Yakyu shonen — you may not know the words but you know the type. He’s Roy Hobbs, battling back from a gunshot wound to rip the cover off the ball. He’s Henry Skrimshander, perfecting the art of fielding and going from Westish College to the first round of the draft. He’s Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, taking the sandlot games just a bit more seriously than anyone else.
The “yakyu shonen,” literally translated to “baseball boy,” has long existed as a fictional prodigy, who combines outsized talent with a desire to live, breath, and sometimes die for baseball. But with Shohei Ohtani already dominating the major leagues this year, the myth of the yakyu shonen has left the realms of Hollywood fantasy for Anaheim’s reality.
Ohtani’s success, while captivating and unmeasurably beneficial for the sport, does leave one question for the Reds to ponder. The organization already has a yakyu shonen waiting in the wings; will it be able to develop him or is the Reds two-way star Hunter Greene destined to be just another unrealized dream?
Consider for a moment that when speaking of Shohei Ohtani or of Hunter Greene, sportswriters consistently reach for the same metaphor. “The ‘Babe Ruth of Japan,’” writes The Atlantic’s Robert O’Connell of Ohtani. “That’s what happens when people compare you to Babe Ruth,” Bleacher Report’s Joon Lee echoes in his profile of Greene.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t other descriptors for the two of them. Lee also cites Lebron James when describing Greene and The Ringer’s Zach Kram notes that Ohtani’s Japanese numbers are “essentially combining Noah Syndergaard and Paul Goldschmidt into one remarkable player.”
Kram also uses the term “a baseball unicorn” in regards to the fabled two-way player, keeping with the narrative that these types of players, these yakyu shonen, can only exist in our collective imagination.
In this case though, a different horned animal might make a better metaphor. Two-way players more resemble the West African Black Rhino, a breed once prevalent but hunted to death for its valuable ivory horn. Two-way players aren’t a thing of the past — just look at how many are in the college ranks — but the professional system has driven them to extinction. The logic goes, as MLB.com writer Jim Callis put it, “Would you rather have somebody who’s maybe good two ways or great one way?”
The Reds seem content to settle for the latter in Greene’s case. Every statement coming from the front office points to the organization telling Greene to focus on pitching and give up his bat. But Greene could have been a first round pick with his bat alone and profiles much the same way Ohtani does: easy power and easier heat. So given Ohtani’s quick success (and Brendan McKay’s limited two-way success in the Rays system), will the Reds reconsider their options?
Let’s focus on Ohtani for a second. As fun as it is to assume that this man-child with the body of Paul Bunyan and the face of a prepubescent elementary schooler emerged at the height of his powers from the Japanese hills, that’s not quite what happened.
Ohtani grew up in the rural town of Oshu, so the Japanese hills part rings a little true, but the wunderkid did have his fair share of struggles before coming stateside. He missed his 11th-grade season for a hip injury, returning his senior year throwing 99 mph. Professionally with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Ohtani struggled at the plate his first three years, posting .660, .842, .628 OPS lines respectively. He adjusted more quickly from the mound, dropping his yearly ERA below 3.00 and pumping his K/9 above 10.0 after just one season. In his last campaign before coming to the Angels, Ohtani battled two injuries, leading to even further speculation that any American team would have to make him a pitcher-only to keep him healthy.
When Ohtani left the Fighters, he had a career .859 OPS over five seasons with an ERA of 2.51. But even those gaudy numbers don’t tell the true story of his two-way stardom.
Ohtani is a yakyu shonen in the truest sense of the phrase — he does nothing other than baseball. According to Dylan Hernandez of the LA Times, “If [Ohtani] has interests outside baseball (besides video games), they remain safely guarded secrets. Asked what he likes to do when he’s not playing baseball, he paused before replying, ‘Work out.’”
During his NPB career, Ohtani chose to continue living in the Fighter’s dormitories because he wanted to be closer to the field. He has expressed no strong interest in money or relationships or anything that most people would associate with quality of life. He just plays.
Ohtani first had the chance to come to the States after high school, but no team wanted him as a two-way player. The Dodgers in particular were looking at him as a pitcher, and according to Ohtani’s high school coach, he wanted to make the move. Then the Fighters made him a unique offer: Keep playing both sides of the ball. The rest is history. Ohtani stayed in Japan and, given the time and patience to mature, emerged as the best two-way player in over a century.
