The optimism around Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei ‘Sho Time’ Ohtani is high after an impressive spring training debut on the mound. In just one inning, Ohtani struck out five of the Oakland A’s batters. His pitches were hitting 100 mph on the radar gun. He looked comfortable and confident, reminding everyone why he was one of the most coveted two-way players since Babe Ruth.
Ohtani signed with the Angels in December 2017, in his rookie season he was limited to only two months as a two-way player before suffering a torn ulnar collateral ligament which led to Tommy John surgery. Limited to the Angels primary designated hitter for the rest of his rookie season, Ohtani was the American League Rookie of the year in 2018.
Getting back on the mound has to feel good, you can see the smile on Ohtani’s face when he’s out there. He didn’t pitch at all in 2019 and only twice in 2020 before sustaining an injury to the flexor-pronator mass near his surgically repaired elbow.
“I’m definitely having fun,’’ Ohtani said. “I had trouble having fun the last couple of years. …The last couple of years, I’ve had some kind of rehab schedule. This year, it’s not like that.’’
The Angels are excited to have Ohtani back in the rotation at full strength, but they will not be reckless with his usage. They know how important he is to the team’s success and what they hope to accomplish in the upcoming season.
Ohtani will have no restrictions or guidelines this season on a pitch count or how often he will be in the lineup. The Angels will try to walk a fine line between no limits while not being careless with Ohtani’s usage rate.
“Shohei likes the idea of being able to take charge of his own career,’’ Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “Why wouldn’t you? I don’t want to fabricate rules that may not be the best for him.’’
During the winter offseason, Ohtani took charge of his career with a new data-driven way to train. Ohtani revamped his diet and regularly had blood drawn to find out which foods are optimal for his body so that he can recover better and be at his peak performance level.
In addition to his new diet, Ohtani spent some time at the Driveline Baseball Facility in Seattle. Driveline is a premier baseball development center that has been utilized by other notable players like Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitchers Trevor Bauer and Clayton Kershaw.
Moving forward, Ohtani will be treated like any other player on the team. He is expected to play whenever his number is called and if he happens to get injured during the season the Angels will address it at that moment. There will be no guidelines restricting Ohtani this season. He is poised to make his return as the two-way player he was hyped to be in 2017 when the Angels signed him.
“I think he’s having a lot of fun,’’ Maddon said. “I don’t see the same stress I saw on his face as I did last year. Listen at the core of what I try to do here is permit the players to have freedom, be themselves. In return, without even asking, I think you get a greater respect and discipline returned to you.
“I think he enjoys the concept of being free, to being Shohei, and being more in charge of what he’s doing out there,” Maddon added. “I think he’s really digging it. I believe you’re going to see a greater freedom in his game. He’s not going to be concerned about either getting hurt or disappointing somebody. He’s just going to play, just be part of the group.’’
Ohtani threw 41 pitches in his first start of the 2021 season, he faced a total of ten batters. In the first inning, he struck out three but gave up a walk and a double. The second inning was almost identical, he gave up another walk and double while striking out two before calling it a night. Ohtani said that he was satisfied with his outing.
The limited capacity crowd gave a standing ovation as Ohtani made his way to the dugout. He couldn’t help but smile. Angel fans are realizing the potential they saw in 2018 all over again.
“I think he looked good,’’ Maddon said. “He looked calm. The delivery was good, I can’t emphasize that enough.”