ANAHEIM, Calif. – The only weakness in Shohei Ohtani's incredible two-way game these days is his control, and it's bugging the Los Angeles Angels' star.
Although Ohtani is off to a superb start to a season with no analogue in the past baseball century, he has walked 19 batters in his four mound appearances.
Ohtani has fully emerged as one of the best hitters and also one of the most intriguing starting pitchers in baseball early in his fourth big league season. He's still a meticulous perfectionist with no real hobbies or interests outside of getting better — and video games, of course.
So while he piles up homers (a major league-leading 10, with his bat) and strikeouts (30, with his arm) even more quickly than Babe Ruth did when he first joined the Yankees as a two-way player 101 years ago, Ohtani is also searching for the reasons behind his wayward control — particularly in the first inning, when he has issued eight of those walks.
“I think I’m just trying to rush everything and get out of the inning as quick as I can,” Ohtani said earlier this week through his translator. “I need to slow down and not rush everything as much.”
Not much happens quickly in baseball, and not just because of the languorous modern pace of play. Prospects become major league regulars — and regulars become legends — usually over the course of months and years, not days or weeks.
Nearly three years after the mound portion of his remarkable AL Rookie of the Year campaign ended with a torn elbow ligament requiring Tommy John surgery, Ohtani has slowly, deliberately built himself back into a unique force. The Angels knew it might take years to achieve Ohtani’s dream to become the majors’ most consistent two-way player in decades, but the Japanese star has returned to that uncharted baseball territory this spring.
With a 2.41 ERA complemented by some of the majors' best power numbers at the plate, Ohtani has been the transcendent player in 2021 that he and the Angels patiently believed he would become. The next goals are consistency, longevity and health for a preternaturally talented athlete who has only been held back by injury.
“He’s feeling so good, and doing so well," said Angels manager Joe Maddon, who encouraged Ohtani's move to play every day this season. “There’s a lot of positive adrenalin rolling within him right now, so let’s play that all the way out.”
Ohtani is batting .276 with 26 RBIs and a .952 OPS as the Angels' everyday designated hitter, producing elite exit velocities and cutting down on his occasional weakness for low-percentage swings.
Ohtani hit his 10th homer of the season Thursday night, surpassing his entire total in 44 games last season and tying him for the overall lead with Boston’s J.D. Martinez and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr.
He added two RBI doubles Friday night against the defending World Series champion Dodgers, thumping the ball off the Angel Stadium wall and cruising into second with his graceful, economical stride that belies his well-above-average speed on the basepaths — he was 14th in the majors in top sprint speed last week, and his six stolen bases rank among the top 10.
On the mound, Ohtani has a 100-mph fastball, a slider and a nasty curve — but he also has another pitch that's gaining a fearsome reputation. His splitter, when thrown properly, is nearly unhittable, generating 17 whiffs, five foul balls and a weak grounder on 23 swings this season.
As for Ohtani’s control, Maddon expects improvement when the right-hander who's 1-0 so far learns to manage his game-opening excitement and his late-game fatigue.
“Man, once he really gains even better command of the fastball and we get him stretched out a bit, pitching on a more consistent basis, I could see him going 100 pitches strong,” Maddon said.
The ever-proliferating industry of obscure baseball statistics has a godsend in Ohtani, who is regularly accomplishing baroque feats that haven't been seen in the majors for decades — or ever.
Ohtani recently became the first player since 1900 to record 30 strikeouts and hit 10 homers in his team's first 30 games. Ohtani and Ruth are the only players in baseball history to post seasons with 30 strikeouts and 10 homers — and both did it twice, roughly 100 years apart.
Last month, Ohtani also became the first major league homers leader to make a pitching start since Ruth did it on June 13, 1921.
At one point last month, Ohtani had both thrown the hardest pitch of the season and delivered the hit with the highest exit velocity of the season.
Ohtani is hitting so well and feeling so good that Maddon is encouraging him to hit on days when he pitches, which requires relinquishing the Angels' option of a designated hitter for the entire game.
The 26-year-old Ohtani even played an inning in left field late last month, taking a defensive position in a game for the first time since 2014 back in Japan. Maddon hasn't ruled out using Ohtani in the field in the future, saying he “can do anything.”
Ohtani's own body seems to be his most formidable obstacle, given his injury history and the extraordinary strains under which he is placing it, particularly by playing every day.
Ohtani has already seen mound starts pushed back this season because of blisters on his pitching hand and soreness from getting hit by a pitch in his triceps, but he isn't yet showing signs of fatigue or serious injury.
The Angels will monitor Ohtani's every move closely and patiently, eager to see just how many more unprecedented feats he can accomplish.
“I just want to keep getting better,” Ohtani said. “It's a long season, and I have a lot of work to do.”
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