ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — When Shohei Ohtani’s major league career got off to its incredible start in 2018, the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way star remembers having fun every day he got on the mound or in the batter’s box.
An injured elbow ligament largely ended the good times and sent Ohtani into a 2 1/2-year struggle to recapture his dominant form.
The Japanese star is hoping the struggle is almost over and more fun is on the horizon.
Ohtani’s pitching arm is healthy, his swing is solid and he’s back in camp to resume his dream of establishing himself firmly as the majors’ most successful two-way player in decades.
To get there, Ohtani believes he needs to return to his mindset in 2018, when he joined Babe Ruth as the only players in major league history to hit 20 homers and make 10 starts in the same season.
“It’s kind of how I felt in 2018 (again),” Ohtani said Thursday, speaking through his translator in his first interview of spring. “More than (feeling) pressure, I just want to have fun and feel good out there, and just do my job when it’s given. Hopefully, I want to make (Angels manager) Joe (Maddon) use me as much as possible.”
The Angels remain committed to the Ohtani experiment, but they aren’t making any grand declarations about their designated hitter’s pitching future after Ohtani managed to make just two terrible mound starts in the past two seasons.
The club is aware the baseball world is wondering whether Ohtani should concentrate solely on his hitting career, particularly after he slumped at the plate last season. But they still believe in Ohtani’s potential.
“I’m eager to watch this just like everybody else,” Maddon said earlier this week. “If we get Shohei in the right direction, that would be a pretty good offseason acquisition right there. We’ve seen what he’s capable of doing.”
Ohtani missed all of 2019 as a pitcher while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and his return last year during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign was scuttled early due to a strained elbow and forearm. It was a steep decline from 2018, when the AL Rookie of the Year had a 3.31 ERA and a 1.161 WHIP over 10 starts.
Ohtani and the Angels both believe he is fully healthy now. He threw a 27-pitch bullpen session Thursday, and Ohtani said his arm currently feels “much better than last year.”
Ohtani is doing a few things differently in a bid to maintain his overall health, although he prefers to keep many of the details private. He said he changed his diet “to make my body feel better.”
Ohtani touched 90 mph when he threw in the bullpen Thursday while wearing a band on his right forearm. He said the device tracks the stress on his arm, hoping to avoid a repeat of last season’s problems.
The Angels hope to insert Ohtani into a six-man rotation headlined by Dylan Bundy and Andrew Heaney, but they will wait until late March to firm up their plans. After the struggles of the last two seasons, the Angels want Ohtani to be fully comfortable.
Regardless of his mound performance, the Angels also need an improvement in Ohtani’s work at the plate. While he still had incredible power last season, his overall DH performance declined sharply to a .657 OPS with just 29 hits in 175 plate appearances.
Again, Ohtani thinks he’s in prime position to return to his 2018 form with the bat as well.
“I’ve been swinging, hitting all offseason, and I think my swing is feeling really good right now,” Ohtani said. “My body is feeling really good. I think we’re in a good spot, hitting-wise.”
The Angels’ commitment to Ohtani as a two-way player was underlined in his contract negotiations last month.
Ohtani sacrificed untold millions when he elected to move from Japan to the majors in late 2017 instead of waiting a couple of years. The Angels got Ohtani for a relative pittance and six years of organizational control, but they avoided arbitration earlier this month by giving him a two-year, $8.5 million contract through 2022.
“I’m glad that’s out of the way and I can just focus on baseball,” Ohtani said. “I’m not worried about the total amount, and I don’t want to think too far ahead.”
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