10 years later, everything is different
In 1994, Shintaro Fujinami and Shohei Ohtani, both within a year of each other, were recognized as the next big thing in Japanese professional baseball during their high school years. Up until their high school years, it was hard to tell who was better. Based on their immediate results, many critics were in favor of Fujinami over Ohtani.
Both had physiques that were expected to break the Asian barrier, and both were known for their ability to throw fastballs of over 150 kilometers per hour. However, once they entered the professional ranks, the two players’ fortunes began to diverge. While Ohtani began to realize his dream of becoming a two-way player, Fujinami’s graph went downhill due to severe injuries. The gap between the two players began to widen. So did the public’s favorability ratings.
Ohtani’s success story is well known. He chose to challenge himself in the major leagues ahead of the 2018 season. At the time, he was under 25 and an international amateur. The bonus pool made it difficult for him to earn a large salary, but he took a chance and rose to the occasion. He made his major league debut in a Los Angeles Angels uniform amid a fierce scramble for his services, with some jokingly claiming that all 30 major league clubs were in on the deal.
His pitching and hitting struggles included elbow surgery in 2018, but in 2021, when he really hit his stride, he accomplished what many thought was impossible in the majors. As a pitcher, he had all the qualities of a 10-win ace, and as a hitter, he had all the qualities of a 40-homer slugger. As a result, he became a league icon, winning the American League Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 2021 and 2023.
Fujinami, on the other hand, struggled to stay out of the swamp. Even in Hanshin, he was treated as a troublemaker. After barely escaping the swamp of injuries, he regained some of his old form, but it was hard to see him playing at his best, even in Japan. Ahead of the 2023 season, he signed a one-year deal with Oakland to try and make it to the majors, but he soon ran into trouble.
Fujinami began the season as a member of Oakland’s starting rotation, but was demoted to the bullpen after struggling. In 34 appearances (seven starts) for Oakland, he struggled to an 8.57 ERA. His performance improved slightly after Baltimore acquired him in a trade, noting Fujinami’s velocity and stuff. However, his post-trade ERA (4.85) was actually worse than the major league average.
Side by side, the two players were eligible for free agency after the season. Predictably, the odds were stacked against them. Ohtani hit the jackpot, signing a 10-year, $700 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was the first $700 million contract in major league history, surpassing the previous record held by Mike Trout (12-year total of $426 million).
Fujinami, on the other hand, is still looking for a job in Major League Baseball. It’s been so quiet that he hasn’t even been mentioned in the local media. He’s struggling in the market because of his poor performance last year. The market will open up once the senior bullpen arms that remain on the market are gone, but there are no guarantees of a major league contract. The two rivals that thrilled Japan a decade ago are now far apart.