Japanese baseball phenomena Shohei Ohtani had a dream of playing Major League Baseball. The dream was realized on Valentine’s Day this year, when Ohtani rolled into Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Los Angeles Angels’ spring training facility, according to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN, “with his boundless talent, effortless charisma and an ambitious agenda.”
On the mound and with the bat three weeks into spring training, Ohtani is having the kind of spring you would expect, knocking off some rust here and there and having workman-like performances.
Spring training is a time for experimenting, and the Angels are running the biggest experiment in the league this year with Ohtani pitching and, then, between starts on the mound, hitting in the designated hitter spot, as the Angels try to figure out how best to use him.
In 2016, Ohtani had a breakout season as a hitter. In 104 games and 382 plate appearances, he hit 22 home runs, 18 doubles, 67 RBI, batted .322 with an OBP of .416, scored 65 runs and had seven stolen bases. He won the Best Nine award as the designated hitter.
Ohtani was also dominant on the mound. In 21 games, he had a career low ERA at 1.86. He had a 10-4 record, struck out 174 batters in 140 innings with four complete games and one shutout. He also won the Best Nine award as a pitcher and won the Pacific League MVP.
Due to a right ankle injury suffered in the 2016 Japan Series, Ohtani did not have a repeat of his spectacular ’16 season in 2017. In 2017, he played in just 65 games, however, he hit .332 with eight homers and 31 RBIs while going 3-2, with a 3.20 ERA with 29 strikeouts on the mound.
In the offseason in 2017, Ohtani had surgery to repair his ankle.
Ohtani made it clear after the season that he wanted to make the transition to Major League Baseball and, as Tyler Kepner of the New York Times wrote, Ohtani:
Was so eager to play in the majors that he left Japan before he could seek his true value as a free agent, a decision that cost him a nine-figure contract…The Angels paid $20 million to the Fighters for his rights, but had less than $2.5 million to spend on Ohtani, who will make the league minimum salary of $545,000 this season.
In his Cactus League debut on February 24, he pitched to a split-squad Milwaukee team with limited success, according Dayn Perry and R.J. Anderson of CBS Sports; he pitched 1 1/3 innings, giving up two hits, two runs (one earned), a walk, two strikeouts, and a loud home run to Keon Broxton. Ohtani also threw a wild pitch, too.
On March 2, he pitched to a “B” team of the Milwaukee Brewers, using fastballs, sliders, curveballs and splitters. He had eight strikeouts in 12 batters. Tyler Kepner described his outing:
Working only from the stretch, Ohtani yanked some sliders into the dirt and struggled with his landing spot on the mound. But he felt comfortable by his third inning, when he struck out the side in order.
Ohtani himself said after his March 2 outing that he was satisfied with it. He felt like he was “in the zone with all my pitches compared to last time…I did take a step forward.”
With the bat, Ohtani has likewise had limited success so far, but is hitting the ball hard. In his debut against San Diego, he singled and walked twice and two days later on, he went 0-3 against Colorado.
In his most recent DH role on March 5 against the Cincinnati Reds, he hit a long line drive that looked to fall in until Billy Hamilton made the catch with an acrobatic dive to rob Ohtani of a base hit.
2018 promises to be a bounce back year for Ohtani and he appears to be fully healthy to take on the challenges of both coming back from the ankle surgery and transitioning into a new league.
Along the way he’ll encounter a myriad of challenges, such as a slightly bigger ball, and longer road trips across time zones, but given the challenges he’s already met and surpassed just getting to this point, no doubt he’ll meet each challenge with success as he gains much-needed experience in spring training.
Ohtani will be the designated hitter today against the Dodgers.