TEMPE, Ariz. — Major league pitchers nowadays emerge from the womb, or at the very least arrive at the end of their minor-league apprenticeships, already knowing that the only proper answer to any question pertaining to your first stint on a mound facing live hitters in spring training is some variation of: “I’m just trying to get my work in.”
So it was somewhat comforting, on this sunny Saturday morning, to discover that universality holds true even in Japanese, and even when that first live mound session — a banal exercise best experienced on an empty field, with no one around but a couple of coaches and a bucket of balls — is documented by several dozen reporters and watched by an army of polo-shirted front-office types sitting behind home plate.
“There were good and bad parts,” Los Angeles Angels right-hander Shohei Ohtani, 23, said later through a translator, when asked about his 30-pitch effort on a back field at the team’s spring training complex. “I was just glad I was able to get through the 30 pitches I was planning to throw.”
Asked by a Japanese reporter to elaborate on the positives, he said, “Like I said, there were good and bad parts. And the good parts were the positive part of today.”
In other words, Ohtani was just trying to get his work in.
Simply getting his work in, as with most other things pertaining to Ohtani, is proving to be much more difficult than it is for other players. On Saturday morning, for example, it required the herding of the pack of Japanese reporters sent to chronicle his every move to the designated media areas around the perimeter of the field. It required the positioning of Ohtani’s interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, behind a screen at the back of the mound, next to Angels pitching coach Charles Nagy, to relay the latter’s instructions.
And it required the complete abandoning of the practiced nonchalance with which baseball people are supposed to regard such a perfunctory, check-it-off-the-schedule bit of spring training minutiae. It wasn’t just the media paying outsized attention to Ohtani on Saturday — it was also Angels General Manager Billy Eppler and a half-dozen lieutenants in the stands, plus a flock of Angels minor-leaguers leaning over a railing in the outfield, straining for a better look at the two-way sensation known as the Babe Ruth of Japan.
The Angels have a defined daily plan this spring for Ohtani, a right-handed pitcher and left-handed hitter who was one of the best in Japan at both crafts during his five seasons playing there — and who, the Angels say, will pitch once a week and serve as a designated hitter two or three times a week during the regular season. But that daily plan, almost by necessity, is subject to constant tweaks.
“This is uncharted territory,” Angels hitting coach Eric Hinske said. “I mean, no one’s tried to do this since Babe Ruth, right?”
On Saturday, for example, the Angels had Ohtani skip batting practice to focus on his mound session — which is not a sacrifice other Angels hitters have to make. He will be back in the batting cage on Sunday, most likely at the expense of pitchers’ fielding practice or some other drills — which is not a sacrifice other Angels pitchers have to make.
“We’re trying to figure out if he’s going throw to himself,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia joked about Ohtani’s next batting practice session, “but we’re not sure yet.”
Scioscia also revealed additional bits and pieces of the Angels’ plan for Ohtani, including the fact he will be expected to be available for pinch-hitting or even pinch-running duty on his “off” days, which are likely to include the day before and the day after he starts on the mound.
“Normally, I never have a pitcher pinch-run; usually, there’s more bad than good that can come out of it,” Scioscia said. “But Shohei is not just a pitcher. He’s a guy who has the ability to do some things coming off the bench, whether it’s pinch-hit or pinch-run, and we’re definitely going to tap into that if it’s necessary, because it’s something he’s able to do.”
On Saturday, throwing to Angels starting catcher Martin Maldonado and facing a pair of minor leaguers (one right-handed, one left-handed), Ohtani threw two 15-pitch “innings,” sitting on the dugout bench in between, to simulate game situations. Although there was no one calling balls and strikes, about half of his pitches — mainly fastballs, but also some breaking pitches and splitters — appeared to be over the plate, and only two were hit into fair territory.
There were no radar guns present, but Ohtani has been clocked at 100 mph or above in the past, and you can suffice it to say his fastball had plenty of life.
Nothing appeared to be wrong with him physically — worth mentioning since he underwent ankle surgery in October and also suffered a slight elbow-ligament strain last year — but he was visibly frustrated with the quality of some of his pitches, turning away angrily a handful of times.
He is expected to throw a couple additional mound sessions next week before appearing in his first Cactus League game sometime after Feb. 23.
“There are adjustments I’ll need to make the next time I’m on the mound,” Ohtani said afterward, before returning, once more, to a pitcher’s timeless and universal spring standby: “I was just focused on getting my work done.”