When Ohtani takes the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner deep, which he did once this past week, or makes the reigning AL MVP look useless at the plate, which he also did once this past week, he makes it harder to sustain disbelief.
And in case anyone remained unintrigued by Wednesday evening, Ohtani led off for the Angels, slapped a groundball base hit around the shift, stole third base and scored two runs in two plate appearances. He is tempting even the most hardened cynics to violate their rules against being impressed this time of year.
Sticking around as an elite pitcher or hitter in the major leagues is difficult enough. Not since Babe Ruth a century ago has anyone threatened to do both, and even he kicked the pitching habit as he got older. Everyone knows no one actually does both of those things that well in the majors — not these days, not in this game. It’s simply unheard of.
But Ohtani is in uncharted territory, and the spotlight is growing.
“Just by looking from the outside, he looks really good,” Padres pitcher Yu Darvish, a fellow former Nippon Professional Baseball star, said through an interpreter. “Feels like he’s in really good shape, and it looks like he’s been smiling a whole lot and enjoying. It’s good to see.”
First-year Angels general manager Perry Minasian put it differently.
“He’s a freak,” Minasian said of Ohtani, who is hitting .600 with a 1.809 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 20 spring training at-bats. “He’s having a great spring. Hopefully it carries over.”
The trouble with believing in Ohtani is that the talent hasn’t carried over before, at least not consistently. Injuries have limited him to 12 starts in three major league seasons. He has hit 47 home runs in 254 games but has never stayed healthy enough to gain a full season of at-bats. At times, the seemingly quixotic desire for Ohtani to become the first bona fide two-way star in generations seems to have lessened his ability to make as big of an impact pitching or hitting as he might doing one or the other. But at times this spring, as he tears up the Cactus League, that desire has not seemed quixotic at all.
“I have not even thought about that,” Maddon said. “... I have a lot of faith in him doing both things really well. My focus right now is, ‘How do we make this work?’ And we’re going to make this work with conversations with him.”
Further complicating the urge for optimism about Ohtani is the reality that the Angels have seen all kinds of expectations sputter into disappointment for years. Since the ascendance of Mike Trout in 2012, the Angels have assembled a playoff team around the game’s best player only one time, for a winless AL Division Series appearance in 2014.
“It’s more than just him. There’s a lot of people here who want to win, and that’s what’s exciting,” Minasian said. “Anthony Rendon didn’t sign here to lose. ... That was part of bringing in who we brought in. There’s a lot of postseason pedigree in the people we brought in.”
But the Angels have bet on pedigree before. Albert Pujols arrived at roughly the same time as Trout. Justin Upton signed a big deal after the 2017 season, but injuries limited his production in years since. Josh Hamilton never found consistency. Matt Harvey couldn’t resurrect his career. Big name after big name came, and owner Arte Moreno spent dollar after dollar. Nothing clicked.
As if to test the theory, they signed Rendon, a World Series champion with the Washington Nationals, and hired Maddon, the Cubs’ curse-breaker, before the shortened 2020 season. They finished fourth in the AL West all the same.
The Angels also bought low on former Orioles José Iglesias and Alex Cobb. Likely second base starter David Fletcher, emerging as one of the AL’s most underrated offensive contributors, is earning rave reviews from teammates and coaches.
“These guys are totally, absolutely invested in the team and in their future,” said Maddon, who was the Angels’ bench coach when they won the 2002 World Series. “I was part of the first group that won it all for the Angels, and we want to do it again.”
All spring, Maddon has tried to dislodge the halo of pessimism that hovers over this team. He and Trout have pointed to the way the Angels played down the stretch (14-10 in September last season) as an indicator of a new trajectory — a sign that Maddon’s vision for the clubhouse and the talent that occupies it may finally have clicked.
In fairness, the Angels have not had much of a chance to see what a full season of Maddon, Trout, Rendon, Ohtani and a little bit of hope might yield. Ohtani was hurt and didn’t pitch for much of last season. Trout was merely great, as opposed to his usual superhuman self. Rendon said coronavirus protocols and the shortened season meant he didn’t experience “the full Maddon effect.” But even Rendon, as immune to changes around him as a big league player can be, as unlikely to gush as anyone in the game, admitted he started to see the long-term vision in Maddon’s eccentricities.
“Playing against him, being on the sideline, I always thought he was a nut case,” Rendon said this spring. “But now, being on the same team as him and having conversations with him, there’s always a rhyme or a reason for why he might do something.”
And as Maddon surrounds himself with familiar faces, circumstances beyond the Angels’ control also are aligning in friendly ways. The AL West is not exactly loaded with established playoff rosters. The once-mighty Houston Astros looked weakened to start spring training and already have lost two key starters to injury. The Texas Rangers are rebuilding. The Seattle Mariners are hoping young players can take a big leap. As always, the Oakland Athletics are hoping to do a lot with very little.
None of those teams have a player like Ohtani, an elite starter and hitter in one body, taking up one spot on a roster that can benefit from both talents on a regular basis. The Angels have never had that version of Ohtani for long, either.
Minasian said he and Maddon talked to Ohtani about backing off now and then, urging the 26-year-old to listen to his body. The Angels plan to begin the season with a six-man rotation, which should create more breathing room in Ohtani’s routine. Minasian and Maddon admitted that understanding exactly what it takes to start and hit regularly in the big leagues is a work in progress.
“I think you really have to be aware of rest. Nobody’s done this. You look at it, you watch kids do it in college or whatever, but they don’t play every day,” Maddon said. “To ask him to hit as often as you’d like him to when he’s not pitching could be unrealistic based on how his body feels.”
Minasian said Wednesday that he isn’t surprised by what Ohtani is doing and that his spring training showcase hasn’t changed the team’s plans. He said the organization’s job is, mostly, to “stay out of his way” and “let him do it.” Their underlying assumption, of course, is that Ohtani really can keep this up when the games count — no need to plan for anything less, no need to steel for disappointment this time.
“Let’s just let Shohei prove to us what we thought he could do all along,” Maddon said, “and then we’ll make our decisions after that.”