Can Angels’ sluggers Justin Upton and Shohei Ohtani rebound from poor 2020 seasons?
Offense wasn’t the Angels’ biggest problem last year.
They ranked ninth in the major leagues in runs, 10th in homers, 12th in on-base-plus-slugging and 13th in batting average.
“As a group, we did pretty well,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We made contact. We had a great on-base percentage, we scored runs. We did a lot of good things.”
But for a team that spent the offseason upgrading on the margins — hopeful that increased pitching depth, veteran presence and fundamentals execution can translate into enough additional wins for a playoff push — two familiar faces could be key to the lineup in 2021.
Ohtani not only suffered a forearm injury that limited him to just two starts as a pitcher, but he also began 13 for 79 at the plate (.165 average) over his first 20 games with 22 strikeouts and only four home runs and 11 RBIs.
Upton was even more sluggish early, batting .109 in his first 13 games before being told by Maddon he would no longer be an everyday starter.
Major League Baseball is slightly deadening the ball this season amid a six-year surge of home runs. Not surprisingly, pitchers and managers welcome the move.
In a normal season, those small sample sizes could have been overcome. Both players would have still had months to figure out their swings.
But MLB’s shortened 60-game schedule in 2020 felt more like a 100-yard sprint. For players who stumbled out of the blocks, it almost didn’t matter how well they finished. There simply wasn’t enough time to fully salvage their campaigns.
“The guys that got off to slow starts were like, ‘Man, we only have six weeks to right the ship’ or however long it was,” Upton said Tuesday, speaking with reporters for the first time this spring. “You start to press a little bit. With the shortened season, I think a lot of the guys who started out slow, if you give them the extra four months that we usually have, they kind of get back to themselves. But you just didn’t have that time last year.”
Both Upton and Ohtani rebounded slightly down the stretch. Upton hit .248 with seven home runs in his final 29 games, reclaiming regular playing time while pushing his on-base-plus-slugging back over the .700 mark by the end of the season. Ohtani batted .216 over his final 24 games, finishing with a .190 average.
Their manager believes that, with a full 162-game slate, bigger upswings could have occurred. After all, Upton has hit more than 25 home runs eight times in his career. He and Ohtani combined for 52 home runs and 146 RBIs as recently as 2018.
“The guys that did not have the greatest [seasons] didn’t have those other four months to right themselves,” Maddon said, adding: “That’s why baseball’s 162 [games]. That’s why the numbers matter.”
The Angels are hoping for improvements from both players this year.
Upton, 33, is coming off a healthy winter in which he said he “got to go through my full process” and stayed in constant communication with Angels hitting coach Jeremy Reed to build off the strides he made during the second half of last season.
“Being 100% healthy this year, having a normal offseason, I feel like I’m back into a rhythm that I’m accustomed to,” Upton said.
Also coming off his first healthy offseason in several years, Ohtani added weight and incorporated live batting practice into his winter routine, something he said he did during his career in Japan. The 26-year-old left-handed hitter focused on keeping his back foot more firmly planted and “feeling strong,” something he said he and Angels coaches noticed he struggled with last season after he underwent left knee surgery in September 2019.
New Angels general manager Perry Minasian bolstered the roster during the offseason, but did not add a high-priced free agent or make a blockbuster trade.
“He was spinning off the ball bad, he was just really over-rotating,” Maddon said. “The guy’s got exceptional hands, he’s exceptional in the middle part of the field and left-center, and he wasn’t giving himself a chance to do that.”
After his first live batting practice of the spring Tuesday, Ohtani told Japanese media that staying back on that left foot allowed him to see the ball better, laying off pitches outside of the strike zone and making good contact on those over the plate.
“Everything is all good now,” Ohtani said through his interpreter.
The Angels are counting on it. After six seasons without a playoff appearance, a resurgence from Ohtani and Upton could give their lineup the boost it needs.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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