It’s an inspiring story of pioneering and bucking convention to redefine what’s possible. It’s also getting a potential sequel much sooner than expected.
“’Girls who like pictures from a year ago and then DM me?’ Hunter asks. ‘I can’t be a part of that shit, no matter how hot they are.’ He has no interest in dating, at least not until he establishes himself in the majors. ‘I just don’t have time,’ he says.” — Joon Lee, Bleacher Report
If a yakyu shonen doesn’t concern himself with matters outside of baseball, then Hunter Greene certainly fits the bill. He doesn’t mess with girls, and he kept a low profile at school, eating lunch with either the team or his catcher to avoid drama. He’s a kid on a mission, and it ends in Cincinnati.
But if the Reds want the next Shohei Ohtani, Babe Ruth, LeBron James, Noah Syndergaard + Paul Goldschmidt combo, they’re going to have to take a risk. Hunter Greene profiles uncannily similar to how Ohtani did as a prospect. Rather than me just telling you how they’re similar, let’s play the age-old Player A vs. Player B game:
Player A: 6’5”, 215 pounds, 102.5 top fastball speed, 70 grade power, 60 grade speed
Player B: 6’4”, 197 pounds, 101 top fastball speed, 55 grade power, 50 grade speed
When looking at those numbers, keep in mind that Ohtani’s prospect report was put together when he was five years Greene’s senior. Player A of course is Ohtani, or maybe Superman, you decide really. Player B is our own Hunter Greene.
Greene can fill out his frame with more muscle, which could close the gap on fastball speed and power grade though anything more than what he is already would just be an added luxury. Ohtani had five years of professional baseball to figure out his hit tools; Greene so far has had 30 at-bats.
What Greene’s two-way status really boils down to is are the Reds willing to take the risk of unearthing someone who’s good two ways at the expense of a exceptional pitcher. And I don’t want to minimize that risk, which is greater for Greene than it is for Ohtani or even McKay.
A natural shortstop, Greene would be more susceptible to injury in the field than an outfielder like Ohtani or first baseman like McKay. Also, short requires a much more athletic player, which necessitates more practice time and more workouts and more training, all at the expense of the practice and the workouts and training he could be doing for pitching. The Reds also lack the luxury the Angels have of using Ohtani as a DH, which gets his bat in the lineup four days a week without having to worry about a fielding injury or any sort of fielding practice.
If the Reds choose to ignore those risks and allow Greene to go two ways, his development would likely delay his Major League arrival date as well. Right now, Greene as a pitcher, should everything go according to plan, will be Major League ready sometime in 2020. If he tries to hit, that date would easily be pushed to 2022, so he can spend more time figuring out Major League pitching. Remember, Ohtani’s pitching only took one year to adjust to the NPB; his bat took three.
So what would developing Hunter Greene, two-way superstar, actually look like? My guess would be much the same as it did for Ohtani. Greene would spend this year at Dayton, the next two at Pensacola, and then a year and a half to two years at Louisville, assuming his arm and bat play to each level. On a weekly basis, he would pitch once, rest, play the field for three or four days, and then rest again to prepare for his next start. The process would require the Reds to maintain a six-man rotation when he did finally debut, which could be simple considering the glut of young pitchers in the organization or could be impossibly hard considering how many of those arms have consistently struggled.
Would it be worth it? In my opinion, yes because of the superstar potential alone. Shohei Ohtani has already become appointment television for me, and I couldn’t care less about the Angels. Give the Reds their own do-it-all ubermensch, and you’ll never hear another bad word about the organzation out of my mouth.
But will it happen? Absolutely not. Practically, it makes no sense for the Reds to invest their own time and resources into the possibility of a two-way star. The beauty of Ohtani is that he plied his trade across the ocean, at the expense of a NPB team that could afford to let him struggle.
Hunter Greene is a sunk cost for the Reds, and one they need to pan out considering the current state of the organization. Playing any sort of development games with that kind of talent would be foolhardy.
Still, the call of yakyu shonen beckons. And maybe no one understands that better than Greene himself. Just after draft day 2017, Daniel Shiferaw of the Undefeated asked Greene to describe himself as a ballplayer. “‘Man,’ [Greene] said with a smile… ‘I’m a monster.’” A monster, or maybe just the baseball unicorn the Reds need.