Last week, Shohei Ohtani did what he always does when he’s healthy: the almost impossible. In a span of three days, Ohtani treated us to a confluence of feats that no other player could accomplish alone. On Wednesday, the 26-year-old launched a 468-foot homer over the batter’s eye in a spring training game against the Rangers.
On Friday, he took the ball in a game against the A’s and got five outs, all on strikeouts, touching 100 (and sitting 96 to 99) mph with his fastball and unleashing a series of devastating splitters, which still looked like one of the sport’s most unhittable pitches.
Shohei Ohtani, Ridiculous Splitter. pic.twitter.com/rtczTlDPUo— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 5, 2021
The spectacle of the same player performing both of those deeds is no less awe-inducing than it was when Ohtani debuted and briefly blew our minds. As CC Sabathia (whose podcast is now part of The Ringer’s network) said last April, “He’s the best baseball player I’ve ever seen in my life. Are you kidding me? Motherfucker can hit a ball 900 feet and throw 99 off the mound. Who else can do that?” The question was rhetorical.
"He's the best baseball player I've ever seen in my life."@CC_Sabathia & @JUST_JUP break down what makes Shohei Ohtani so talented.— R2C2 (@R2C2) April 27, 2020
Watch : https://t.co/tSzG5w9KFd
Listen : https://t.co/p7YcTEW7Gu@MLB_PLAYERS x @uninterrupted pic.twitter.com/nEeeGQ98Oz
In the wake of last week, Ohtani hype has spiked to levels unseen since the spring of 2018. The prospect of Ohtani completing a two-way takeover of MLB seems, somehow, both more and less remote today than it did when the then-23-year-old Japanese phenom signed with the Angels and set out to be baseball’s first true two-way star since Babe Ruth stopped pitching. It was easy to dream on Ohtani’s potential that spring because he had already excelled in dual roles in Japan, most notably during his drool-worthy 2016 campaign for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, when at age 21 he produced a 1.004 OPS in 382 plate appearances as a hitter and a 1.86 ERA in 140 innings as a pitcher. According to DeltaGraphs, a subscription site that publishes sabermetric stats for the Japanese majors, Ohtani was worth 10.2 wins above replacement—equal to Mike Trout’s career high, per FanGraphs—for the Fighters in a 140-game season, somehow managing to be NPB’s second-best hitter by wRC+ (181) and best pitcher by FIP- (59) in the same season. He won the league’s home run derby, broke his own NPB record for fastball velocity by throwing 103, and backed up his heat with nasty secondary stuff.
I wrote then that Ohtani had combined “Noah Syndergaard’s stuff, Clayton Kershaw’s ERA and strikeout rate, and David Ortiz’s OPS,” with speed on the bases to boot. Yet until Ohtani’s talent translated his physical tools into MLB production, his performance across the Pacific would, in the minds of many American evaluators and fans, remain in the realm of the imaginary, or at least the less tangible. Even though stats and scouts alike regarded NPB as the second-highest-level league in the world, Ohtani’s shorter track record as an elite-level hitter, coupled with the power outages other Japanese sluggers had experienced after entering MLB—not to mention the power boosts some marginal MLB hitters had enjoyed upon joining NPB—contributed to doubts that he could hack it as a hitter in MLB, especially while dealing with the demands of fronting a rotation.
Those doubts weren’t limited to Ohtani’s opponents or to less-informed fans. According to a former Angels front-office official, the team’s internal projections heading into 2018 pegged Ohtani as a well-above-average pitcher but a below-average, fourth-outfielder-esque hitter, which wouldn’t make him much use as a DH. From what the Angels could glean at the time, rival front offices saw him similarly, though at least some systems were bigger believers in his bat. “Some of our scouts were a little higher on his hitting, but for the most part we didn’t think he’d be the type of hitter he was,” the official recalls. As Ohtani scuffled in spring training, batting .125/.222/.125 in 32 spring training at-bats, unnamed scouts across the sport dispensed skeptical quotes, and rumors circulated that he might start the season in the minors.
