Ohtani hopes to hit, pitch way to history
No 2-way stars in majors in decades
TEMPE, Ariz. – As the 40 or so players shuttled from one field to another during the Los Angeles Angels first workout of the spring, it was easy to keep track of Shohei Ohtani.
Just follow the photographers. Between 150-165 news media members, the majority from Japan, attended Ohtani’s afternoon news conference, and most also watched his every step in the morning as the two-way player joined his teammates in a workout that included pitchers’ fielding practice and batting practice.
Wherever Ohtani went, a legion of photographers followed.
This won’t be merely a spring training phenomenon, as much of the baseball community in the USA and Japan is captivated by Ohtani’s attempt to become the first major leaguer in almost a century to pitch and hit on a regular basis.
Japanese fans kept close tabs on the transition to American baseball of such stars as Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Yu Darvish, but Ohtani’s quest takes that attention to a higher echelon.
“We’ve never had that type of player before in Japanese professional baseball,” said Tomonori Maeda, a career .302 hitter over 24 seasons in Japan who’s in town as a TV commentator for a station back home. “Nomo was a pioneer, and then there’s Ichiro, Matsui. But there’s a huge amount of attention on Ohtani because there’s never been a two-way player.”
The constant scrutiny might add an extra burden to an already arduous task that includes adjusting to life in the USA, learning pitchers and hitters in a new league and keeping his skills sharp to play at the game’s top level.
However, watching Ohtani interact with his new teammates despite limited command of the English language, there was little indication the pressure was affecting him.
Ohtani received high-fives after hitting a batting practice home run that ended his group’s round and later chatted with catcher Rene Rivera about the correct pronunciation of the Spanish name Jorge. Last week, Ohtani went on a golf outing with other pitchers.
“Honestly, since my days in Japan, I never really felt the pressure everyone’s been talking about,” Ohtani, 23, said in a hotel ballroom packed with reporters and camera operators. “I just go out there and do my job, help the team win and try to make the fans happy.”
Looking relaxed, smiling often and displaying a sense of humor that didn’t always come through as his responses were interpreted, Ohtani repeatedly said he wouldn’t do much differently in his new environment, probably a wise approach considering his success in Japan made him baseball’s most coveted free agent this offseason.
Signing bonus limitations rendered the pursuit of Ohtani more a recruiting endeavor than a bidding war, and he surprised many observers by turning down the New York Yankees and other suitors to sign with the Angels, receiving a relatively paltry $2.3 million contract. L.A. also had to pay a $20 million posting fee.
It has never been entirely clear why Ohtani picked the Angels, and he didn’t shed much light on that when asked Wednesday.
“I knew someone was going to ask this question,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about why I joined the Angels, but I want you guys to see me as I try to adjust to the team throughout spring training. I think then you’ll find out why I joined the Angels.”
Manager Mike Scioscia said Ohtani won’t work out in the outfield, so the majority of his at-bats figures to come as a designated hitter. Scioscia has also said the club initially plans to go with a six-man rotation, which more closely resembles the pitching frequency Ohtani is used to and might help some Angels starters coming back from injuries.
Even if he handles the attention well, Ohtani still faces the considerable challenge of performing in the majors. He won MVP honors in the Pacific League in 2016 after posting 22 homers and a 1.004 on-base plus slugging percentage while going 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA.
So the talent is there, but can it translate to the big leagues?
“The part people don’t think about is the preparation for hitting,” starting pitcher Matt Shoemaker said.
“Just like us, we have a ton of work between every start with workouts and bullpens, but the hitters are hitting for hours in the cage. Adding that to the pitching routine, it’s a lot of work. But the cool thing is he has a good schedule and he does it well. That’s pretty impressive.”
A group of reporters and photographers follows Shohei Ohtani as he makes his spring training debut on Wednesday.