How Shohei Ohtani's baseball gear has evolved to suit his playstyle
TOKYO -- This MLB season's American League MVP will be announced on Nov. 18 (Nov. 19 Japan time). Among the three finalists, the favorite to win the award is the Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani, 27, who has wowed fans the world over with his prodigious skills both in the batter's box and on the pitcher's mound. But part of the secret to the Japanese star's game is his equipment, including the bats and cleats he uses.
During the previous offseason, Ohtani approached an official at one of his sponsors, the sports equipment maker Asics Corp., about a bat model that could both strike the ball with greater precision and crush it further.
Until then, he had used a bat with a slenderer barrel. To fatten up its sweet spot, the bat was made thicker from the head to around where the logo is at its center. What prompted the change was the pitching style in MLB: heavy on fastballs with a lot of movement to avoid hard contact. Thickening the bat meant that even if the batter made poor contact, he could get the ball into the air.
The bat's materials have also been changed from the Japanese ash (aodamo), conducive to muscling out hits, to a harder birch that gives a hitter the leeway to slug the ball right back. Yuma Komoto, the company's head of equipment development for Ohtani, told the Mainichi Shimbun it was a bold change: "We'd never had a year with big changes like these before." What led Ohtani to do it was the confidence he felt after spending three years in the majors.
The move has led to success. While Ohtani's batting average this season was .257, his home run total soared. The Japanese star blasted 46 in 2021, compared to 22 -- his previous MLB best --in his first season.
Apart from his bats, Ohtani's other baseball equipment is also evolving year on year.
When he was pitching for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Ohtani would switch his shoes depending on whether he was pitching. When on the mound, the toe of his right pitcher's shoe, which kept contact with the ground, was protected with leather. At other times he wore position players' shoes. But by the time it was decided in December 2017 that Ohtani would make the jump to MLB, cleats that could be used for both his roles had been made.
The soles of standard cleats have uneven raised parts, but from 2020 there has been greater emphasis on avoiding loss of balance when players stand on one leg, and the shoes improved by getting flatter soles. As the changes have mounted, so the design has gotten closer to Ohtani's ideal.
When he was with the Fighters, Ohtani requested the development of a guard he could use when hitting to protect his right hand, his pitching hand. In the event of a pitch hitting the batter, the guard's resin material dampens the impact, and while originally the equipment was only used to protect the back of the hand, since arriving in the U.S. Ohtani has requested it be made larger so it can cover his wrist, too.
According to Komoto, who has supported the two-way player since his first year as a pro, when the company proposes new equipment to Ohtani, he always tries it out and gives clear feedback, like "this is good" and "this isn't quite right."
"Although he has firm principles, he recognizes when something of quality is good with a very level view. That stance seems to be at work in his play, too. If he were to come to us and say he wants to play in a different way next year, we'd like to support him with new equipment," Komoto said.
(Japanese original by Takumi Hosoya, Sports News Department)