LOS ANGELES – Several days into spring training, an official from a team in the west asked what I’d seen so far. Stretching, mostly, I said. Some fastballs. A bit of rain. A lot of those Uber cars with the spinny things on the roofs.
And Shohei Ohtani’s batting practice.
“I’m not a BP guy, but … ” I started, and then set a scene of dark skies and wind and rain drops and all the reasons Ohtani should have looked ordinary, but didn’t. I may have gotten carried away.
“Also,” I said, “he could hit a buck-eighty once the hairy guys start with the sliders and mean stuff, ‘cause what do I know? The guy’s an athlete though. Power’s there. Swing’s long, but that’s solvable, right? I mean, I fell for him.”
Well, it so happened this official had been in the room with Ohtani and his representatives when they’d met with teams before the winter meetings, before Ohtani eliminated all but the Los Angeles Angels. As part of the interview process, Ohtani had asked teams to break down his pitching and his hitting, the mechanics of both, their thoughts about what he did well and what he’d need to work on.
One of the men in the room had spoken up. He’d told Ohtani, a left-handed hitter, that he was spinning out at the plate, falling out of his swing, that he’d be dead against big-league pitchers that way. You know, his opinion. Ohtani had nodded and someone else had begun to cover some other area. It’d been a passing observation.
The official recalled that having been the end of it.
He said he was watching television the night before, some baseball highlight show, and sure enough there was Ohtani taking batting practice on a back field in Tempe, under the same dark skies I’d described, his first batting practice of spring. He saw a few swings.
“Wouldn’t you know,” he said. “He fixed it. He’d taken what he was told in our meeting and fixed it. Not only is he talented, not only is he a nice young man, but he’s coachable.”
“I mean, impressive,” he said.
A month later, Ohtani is three days from opening day, he’s hitting .125 this spring, and the world – scouts and experts and about anyone who’s seen a baseball game before – seems to think he won’t soon or maybe ever hit in the big leagues. And I keep thinking about the guy who took a throw-away answer to a throw-away question, took it into a batting cage in Japan or Tempe or somewhere, and set out to make it right.
And now he’s hitting that .125, including the fourth-inning single he ripped off Rich Hill on Monday night at Dodger Stadium, his fourth hit of the spring, all singles, all rather unfortunate if you’re the guy trying to make some sort of case to the contrary. That today’s result may not be tomorrow’s. That today’s swing may not look like tomorrow’s. That there is the impatience required when judging a 23-year-old on one game, and then there’s whatever judging a 23-year-old on no games is.
Maybe folks are right, and Ohtani is a month or two or three from becoming a full-time pitcher. And maybe it would be OK to hold out at least that long for special. To assume he’s athletic enough, earnest enough, tough enough, committed enough to make a game of this. That his swing, or something resembling his swing, calmed and streamlined perhaps, might actually play. That the power will play. That maybe it won’t take that long, either, though evidently it will be longer than three weeks.
“It’s about timing,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “Sometimes tempo and timing are vague terms. His are very tangible. … We’ve started to see it. You see the talent. There’s no disputing that.”
The spring-long wobble, the clumsy swings, the underwhelming results …
“Everybody goes through that,” Scioscia said. “That’s what we’re dealing with right now. There’s no doubt he’s moving forward.”
Meantime, Ohtani fails with composure. He scoops defensively at a Rich Hill curveball, fouls out to third base, comes back two innings later and lines a single to left.
He adjusts with composure. Seeking relief from fastballs that consistently beat his leg kick, he eliminates the kick in Monday’s batting practice, replaces it with a subtle toe tap, and inches a little closer to competence, “Trying,” he says, “to keep everything compact.”
He’s the guy in the dugout during teammates’ at-bats, timing pitchers, pantomiming his own mechanics, searching for life in that swing, chasing the best of himself. Chasing. Chasing. The season nearing, his ERA so high, his batting average so low, still chasing.
“So,” he says, “six weeks ago, in the beginning, I didn’t know what to expect every day.”
His solution, perhaps to quell the anxiety of that, perhaps because it is his nature anyway, was to focus on what was before him. Just that day. “And maybe,” he says with a thin smile, “the next day.”
Then, he says, “I don’t try to let that day’s result affect me.”
On that he appears to have succeeded. Shohei Ohtani is relentlessly upbeat. Those teammates whose at-bats he quietly piggy-backs from the dugout say he is the same respectful, easy-going, approachable young man who walked into their locker room five weeks ago. If he has grown frustrated, embarrassed, angry, they have not seen it. He has shown up the next day, on time, picked up his bat, picked up his glove, reported to a batting cage, a mound, and started again.
The swing is too long. The hands are late. The command is not quite right. Zero games in. At 23. His whole life changed, everything that is familiar to him an ocean away, the game more challenging than it ever has been.
And him, chasing. Chasing.
Least, that’s what I’ve seen so far.
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