The Growing Belief in Ohtani’s Lesser Half

TEMPE, Ariz. — The center-field fence at the Angels’ spring-training home sits 420 feet away from home plate. Beyond it are craggy, red-rock hills, and nearer but still beyond the playing field, a green, aluminum batter’s eye that has a height perhaps around 30 feet.

At Angels camp last week, I asked the club’s hitting coach, Eric Hinske, if he’s experienced any “Wow,” slack-jawed moments while observing the early days of Shohei Ohtani as a major-league hitter.

All the time, Hinske says.

“He hits the ball over the batting eye like with every swing in batting practice,” Hinske said.

To get a sense of what that swing looks like at its best, here’s footage of all Ohtani’s NPB home runs:

The power — at least the BP variety — is real.

But Ohtani is being viewed as a pitching-first prospect. That’s typically the case when you have a fastball that averaged 97.5 mph last season in the NPB, along with a biting splitter and curveball. But Ohtani is so fascinating, of course, because he’s going to be given the chance to be the game’s most significant two-way player since Babe Ruth.

That dual status is the primary reason why a swarm of domestic and Japanese reporters have descended upon the Phoenix suburb of Tempe this spring. Last Thursday, Ohtani’s every move on the field was seemingly observed and captured by a dozen or so photographers on an atypically cool March day hours before the Angels traveled to Scottsdale to face the Giants in an exhibition game. I, along with the Angels/Ohtani media corps — a group probably around 40 strong for a morning workout — watched batting practice from the first-base grandstand. Mike Trout peppered the grassy knoll beyond the left-field fence. No one seemed to care much. That’s routine. But Ohtani’s light tosses were repeatedly photographed by the clicks of digital cameras. Eventually, Ohtani’s interpreter approached the collection of media and informed us Ohtani would not be speaking after the workout. This is a different kind of rookie.

Ruth eventually became a bat-only player. Ninety-nine years after Ruth last regularly pitched, it remains to be seen if Ohtani will become an arm-only performer. But this author suspects his bat might be underrated — and it goes beyond batting-practice displays that rival those shows put on by Trout and fellow teammate Justin Upton.

I wrote about how Ohtani might be better than many thought prior to his decision to sign with the Angels. Part of my bullishness on Ohtani’s bat stems from Clay Davenport’s translation of Ohtani’s 2016 NPB campaign, his age-21 season. Consider the translated MLB totals: 324 at-bats, 14 home runs, 34 walks, 89 strikeouts, a .306/.367/.512 slash line, a league-leading mark in translated slugging, and the second-best equivalent average (.298).

While that forecast might appear overly optimistic, recall that there have also been doubts about other notable foreign professionals Jose Abreu (translated previous season OPS 1.010, actual rookie OPS .964), Jung Ho Kang (translated previous season OPS .856, actual rookie OPS .816), and Yoenis Cespedes (translated OPS .836, actual rookie OPS .861).

While some scouts were skeptical regarding Abreu, Cespedes, and Kang, the Davenport Translations were bullish — and, ultimately, remarkably accurate. Of course, that same system also favored Byung-ho Park.

Another reason to be bullish on Ohtani’s bat? His age. The NPB is the best non-MLB professional league in the world, and he was named as its best DH as a 21-year-old. He’s 23 now. He should still be several years away from entering his physical prime. He should still be improving.

We’ll have to see how aggressive the Angels are in allotting him at-bats. In any case, the Angels seem more and more interested in getting Ohtani looks as the hitter in 2018. Craig Edwards noted the Angels seemed to be creating space for Ohtani’s bat — most notably, by sending C.J. Cron to the Rays.

On Thursday, Angels manager Mike Scioscia indicated that the Angels have become more open to increasing the initial conservative number of at-bats the club was expected to give Ohtani.

Scioscia was asked about whether Ohtani might hit on days before he pitches.

“Right now, when the season opens up, we’re going to look at it,” Scioscia said. “There’s a lot of effort a pitcher has to put into pitching. It might erode some of the opportunities he has to hit. We’re going to be flexible with everything we do. If it comes down to ‘He’s not going to hit the day before he pitches,’ so be it. If it’s the day after he’s not available, so be it. But I think we need to be flexible as we go through it and work this out.”

