while the other has him pointing his bat. Ohtani's number, position, team, and name can be found at the bottom of both singles, while the rookie card stamp is at the top.
Neither variation commands a premium and they're not difficult to uncover in top form. In fact, all 16 of the pitching pose cards submitted have received PSA 10 grades, while 16 of the 19 "batting" cards have garnered the same grade.
2013 Calbee Exciting Rookie (#D-07). Calbee is considered the Topps of Japanese brands, but Ohtani's first regular issue Calbee single didn't appear until 2014. He is, however, featured in the company's 2013 Exciting Rookie subset.
"It's my favorite Ohtani rookie card because it's a two-photo card with the left side showing him pitching and the right side featuring him hitting," said Saba. "So they're sort of highlighting the fact that he was a two-way player right out of high school - that's why I love the card."
There are two PSA 10 examples.
2013 Bandai Owners League 02 #74. This refractor-like card was designed to be part of a game and offers an action shot of Ohtani hitting. The front also flaunts the Fighters' team logo, name, and game information.
2013 Japanese Certified Autograph Cards. In his research, McNeely has identified 11, 2013 Japanese certified autograph Ohtani cards. Most of these are extremely limited (many #/10) and command large sums.
"I've seen a couple of those pop up on eBay and they're going for thousands of dollars," said Saba.
For example, a 2013 Hokkaido Nippon-Ham-Fighters team set (Pitching version) certified autograph card (#04/10) fetched $3,800.99 on eBay in December 2017.
2017 Bowman Chrome Mega Box (World Baseball Classic) Prospects #BCP31. Ohtani planned to play for Japan in the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC) before being sidelined by an ankle injury. A WBC card was, nevertheless, issued and it could be pulled from 2017 Bowman Chrome Prospects Mega Box packs that were available exclusively at Target stores in the U.S.
This card exhibits Ohtani in a pitching motion. There are also limited edition refractor versions that command significantly more than the base card.
For more information on Shohei Ohtani trading cards, please visit https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/#13baseball-cards.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of February 2018.