Shohei Ohtani’s arrival in Major League Baseball this winter was met with so much hype, anticipation and historic recalibration – he is seeking to become the first full-time, two-way player since Babe Ruth 100 years ago — that we may have forgotten, if only briefly, the difficulties facing him in that pursuit.
There is a reason no one, not even great two-way prospects such as Dave Winfield and Josh Hamilton, had seriously attempted, let alone pulled off, this double play: Baseball is too specialized, with hitters and pitchers on separate, detailed, daily programs, to allow for someone to do both.
But Ohtani has other factors working against him, namely his move from Japan’s Pacific League to MLB, with its jump in talent-level and international scrutiny. He is also just 23 years old and at this point technically still a prospect, as underscored by his No. 1 ranking in MLB Pipeline’s top-prospects list.
Perhaps, then, Ohtani’s struggles this spring for the Los Angeles Angels should not be a major surprise. With Opening Day just 10 days away, Ohtani’s spring ERA sits at 16.21 (including one outing in a “B” game against a Mexican League team), with four homers allowed in 8 1/3 innings. (He does, however, have 19 strikeouts, and his fastball has been clocked as high as 98 mph, additional confirmation that his raw stuff will certainly play in this league.)
At the plate, he has been just as ineffective — or worse — going 2 for 24 (.083) and occasionally appearing overmatched by big league pitching. Most MLB talent evaluators were in agreement from the start that he was further along as a pitcher than as a hitter when he signed with the Angels in December.
Ohtani’s two-way struggles have led to speculation the Angels could decide to send him to the minor leagues to start the season. Such a move would have the added benefit of delaying his major league service-time clock, possibly giving the Angels an extra year of control over him before free agency.
The Angels, however, have played down the possibility of a late-spring demotion, with General Manager Billy Eppler expressing continued optimism in Ohtani’s two-way skills: “The track record [in Japan] gives us the confidence to move forward with him as a two-way player,” he told reporters this weekend.
“We’re not going to get into roster decisions,” Manager Mike Scioscia told reporters. “I can only say that Shohei’s talent is real. Obviously we believe in it. We anticipate him being ready to both pitch and hit when the season starts and we’re going to work hard to reach that goal from now until we start the season.
Scioscia insisted all the signs are present — namely, health and ability — that would indicate everything is fine with their young superstar, even if the stats would indicate otherwise.
“We’re looking at the process. We’re looking at, on the pitching side, his pitch execution. If that’s a little bit off, is it a mechanical issue? Is it just a release-point issue? Spin rates, things like that — we know what Shohei is capable of. That’s how we’re measuring him. … We’re not measuring him on ERA.”
The Angels open their season on March 29 at Oakland Alameda Coliseum against the A’s. The possibility of Ohtani lining up as designated hitter on Opening Day, then striding to the mound two days later to start the season’s third game, remains a fascinating and historic story line that could dominate the season’s first week, if not beyond. A small sample-size of struggling in his first four weeks in a new country, against new competition, doesn’t mean he can’t excel here.
But if this spring has shown us anything, it is that we can’t assume immediate and sustained success for this unique and revolutionary player. When Ohtani struggles, he may look twice as bad as anyone else.