Tempe, Arizona – Now that slugging pitcher Shohei Ohtani has reached the promised land, it’s time for him to make good on his promise — although the day that happens appears some way off.
Despite the velocity of his fastball in Japan and his booming batting practice missile launches in Arizona, American baseball fans are wondering when or if the hype about “Japan’s Babe Ruth” will be justified in the major leagues.
Through his first three weeks in spring training and exhibition games, pitcher Ohtani has shown flashes of brilliance when able to adjust to the unfamiliar mound. But his progress with the bat has been slow.
Ohtani has been a huge hit, however, with his teammates. His smile and presence in the Los Angeles Angels spring training clubhouse in Tempe, Arizona, has made a solid impression.
“He’s always joking, laughing, talking. He wants to learn English so fast. He’s a nice kid. He’s fun. We all like him,” catcher Rene Rivera told reporters after a March 2 game in Phoenix.
Ask an Angels player about Ohtani, and you get more or less the same answer: He’s a great pitcher, a great hitter and a great teammate. It’s as if their reading off cue cards.
“He has a special talent, he’s got a special arm . . . and we’ll get him as many at-bats as we can,” manager Mike Scioscia told MLB Network.
Bullpen coach Scott Radinsky, asked about how to fit Ohtani into a lineup perceived as being filled with loaded hitters, said, “Hopefully, he’s one of those loaded hitters. He’s shown that he can do it (hit). All he’s got to do is stay healthy.”
One scout, who as a youngster was a teammate of a Japanese veteran making his major league debut, wasn’t surprised by the positivity.
“All the players are saying the right things,” he said. “Everyone on the team got the message to be positive. So for now, at least, everyone will be saying what a good player he is. If he doesn’t produce or the team doesn’t win, that might change.
“They’re carrying an extra roster spot, so it’s really a matter of how much everyone buys into it.”
Ohtani has also managed the transition to a different kind of spring training with relative ease.
Major league spring workouts are less intense but occur every day instead of five or six days a week as they do in Japan. This subtle shift can trip up Japanese players who try to get in their accustomed work without the benefit of days off.
“I like practicing every day, so that’s been a pleasure,” Ohtani said on March 2, but admitted it was not easy at the start. “The first week (of practice) was really hard, until I got used to it and found my rhythm.”
“I had to tread lightly and be careful, not being familiar with how we practice or the routines and wondering how to go about them. But now I’m used to it.”
But getting used to both hitting and pitching at a high level in the States has been another thing.
“Both are extremely hard. Even in practice games, I feel my teammates’ level is very high, both in terms of power and speed,” Ohtani said.
American mounds are harder, higher and shaped differently than those in Japan, where they vary from park to park. The major leagues’ ball, too, is different, slightly larger and heavier with lower seams and a smoother surface than the ball he’s used to.
“The (mound) slope is more severe, but if I throw properly, it will be easier, and that comes from practice,” Ohtani said. “Repeating things in the proper order is necessary, and putting that all together, starting in practice, is the answer.”
Although Ohtani’s pitching has varied from sublime to subpar, his batting form has become an issue. According to Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan, one major league scout told him Ohtani looked like a high school hitter, “because he’s never seen a good curveball.”
Good curves are common in Japan, but former Hanshin Tiger star Matt Murton told Kyodo News they tend to act differently from those in the majors and look differently — with less rise out of the pitcher’s hand.
“The MLB curveballs are harder with more of a hard downward action that doesn’t pop out of the hand,” said Murton, who is now working in baseball operations with the Chicago Cubs.
Whether those differences are caused by different pitching styles, balls or mounds is not clear, but the same differences that trouble him as a pitcher have steepened his learning curve as a hitter.
The two-seam, sinking fastball, is a common weapon in the majors, but is rare in Japan. Because the mounds here are softer and lower, and the ball here is less slippery, the two-seamer is hard to execute. But as a hitter, Ohtani will have to learn to recognize it and hit it from scratch. While he hit curveballs well in Japan, he will need to identify their American cousins and adjust.
And, as a veteran MLB scout told Kyodo News last winter, Ohtani will have to be adjusting on both sides of the ball at the same time, something nobody else has tried at the big league level since Babe Ruth.
“It’s going to be tough,” former big league pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa said. “I thought it would be easier than it was. That was pretty tough for me, even just for pitching, so it’s going to be pretty tough (for Ohtani), because he’s got so many things to do.”
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