Word is that Shohei Ohtani is hitting baseballs with the force of an All-Star in midseason form, but the promising reports of his recovery are more rumors than established facts at this point.
Ohtani is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere this spring, the ever-present Japanese media a visible reminder of his presence while he works out exclusively behind closed doors.
The 20 or so reporters here to cover Ohtani assemble every morning by a railing in the right field corner of Tempe Diablo Stadium that overlooks the adjacent parking lot. The crowd watches Ohtani make the short walk to the indoor batting cages or weight room, which are on the other side of the outfield wall, and waits for him to re-emerge from the structures.
Three television cameras recorded Ohtani’s 300-foot treks to and from the batting cages Saturday; several photographers snapped pictures.
Before the Angels opened their exhibition season with a 10-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Saturday, Ohtani batted off a tee for only the second time since his reconstructive elbow operation nearly five months earlier. The American League rookie of the year as a two-way player last season, he will be limited to hitting this year. He won’t pitch until 2020.
The reclusive nature of his workouts has created a sense of uncertainty, with the Angels providing a conservative timeline that projects him to be game-ready in May. Ohtani said he thought he could graduate to soft-toss drills in the next week or so, but declined to make any guesses beyond that.
Ohtani was the source of a different kind of uncertainty last year, when observers wondered whether he belonged in the major leagues. His earned-run average in the exhibition season was 27.00. He batted .125.
His self-assurance was shaken enough to where he solicited advice from countryman Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners. Suzuki offered to coach him over a video call, but Ohtani instead showed up at Suzuki’s rental property with a bat in hand. More than the technical pointers he received, Ohtani treasured how Suzuki told him to have more faith in his talent, as well as the experience he gained over five professional seasons in his homeland.
There is no crisis in confidence this spring, even if Ohtani is headed into the unknown again. In only 367 plate appearances last season, he batted .285 with 22 home runs and 61 runs batted in.
“More than confidence, it’s feeling acclimated, knowing the opposing pitchers, knowing how they are going to attack me,” he said in Japanese.
He is clearly more comfortable in this environment, which was entirely new to him last spring. When the clubhouse opened to the media Saturday, Ohtani was huddled with Mike Trout, the two stars giggling as they looked down on their phones. Shortly after, Ohtani received another visitor at his locker in shortstop Andrelton Simmons. More smiles. More laughs.
“He’s funny,” Simmons said. “He’ll throw a little poke here and there. He’s a guy who likes to compete so whenever he beats you at something, he’ll talk some smack. He can take a joke, too, so that’s always nice.”
Manager Brad Ausmus said he has made it a point to check in daily with Ohtani because sidelined players often feel as if they are not part of the team. But Ohtani doesn’t seem to have that problem. Simmons marveled at how Ohtani has remained upbeat.
“He’s taking it really well, I think,” Simmons said. “He looks in good spirits. I’m surprised he’s doing that great. I don’t know how he does it.”
Here, too, experience has helped. Ohtani was initially diagnosed with a damaged ligament in his throwing elbow shortly after a start against the Kansas City Royals in June. Shocked and depressed, he rarely left his apartment over the next week. But his outlook became more optimistic once he accepted the possibility of a major elbow operation.
He returned to the lineup as a hitter in early July and responded by hitting 16 home runs and driving in 41 runs over the remainder of the season. He maintained his offensive momentum through a failed late-season comeback to the mound. When the Angels opened Cactus League play on Saturday without him, Ohtani wasn’t down.
“I figured this would happen, so I don’t especially feel that way,” Ohtani said. “Since it was decided I would undergo surgery, I almost didn’t have any of that. I haven’t been depressed or anything. I’ve progressed smoothly up to this point.”
Ohtani figures he’ll make more than the 367 plate appearance he made as a rookie because he won’t be pitching once a week as he did last year. The increased focus on hitting should improve his offensive numbers.
“There is no guarantee of growth,” he said. “I think playing in every game will be tough, as will having to continue to play during a slump” instead of taking a three-day break from hitting to make a start as a pitcher.
He added: “I’m looking forward to all of that.”