For Shohei Ohtani, out of all of the jaw-dropping, historic moments he created during his unforgettable 2021 season with the Los Angeles Angels, one game from the very start of the year is what left the biggest impression on MLB’s biggest star.
“I think the game where the designated hitter rule was forfeited was big,” Ohtani said Monday, referring to hitting for himself as the pitcher against the Chicago White Sox on April 4. “I think it was important for everyone to start without apprehension in one of the first games. Being able to have a good, balanced start was big.”
The 27-year-old two-way star, who is favored to be named American League MVP later this month, fielded questions at the Japan National Press Club for about an hour on Monday in his first public appearance since returning to Japan after the 2021 MLB season.
Ohtani hit 161 kph (100 mph) on the radar gun from the mound with multiple pitches and hit a home run in his first at-bat in that game against the White Sox. That got the ball rolling on a year during which Ohtani would hit 46 home runs — the most by a Japanese player in a single season — and steal 26 bases as the Angels’ DH, while also winning nine games as a pitcher and striking out 156 batters in the first truly two-way season MLB has seen in decades.
Ohtani was in the lineup for 20 of his 23 pitching starts and is the first pitcher to hit for himself at least four times in games where the DH was applicable. Ohtani batted .257 with a .965 on base-plus slugging percentage in 2021 while also recording a 3.18 ERA.
While the results of the MVP voting won’t be known for a few more days — Ohtani is a finalist with Toronto Blue Jays duo Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien — Ohtani has already taken home a raft of honors, including his first Silver Slugger Award.
“I’m grateful,” Ohtani said. “Personally, I’d like to turn the page and do more and more so that I can receive these types of awards again next year. I’m really happy that my numbers this year were evaluated this way, but I don’t want to wait for awards and want to flip the switch (to next year).”
Ohtani, who underwent Tommy John surgery in late 2018, didn’t pitch in 2019 and only made two pitching appearances in 2020, already expects to be even better as a pitcher next season.
“I think the best thing this year was the number of innings and the number of games,” said Ohtani, who threw 130⅓ innings across 23 starts. “I grew more accustomed to the affected area and with my body as we went into the second half of the season and I want to keep that going into next year.
“If I can do that, I think my speed will inevitably increase and my command will get better.”
Ohtani, who said he took about two weeks off after the season, said he’s been training at home, including during his quarantine since returning from the U.S.
“I’ll start throwing after this today,” he said.
Ohtani also appeared open to playing in the outfield more often if needed, something he did on occasion after being taken off the mound during games this season.
The young star also intends to continue on his two-way path next season.
“I’ve been doing my best to this point,” Ohtani said. “I still want to do my best because I think I can go even higher.”
Ohtani burst out the gates during the first half of season and quickly became the most-followed player in MLB.
Ohtani was so successful that he became the first player named to an All-Star team at two positions — pitcher and DH — and got the start at both. As a hitter during the All-Star Game, Ohtani faced Max Scherzer, then a member of the Washington Nationals, who he said was the pitcher he was most impressed by during the year.
The All-Star festivities also reunited Ohtani and fellow AL pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, who was representing the Seattle Mariners. The two pitchers both attended Hanamaki Higashi High School in Iwate Prefecture.
“I was happy we got to go at the same time, but I think the high school manager and coaches were probably even more pleased,” Ohtani said.
Ohtani faced a tougher road in the second half of 2021 as he got off to a slow start at the plate. Opposing teams, fearing his power, soon began avoiding him by pitching around him and walking him.
“We had some of our core batters missing because of injuries, so I think that probably won’t happen next year,” Ohtani said of the walks he drew in the second half. “I don’t think they will be able to attack me the same way as this year, because there will be better batters than me in the lineup.”
While Ohtani ultimately had great personal success, the Angels finished with a losing record and failed to reach the playoffs. He admitted there were many mentally trying times during the second half of the season, in which his offensive numbers dipped, but still saw the experience as a positive overall.
Ohtani said the support of the fans also helped spur him on during the tough times.
“There are games every day, so there are always good and bad results,” he said. “I like to get results. I’m really happy when I can experience things I can’t experience in normal life. When I’m injured, I can’t play in games, so it was a good year, even the depressing parts.”
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