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By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Shohei Ohtani has proved this year that the hype ahead of his MLB debut in 2018 was not overblown but, while the Japanese two-way standout has arrived as a must-see player, marketing experts say he is not yet the global star the league craves.
The 27-year-old Ohtani, because of his ability to pitch and hit at an elite level, has long been compared to Babe Ruth, who died in 1948 aged 53 and is still considered by many to be the best baseball player of all time.
Ohtani's wide-ranging skills will be on full display on Tuesday in Denver when he becomes the first player in history to pitch and hit in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, giving him a unique chance to put his stamp on the Midsummer Classic.
For an appetizer, Ohtani agreed to be one of eight players in the Home Run Derby on Monday in Denver at Colorado Rockies' Coors Field, the most hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball.
But while Ohtani is a multinational marketing wonder whose popularity in Japan is inescapable, experts say it would be premature to consider him a global brand.
"The thing with Ohtani right now is he is a performance brand, he is not a personal brand," Ken Wong, marketing professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"No one has established what he's about yet and that's really where his greatest opportunity lies if he can take his performance on the field and extend that into personal characteristics."
Despite the expectations placed on his shoulders, Ohtani has taken America's national pastime by storm this year.
After staying off the mound for nearly two full seasons following Tommy John surgery in 2018 to repair an injured elbow ligament, Ohtani has returned with a vengeance in 2021.
As a pitcher, Ohtani is 4-1 with a 3.49 earned-run average and 87 strikeouts in 67 innings. As a hitter, Ohtani leads the major leagues with 33 home runs and ranks among the leaders in runs, RBI and slugging percentage.
Despite his on-field success with the Los Angeles Angels and wild popularity in Japan, Ohtani has not filled a crucial void for MLB which lacks a true global star like Argentina soccer player Lionel Messi or the NBA's LeBron James.
But MLB is well aware of the marketing potential Ohtani has and on Monday debuted a 30-second promotional spot centered around him called "It's Sho-Time" that celebrates his historic first half of the season.
According to MLB, whose home run contest will be televised in Japan live on terrestrial TV for the first time in at least 25 years, the 10 most-watched games in Japan this year have all been Angels games and Ohtani is the most-searched player on the MLB Film Room video tool.
Some experts say the regionalization of baseball, MLB's inability to connect with a younger audience like the NBA, a language barrier between Ohtani and an English-speaking audience and the fact that he plays for a mediocre team are among the factors keeping him from assuming that mantle.
"He has the potential (to be a global star), but it's too big a label to put on him right now. Largely it's baseball's problem," Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, told Reuters.
"It's a regional game, he's playing for a team that's middle of the pack, that generally doesn't make the playoffs - which is kind of where you gain more fans and more casual fans.
"And there's a language barrier... it's a little tougher being a foreign-born player trying to make your mark in the United States where we tend to like them homegrown."
Just last week, Ohtani broke Hideki Matsui's record for home runs in a major league season by a Japanese player when he hit his 32nd homer.
Incredibly, Ohtani set the record in his 81st game of the season while Matsui played in 162 games with the New York Yankees when he registered the previous mark in 2004.
"He exceeds what is considered conventional for a major league player, and there is no one else like him," Matsui said in a statement after Ohtani broke his record.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)