In 2018, he posted top-tier exit speeds and hard-hit rates, and in almost 800 plate appearances over his first two seasons, he batted .286/.351/.531, which made him a top-20 hitter in the game. When he was available, he delivered as advertised on the mound. In one magical week in April 2018, he homered in three straight games as a DH and dominated the playoff-bound A’s for seven innings as a starting pitcher, striking out 12 and allowing only one hit. Together, those outings were worth one win above replacement—half a win as a hitter, and half a win as a pitcher. That week was a small sample, and no guarantee of future success, but it was also proof of Ohtani’s unique nature: Given an infinite number of weeks, no other athlete could have looked as impressive at every facet of the sport. In mid-May of that year, just before he got hurt, Ohtani seemed to be adjusting to the league in ways that would make him even better.
And then the dream died, at least temporarily. That June, he went on the injured list with a Grade 2 sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, which he had already sprained less severely (and received treatment for) prior to the start of that season. After a few weeks off, he returned as a hitter, but he made only one more pitching appearance that season, an abbreviated outing on September 2 that confirmed that the elbow still wasn’t right. On October 1, several weeks before he was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year, Ohtani underwent Tommy John surgery.
In 2019, Ohtani DHed while rehabbing his elbow until mid-September, when he had surgery to repair an ailing knee that had hampered him before he was shut down (especially in the second half of the season, when his power output cratered). And last year, he made only two starts—both brief, ineffective, and marred by diminished velocity and a lack of command—before a flexor strain in his surgically repaired elbow ended his season as a pitcher. Although he DHed for the rest of the season, he managed only a .190/.291/.366 slash line in 175 plate appearances. That poor performance was partly attributable to lousy luck: Ohtani’s expected weighted on-base average, based on his quality of contact, was more than 40 points higher than his actual figure, one of the largest differentials of any hitter last season. But health had something to do with it. According to the former Angels official, the elbow “definitely impacted him offensively,” as did the still-tender knee, which Ohtani has acknowledged wasn’t fully recovered and which prevented him from following his full strength-training routine and using his normal mechanics.
In other words, the unicorn has been hobbled in one way or another ever since his halcyon spring. If we were to focus on the slivers of his stateside seasons in which he was mostly unbothered by injury in at least one of his roles, he would look like one of the best pitchers and hitters in baseball. But those slivers amount to a matter of months over three years (including the pandemic-shortened 2020 schedule). And that’s why the chances of Ohtani having a huge season seem simultaneously more and less substantial than they did three years ago. Back then, he hadn’t proved himself in MLB, but he hadn’t disappointed, either; his future was all limitless possibility. Over the past few seasons, he has suffered failure—not because his skills didn’t justify the hype that preceded and accompanied his debut, but because his body broke down. Ultimately, the result was the same: no two-way wunderkind.
Earlier this winter, even Ohtani sounded down. In November, he told Kyodo News that only one swing last season—the one that produced his homer on September 23—had satisfied him. “It felt like the best I could do was simply get a hit,” Ohtani said. “I was happy to get one, but even when I did, there were few times when everything clicked. Home runs rarely feel like flukes, but that’s how they felt. Something felt wrong.”
Ohtani described feeling “frustrated” and “useless.” He went on to say that while his 2019 had been disappointing, his 2020 had been “more like pathetic,” because he couldn’t pitch or hit the way he wanted to. Until 2019, he said, “I could more or less do the things I wanted to do. I’d pretty much never experienced the feeling of wanting to do something but being completely unable to do it.”
Most of us experience that feeling long before we turn 25. But escaping that experience for so long was what made Ohtani so special. He was the only living person whom baseball couldn’t beat.
Ohtani, who’ll pitch next on Saturday, still hasn’t conceded defeat, and neither have the Angels. Ohtani spent the offseason overhauling himself. He adjusted his diet based on blood-sample analysis. He started squatting heavy again and bulked up to 225 pounds (heavier than he was when he showed up to camp looking swole last spring). He threw bullpen sessions earlier than usual and took batting practice against live pitching, an offseason first for him. He began embracing data and technology to optimize his training and recovery. He visited Driveline Baseball, a popular player-development destination for underperforming pitchers. He tinkered with a changeup. Angels manager Joe Maddon and Ohtani himself have said he feels free, healthy, and happy, released from lingering pain and the drudgery of rehab. “Rather than feel pressure, I want to have fun,” Ohtani told The Athletic last month.
