Last Time, It Was Ichiro—Why Ohtani Is Indispensable for Japan to Regain the WBC Title

For Japan’s professional baseball, 2022 marked a year when stadiums lifted capacity limitations and moves to exit the COVID pandemic finally began rolling in full swing.

By Yasushi Washida


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For Japan’s professional baseball, 2022 marked a year when stadiums lifted capacity limitations and moves to exit the COVID pandemic finally began rolling in full swing.

Yet, the two years of restriction have weighed on, and the league attendance total of the 12 teams was just 21,071,180. This is 20 percent less than 26,536,962 in 2019, when fan turnout continued to climb and hit a record high. So, in 2023, how can the baseball community recover the 20 percent loss, and add more on top of that? That is when the real breakout comes into view.

To give the much-needed boost, high expectations are on the fifth World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March 2023, just before the season opening.

High Hopes on Shohei Otani as the “Next Ichiro”

In 2006 and 2009, Japan had won two straight titles for the first and second WBC. The WBC gained wide recognition, not only among baseball fans but across the nation, as a tournament for deciding the world’s number one. The driving force behind Samurai Japan’s victory was Ichiro Suzuki, then an outfielder at the Seattle Mariners.

At the first WBC, under Head Coach Sadaharu Oh (now Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks chairman), Ichiro led Team Japan to the world championship. The second time round, he got a winning clutch hit in the final against South Korea, leaving a lasting impression on the Japanese people. In hindsight, the successive titles contributed significantly to promoting baseball in Japan, such as the commercialization of Samurai Japan.

That is why the Japanese baseball community, seeking a fresh start after the COVID pandemic, desperately longed to regain the WBC championship in 2023. That is where pitcher Shohei Otani of the Los Angeles Angels comes in, expected to be the “next Ichiro.”

In 2022, Ohtani became the first player since Babe Ruth to achieve double-digit wins and home runs, and the first in MLB history to qualify statistically as both a hitter and a pitcher. Right up to the end of the season, he engaged in a heated competition with the Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge for the American League MVP and stirred up excitement on both sides of the Pacific.

“Of course, I’d love to play. Last time, I had an injury, and I couldn’t join the WBC, but if I’m given the chance, I’m inclined to play.”

Having said so for years, Ohtani became the first Japanese MLB player to express his intention to play in the 2023 WBC.

His trade issue, said to have been the biggest obstacle for joining the WBC, was settled as Ohtani signed a $30 million (about 4.343 billion yen) one-year contract with the Angels late in the season. Angels General Manager Perry Minasian said, “I’m not standing in anybody’s way, and Shohei has earned the right if he wants to play…… It’s great for the game. There’s a responsibility when you have these jobs to promote the game. It’s a game I’ve loved my entire life. And so for him to be on that stage and for me to say no, I’m not doing that.”

As for Ohtani playing two-way, which is a physical burden before the season, “I am not worried about Shohei Ohtani,” Minasian said. “He’s been in Arizona for a while now. He’s preparing for the season. He’s doing everything he needs to do to be ready to go when the bell rings. He’ll get the proper work in when he needs it. He’s the least of my concerns.”

Meanwhile, it is true some are worried about his WBC appearance as a pitcher.

“The Damage Accumulates,” Worries the Experienced Pitcher


“It (playing in the WBC) is enough of a burden, and the damage accumulates,” says Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres, who followed Ohtani in announcing to take part in the WBC.

For the fourth WBC, then the New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (now with the Rakuten Golden Eagles) had declined the offer. Playing in the WBC requires preparing the arm at an unusually rapid pace, and the pitcher must throw at full strength by March. Darvish had warned we may miss seeing Ohtani play day to day in the regular season if he pushes too hard in the WBC.

Even if Ohtani does play two-way in the WBC, he will probably take the mound once in Japan during the first two rounds, and once in the U.S. during the semifinals and final, with strict limits on pitches. So, he is unlikely to play two-way at full capacity.

Yet, for Samurai Japan to recover the top spot in the world, what is badly needed is Ohtani the batter, rather than the pitcher.

In the third and fourth WBC tournaments, Puerto Rico and the U.S. beat Team Japan in the semifinals. An analysis of the games shows that the pitching staff were able to suppress the batting opponents to some extent, but the team’s failure to score was the main reason for defeat.

Although Two-Way at Full Capacity Is Asking Too Much……

For Japanese pitchers in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the WBC could be a showcase for playing in the Majors, and competent players have little problem joining Team Japan. This time, pitchers like the ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto of Orix Buffaloes, Rōki Sasaki of Lotte Marines, and Shōta Imanaga of DeNA BayStars, who are already good enough for the Major League, will probably make the roster.
Meanwhile, the biggest issue on the batting side is the lack of power hitters. Of course, there are players like the infielder Munetaka Murakami of the Yakult Swallows and others to look forward to. On top of that, if the batter Ohtani, a top-class slugger in the Major League, joins the lineup, it would instantly solve the lack of scoring power Japan has suffered in the last two tournaments.

Ohtani and Murakami, joined by outfielders Seiya Suzuki of the Chicago Cubs and Yuki Yanagita of the Softbank Hawks, would make a powerful batting lineup on a par with the U.S. or the Latin American teams. That is when Japan can envision recovering the long-coveted WBC championship.

Although two-way in full capacity is asking too much, if the batter Ohtani joins the lineup, it would have enough impact for Samurai Japan to aim for world number one spot.

For the 2023 WBC, big names have announced playing for Team USA from early on. Outfielder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, Ohtani’s teammate and claimed to be the MLB’s best batter, will serve as the captain, joined by superstars like infielder Paul Goldschmidt of the St. Louis Cardinals , outfielder Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and infielder Nolan Arenado of the St. Louis Cardinals. Former champions like Dominica and Puerto Rico are also sure to have powerful rosters featuring MLB players.

If Samurai Japan defeats such a dream team and wins the world championship, the surging enthusiasm would become a booster for Japanese baseball, making the year 2023 a turnaround season from the COVID crisis.

This is a translation of the Japanese article published on Bunshun Online on January 9, 2023.


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