Shohei Ohtani Is on the Comeback Trail

Friday was a red-letter day for the Angels as well as anyone else who’s been following the ongoing saga of the majors’ most notable two-way player. Shohei Ohtani made his first Cactus League pitching appearance of the spring — his first in nearly three years, actually — a milestone that will hopefully become a footnote as he works his way back to regular rotation duty following a string of injuries.

The 26-year-old Ohtani started Friday’s exhibition against the A’s and worked 1.2 innings, throwing 41 pitches, 24 for strikes (five swinging, eight looking, eight foul, three in play). All five A’s that he retired were via strikeouts, though his outing was hardly pristine. In the first inning, after striking out leadoff hitter Mark Canha looking at a fastball, he yielded a sizzling double down the line by Elvis Andrus, then after whiffing Matt Olson via a fastball, he walked Matt Chapman before striking out Mitch Moreland swinging at a filthy splitter. He got into further trouble in the second inning, serving up a hustle double to Ramón Laureano and then another double to Tony Kemp — a fly ball into the right-center gap, the hardest hit he allowed — that sandwiched a strikeout of Chad Pinder via another splitter. He then walked Aramis Garica before striking out Canha, again on a splitter.

Ohtani departed with two outs in the second because he’d surpassed the Angels’ 40-pitch target. With three hits, two walks, and one run allowed, this was no gem. The scoreboard didn’t have velocity readings and there was no Trackman data, but a scout relayed to Eric Longenhagen that his fastball ranged from 96-99 mph (some reports had 100), with the strikeouts coming on 98 and 99. His slider ranged from 82-85 mph, his curve was 76 mph, and his changeup/splitter (Eric’s source thought it was a splitter, but the broadcast referred to it inconsistently) 88-90 mph. While he struggled to command his slider, the splitter was devastating. Manager Joe Maddon described Ohtani’s delivery as “more clean and consistent,” adding, “I like his arm stroke better. It starts there and then he’s able to recapture the velocity he’s had in the past, and the really good break of his splitter. The big thing for his success is going to be repetition of delivery and knowing where his fastball is going consistently.”

It was just one brief outing where nobody was playing for keeps, but it’s been a long while since we’ve seen an unencumbered Ohtanti, a pitcher doing something besides rehabbing an injury. Two years and nine months ago, he left his June 6, 2018 start, the ninth of his major league career, with a recurrent blister. While getting the blister drained, he complained of elbow soreness, an MRI revealed a sprained ulnar collateral ligament, and it was downhill from there. He received both platelet-rich plasma and stem-cell injections… and has made just three regular season pitching appearances since. He couldn’t get out of the third inning in his return from the UCL sprain on September 2, 2018. On October 1, he underwent Tommy John surgery, and while he played 106 games in 2019, he didn’t pitch once. That season ended in early September as he underwent surgery to repair a bipartite patella in his left knee.

In Ohtani’s long-awaited first post-surgical start, on July 26 of last year against many of the same A’s he faced on Friday, he failed to retire any of the six hitters he faced, yielding three singles and walking three batters in a row (Laureano, Chapman, and Olson, at that). A week later, he took the mound against the Astros, and got through a scoreless, eight-pitch first inning but walked five in a 42-pitch second inning as his velocity suddenly plummeted from 94-97 mph to 89. Pulled with two outs, he was diagnosed with a Grade 1-2 strain of his flexor pronator mass. Though he continued to DH, he struggled with his balance and lower body strength, and hit an abysmal .190/.291/.366 in 175 PA, well below his .286/.351/.532 showing from 2018-19.

Ohtani avoided surgery, resumed throwing off flat ground last October, and overhauled his entire offseason regimen. According to The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya, he worked to improve his diet, integrated data into his workout process, took batting practice against live pitching to help rebuild his swing, and paid a visit to Driveline Baseball in Seattle to help with the pitching side of things. Via Ardaya:

While Ohtani and [agent Nez] Balelo have not named Driveline or any of the other facilities, both have elaborated on how they are using data to standardize how Ohtani’s body operates and optimize the results to sustain the workload of both hitting and pitching.