The Angels seem more open to more Ohtani at-bats. And perhaps it goes beyond selling tickets and TV ratings, though those are considerations for any business owner.

Part of the reason I liked the Angels as a fit for Ohtani, beyond helping to get Trout and a bubble team to the playoffs, is that they appeared most likely to benefit from left-handed lineup help.

The following are left-handed batters who accumulated more than 100 plate appearances against right-handed pitching last season for the Angels: Kole Calhoun, Cliff Pennington, Ben Revere, and Luis Valbuena.

The Angels ranked 27th in wRC+ (93) by left-handed hitters against right-handed pitching last season. The Angels’ left-handed hitters ranked 25th in home runs (51) and 27th in on-base percentage (.317) against right-handed pitchers. The Angels could use more left-handed power — particularly now that they’ve reduced the height of their right-field wall, increasing home runs there by a projected 8.5%, according to

Ohtani is now the club’s top left-handed power source.

The belief that Ohtani can hit seemed to be growing when this reporter visited Tempe, which is albeit a biased place to gather opinions on Ohtani’s hit tool. Yet, it’s also the place with the most exposure to Ohtani’s bat to date.

“He’s got all the measurables, tangibles, everything,” Hinske told FanGraphs. “He commands the [strike zone]. His frame alone, how big he is, the mechanics of the swing are very good. He does a good job of putting it all together and working on it when he can.”

Can he be an above-average offensive contributor?

“I believe so, for sure,” Hinske said. “He has all the talent and want… [In the swing], I look for separation, foot down, lower half leading to the ball, and he does it all correctly. He has a good approach. We have to see what happens. Everyone can talk about it all they want. But until we get to game action, we’ll have to wait and find out.”

Upton learned that the Angels had won the Ohtani sweepstakes while shopping at a Scottsdale mall back in December with his wife and daughter.

“It kind of popped up on my phone. I was pretty pumped up,” Upton told FanGraphs. “I just turned my phone to my wife. My wife is a big [baseball] fan. She said, ‘That’s pretty crazy.’ My wife was pretty into it.”

Like all the rest of the baseball industry, Upton was intrigued with Ohtani. But he’s had the rare position to be able to compare the hype with actual first-person accounts of Ohtani.

How would he grade the power?

“I’m not a scout but from the eye test I’d say in the 65 range,” said Upton, employing the 20-to-80 scale. “I’d put myself in a similar category.”

Upton also praised Ohtani’s work ethic and swing mechanics. “He is very disciplined in his fundamentals and mechanics,” Upton said.

Upton did tap the brakes. He acknowledged that plenty of challenges await this dual-threat prospect, and Upton feels it would be unfair to draw conclusions during Ohtani’s first year in the majors.

“After playing for a while, I know this league is about how much pitching you see,” Upton said. “How many reps you get. I think the only snag he might run into is how many at-bats he gets and how often he gets those at-bats consistently. Just from the eye test, I think his swing translates, and with him being so young, he’s going to get better with age. In BP, his power to all fields is pretty impressive. A lot of people have pull-side power, but he’ll hit balls out to the opposite field on a line. [During] some of the windy days, he’s been cutting the ball to the opposite field, which you don’t see very often.”

Ohtani drove a ball in game action to the opposite field Monday:

Upton’s thoughts suggest Ohtani ought to see as many at-bats as possible in 2018 with greater production to come in 2019. Though if he struggles as a rookie, sticking with Ohtani the Hitter could run in conflict with a team that has postseason aspirations.

“He obviously has to come here and make a name for himself,” Upton said.

And to do that, to be a transcendent figure in the sport, Ohtani’s going to have to hit. And maybe he can.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Thought the title of this article was “The Growing Belief in Ohtani’s Lower Half”

“I look for separation, foot down, lower half leading to the ball, and he does it all correctly.”

Based on the quotes in the article, there is that belief.