TEMPE, Ariz. – They want to be wrong. For the sake of baseball, they want Shohei Ohtani to blossom into a true two-way player, a starting pitcher extraordinaire and power-hitting dynamo, a multinational marketing sensation. They want their eyes – the ones that have seen Ohtani this spring and believe he cannot hit at the major league level today – to be lying.
Only here are eight major league scouts, seven of whom have seen Ohtani this spring, and the reports they shared with Yahoo Sports sound almost identical. They acknowledge his raw power and uncommon speed. They also believe major league pitchers are going to punish him with inside fastballs, that his swing contains flaws in balance and mechanics, and that he needs at least 500 plate appearances of seasoning in the minor leagues to give him a chance at becoming a productive major league hitter.
And for anyone other than the 23-year-old, that would be all well and good. Except the Los Angeles Angels not only have Ohtani slotted in their starting rotation, they have rejiggered it to accommodate his transition to Major League Baseball, moving to a six-man staff. While they could theoretically pull the ripcord on that and start Ohtani in the minor leagues – the rest of their starting pitchers have thrown on the standard four days’ rest this spring – the prospect of a player as hyped as any in years starting the season in Salt Lake City is farfetched.
Which leaves them with a bit of a conundrum – a first-world problem, yes, but a challenge nevertheless: If Ohtani really does struggle at the plate as evaluators expect, how long of a leash do the Angels offer until encouraging him to focus on pitching, where scouts see frontline talent?
Certainly the Angels don’t intend to make any substantive proclamations after 14 plate appearances this spring. They signed Ohtani for $2.5 million, plus a $20 million posting fee, following a frenzied bidding process and want to kid-glove him as much as possible. Here’s the thing: It’s not the one hit in 11 at-bats (with three walks) that’s any concern to scouts – spring training is the home of grain-of-salt numbers – as much as what they saw in those times at the plate that gives them pause so quickly.
One evaluator, who is familiar with Ohtani after watching all of his plate appearances from recent seasons in Japan, believes the biggest issue stems from the quality of the pitches in Japan vs. MLB. It was illustrated in a recent at-bat against Zack Godley, the Arizona Diamondbacks starter who backed Ohtani off the plate with a front-door sinker for a strike, then finished him with two curveballs, the last of which Ohtani flailed through.
Another scout at the game focused on how Ohtani moved his 6-foot-4, 220-pound body – and while he believes Ohtani can be a good hitter with time, there were obvious issues. He did not, the scout said, hit from a balanced base. His front hip leaked out during his swing. He needed to cheat on inside fastballs, leaving him susceptible to a spate of other pitches. He showed a heavy top-hand swing, which is not necessarily a problem – Bryce Harper, like Ohtani a left-handed swinger and right-handed thrower, focuses intensely on his top-hand movement – but as presently constituted with Ohtani could cause a significant number of rollover groundouts, according to the scout.
Like the evaluator, he took a more universal view of the pitch selection Ohtani will see. It’s not just the sinkers. Heavy, hard-spinning curveballs are particularly rare in Japan, where the strikeout pitch of choice is a split-fingered fastball, and the curve’s rebirth in MLB recently makes for at least two pitches that could pose particular trouble for Ohtani.
“He’s basically like a high school hitter because he’s never seen a good curveball,” the scout said. “He’s seen fastballs and changeups. And you’re asking a high school hitter to jump to the major leagues?”
With any other player, the remedy is obvious: Allow him to prepare for what’s to come against lower-level players. With the Angels intent on winning this year, they could find themselves in something of a Catch-22 with Ohtani. His greatest gift – his right arm – might be the thing that prevents him from fulfilling his desire to be a true two-way player.
“You don’t learn on the job in the major leagues,” another scout said. “You can’t.”
Pitching in the major leagues is hard enough, something Ohtani is learning quickly. The Tijuana Toros, a Mexican League team, lit him up for six runs in three innings on Friday afternoon. He allowed a monster first-inning home run to Dustin Martin, a 33-year-old who topped out at Triple-A. He gave up a pair more in the second inning. By the third, his fastball velocity dipped as low as 90 mph, a bit of a surprise but not worth alarm at this point in the spring.
Ohtani has enough to worry about already. He said the most difficult part of his transition is getting used to a schedule with no days off – and should he play designated hitter two or three times a week, as is the plan, that only exacerbates the intricacy of his days. Each facet of the game takes incredible amounts of work. There’s a reason no one has done both.
When asked which side of his game was further along, Ohtani said: “About the same progress-wise. Hitting-wise, adjusting isn’t going to be as big as pitching.” The major league ball and mound are different, he said. He did not mention anything about the major league arms, which evaluators believe to be a far greater concern.
Ohtani’s confidence in his bat is admirable, and perhaps he is the rare sort who can adjust on the fly, whose talent is overwhelming enough to change perceptions overnight. Special players do special things.
“That’s true,” an American League scout said, “but I don’t know if anyone is that special.”
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