…“I think we’ve now been able to collect more data to know when he is really tired and when he’s not tired,” Balelo said. “That was one of the things we did this offseason to really gather that, so we know when he’s peaking, when he’s not peaking, when he needs to rest, when he doesn’t need to rest. All that data is going to be handed over to the (Angels) medical group, and then they’re going to look at it and they’re going to figure it out.

Ohtani topped out at 90 mph in his first bullpen session of this spring, generating the usual concerns about lost velocity, but he’s ramped up significantly, to the point of reaching 100 mph in a February 27 session. The velocity is encouraging, in line with 96.7 mph average fastball velocity and 87.3 mph splitter velocity from 2018. Worth noting is that Ohtani has reportedly been experimenting with a changeup, which he threw in Japan but has not thrown in the majors. If it’s not yet a weapon, it could at least be another look.

At this juncture, with all of three regular season appearances totaling four innings — with 10 walks and nine runs allowed — over the past two years and nine months, it’s easy to be skeptical about whether Ohtani can stay healthy enough to hold up the pitching end of the two-way bargain. While the debate over whether he should scrap the mound work rages in some corners of the internet, the player and the team are clearly still committed to doing it this way, and more power to them. It’s their money and his career, and the upside, as we saw during those first nine outings in 2018 — with a 3.10 ERA, 3.28 FIP, and 30.5% strikeout rate — is high. Players who can touch 100 mph from the mound and off the bat don’t exactly grow on trees.

The Angels plan to use Ohtani as part of a six-man rotation, with lefties Andrew Heaney and José Quintana joined by righties Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb, and Griffin Canning in addition to Ohtani. On paper, at least, it appears to be a improved group relative to last year’s unit, which was pummeled for a 5.52 ERA (29th in the majors) and 4.78 FIP (19th). Bundy, Canning, and Heaney all made either 11 or 12 starts for the Halos last year, and were better than average in terms of FIP and ERA save for Heaney’s 101 ERA-. Bundy, with a 3.29 ERA and 2.95 FIP, was a revelation after so many years in the Orioles’ meat grinder, and even received a smattering of down-ballot Cy Young support. It’s probably asking too much for things to go as well for Cobb, another escapee from Baltimore, but in the more spacious ballparks of the AL West and away from Camden Yards, where he served up 1.86 homers per nine during his three-year run, he at least has a puncher’s chance. Quintana ranked 11th in the majors in WAR from 2013-19, averaging 3.8 per season before being limited to 10 innings in his final year with the Cubs due to thumb and lat injuries.

The Angels’ rotation as a whole is projected to rank 15th in the majors in WAR, and that’s with Ohtani providing 96 innings, a modest workload and yet nearly double what he’s managed in MLB thus far. The good news is that the Halos aren’t overly dependent upon those innings, as their depth includes a pair of 24-year-old former prospects, righty Jaime Barria and lefty Patrick Sandoval, who have shown promise as well. Absent from the playoffs for the past six years, the team projects to be in the thick of an AL West race along with Astros and A’s squads that have both shed significant players from recent years. Their 36.2% Playoff Odds are the team’s highest since at least 2016, as far back as we have archived.

On the other side of the ball, Ohtani isn’t in any worse a place than dozens of other established hitters who turned in subpar or even sub-Mendoza Line seasons last year. Among players with at least 150 PA in both 2019 and ’20, his 39-point drop in wRC+ (from 121 to 82) ranked as the majors’ 26th-largest, in a virtual tie with Anthony Rizzo and Carlos Santana, and with the knowledge that his arm injury may have been a factor in that slide. Already this spring, he launched a 468-foot homer that cleared the batter’s eye at Tempe Diablo.

Surprisingly enough, that was actually the first spring training homer of Ohtani’s stateside career — again, a milestone that will hopefully become a footnote as he returns to showing us the exceedingly rare combination of skills that heralded his arrival just three years ago. Hope springs eternal.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

I am a simple man who asks for few things in life. But one of them certainly is at least one full season of full-time, two-way Ohtani baseball.