Shohei Ohtani possesses the physical gifts to dominate the major leagues on the mound and at the plate. The Angels’ Japanese star proved capable of it for 2½ months in 2018, the year he debuted as the first true two-way player MLB had seen in decades and was voted the top rookie in the American League.
Can he bat at least .300 for a season, a traditional hallmark of a distinguished hitter?
Angels manager Joe Maddon challenged Ohtani to meet that lofty goal.
“I still like using that number,” Maddon said. “I don’t want to say, ’Your OPS is going to be .850.’ I get where [advanced statistics are] important but it’s not groovy to a hitter. If you think of yourself as a .300 hitter, you think you’re pretty hot.”
Ohtani’s poor production through his first 24 plate appearances of the exhibition season does not suggest he is ready to tackle the task. He has only two hits, both singles, and has struck out 11 times this spring.
But Ohtani, who began his historic rookie campaign in 2018 with only four spring-training hits, is not worried.
“I’m not sure of the exact number, but I’ve never had a good track record in spring training going back to my [Nippon Professional Baseball] days,” Ohtani said through a team official Wednesday. “It’s not that I don’t care or don’t put any weight into my spring-training stats but that’s just how it’s been. This thought process was not by design. It just became natural to me over the years.”
Ohtani, 25, has been experimenting with reincorporating a leg kick in his swing. He had ditched it in favor of a subtle toe tap when he struggled to catch up to high velocity in his first major league spring training. He decided after struggling to put the ball in the air last season that he needed to improve his timing at the plate. Lifting his leg, which he had done throughout his career, seemed like the natural solution.
Ohtani isn’t willing to concede defeat. He successfully used a leg kick while playing professionally in Japan, where he batted .286 with 70 doubles, four triples and 48 home runs from 2013 to 2017.
Ohtani endured a severe power outage last season, hitting only four homers after the All-Star break. He struck the ball with extreme force — his 92.8-mph exit velocity was higher than all but four other major leaguers — but his launch angle decreased. He had an average launch angle of 12.3 degrees in 2018, when he hit 22 homers in 326 at-bats. That number wilted to 6.8 degrees in 2019, when he homered 18 times in 384 at-bats.
Now that he has two seasons of experience facing major league pitching, a mechanical tweak could help Ohtani unlock the prodigious production Maddon envisions.
“He’s just a tremendous athlete,” Maddon said. “I know when when he gets his timing down, the ball’s gonna go far because it comes off hot.”
Outfield prospect Brandon Marsh is ready to return to the Angels lineup after being sidelined since Feb. 25 because of a strained right elbow. He was scheduled to play against the Oakland Athletics before Wednesday’s game was rained out. The game was not rescheduled. ... The Angels next play Friday at 6 p.m. against the San Francisco Giants. Julio Teheran will make the start at Tempe Diablo Stadium.