The post-swing hop is when you know Shohei Ohtani is swinging it well. https://t.co/z6MT2NfUIN— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) March 7, 2021
Even if Ohtani isn’t feeling it, though, the pressure is on. Although he’s still inexpensive, he’s entered his arbitration years and will make more money this season than he has in the past three combined. But beyond the financial incentives for the Angels to maximize their return on their growing investment and for Ohtani to establish his value as he approaches free agency, there’s the temporal imperative. Ohtani will turn 27 in July, and another lost season would solidify the belief—present since the spring of 2018, and growing steadily since that summer—that he’s squandering his talent on a futile two-way dream. All of which may mean that this season is Ohtani’s last, best chance to make the best-case scenario come true before he’s forced into a pitcher/batter box.
Almost two and a half years removed from surgery, Ohtani’s elbow should be as robust as it’s ever going to be. But Ohtani has pitched a total of 79 2/3 professional innings over the past four years, dating back to his last NPB season, when he was sidelined by an ankle injury. As was the plan entering 2018 and 2020, the Angels are expected to employ a six-man rotation during the post-pandemic campaign, but Ohtani won’t be restricted to pitching once a week, as he was during his rookie year. Angels GM Perry Minasian stated before spring training that he didn’t anticipate setting any innings limit on Ohtani, and Maddon has said that Ohtani will be “full go” as both a batter and a pitcher.
“He needs to go out there and just be a baseball player without a lot of limitations,” Maddon said last month, noting that he didn’t want to burden Ohtani with a lot of “Shohei rules.” Maddon added, “Shohei Ohtani could be one of the greatest players of his generation, given the opportunity. So I, as a manager, kind of a steward of his situation, I don’t want to tell him what he can or cannot do either.” The Angels have entertained the idea that Ohtani could DH on the days before and/or after he pitches, or even that he might hit on the days he pitches, which would require Maddon to surrender the DH. Maddon hasn’t ruled out using Ohtani in the outfield, either, although that’s unlikely as long as the two-way experiment persists.
Even if Maddon isn’t imposing any limitations, Ohtani’s body might. Granted, blaming Ohtani’s injuries on the way he’s been used could be a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc: Ohtani got hurt while trying to be a two-way player; therefore, he must have gotten hurt because he was trying to be a two-way player. It’s possible that he got hurt because no athlete is invulnerable. Then again, doing double duty can’t be helping his health. “I think people really underestimate the amount of work hitters and pitchers put into getting prepared to play, and the toll that takes on their body,” the former Angels executive says, adding, “Just seeing the physical toll that both take on him, I would guess it’s hard for him to maintain his health doing both.” It won’t get any easier as he ages, so the window in which this arrangement is viewed as viable could be closing.
Up to this point, the Angels haven’t seriously considered trying to persuade Ohtani to specialize as a pitcher or a hitter. When he became available, “He wasn’t going to a team unless they let him do both,” says the former Angels source, who’s still unsure why Ohtani chose to play in Anaheim. Although the team’s 2018 projections may have favored using Ohtani as a starting pitcher exclusively, “you weren’t going to get the player unless you agreed that he was going to be a starter and DH regularly, so we didn’t put much thought into that.” In subsequent seasons, the Angels did discuss whether it would be possible to use Ohtani as a hitter and part-time reliever if he couldn’t withstand a starter’s workload, the former Angels source says, “But every time we ran the projections on the best way to utilize him, it came back as starter/hitter. So we were going to exhaust that until it was no longer possible.”
This is the year that could determine the boundaries of that possibility. What was true two summers ago remains true today: Ohtani is much more fun, and potentially better for baseball, as a one-of-a-kind two-way star than he would be as either a top-of-the-rotation pitcher or a middle-of-the-order outfielder or first baseman, which the Angels will have room for after Albert Pujols, Dexter Fowler, and Justin Upton move on. (Ohtani hasn’t played outfield in games since 2014, but his speed and athleticism would likely let him hold his own in the field alongside Mike Trout and Jo Adell.) However, even those who’ve daydreamed about two-way Ohtani for years would have to accept that he and his team would be better off with Ohtani as a healthy, full-time pitcher or hitter than an oft-injured Icarus who’s theoretically both but all too often neither.
For now, though, any outcome is still conceivable, and Ohtani doesn’t have to contemplate closing the book on the first-in-a-century, precedent-setting career he teased in 2018. “I don’t think he’s wired like that or thinks that way,” the former Angels exec says. “This has been how he’s played his entire life. But I think what happened in 2020 has probably made him a little more open-minded to it.” If all goes well this season, he can forget it for good.