When healthy and fully operational, only one player in Major League Baseball strikes fear into hitters and pitchers alike.
His name is Shohei Ohtani, and healthy and fully operational is exactly how he looks this spring.
The Los Angeles Angels' two-way star made highlights with both his bat and his arm last week, launching a home run over the batter's eye in an exhibition against the Texas Rangers on Wednesday and then striking out five in 1.2 innings against the Oakland Athletics on Friday.
The obligatory disclaimer here is that results in spring training don't necessarily portend results in games that actually count. And yet, there are reasons to believe Ohtani will be an exception.
Shohei Ohtani's Resume
- 26 years old
- Played in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league from 2013 to 2017
- Signed with the Angels in December 2017
- American League Rookie of the Year in 2018
- 254 G as a hitter: 125 OPS+, 47 HR and 29 SB
- 12 G as a pitcher: 97 ERA+, 66 K and 30 BB
- Tommy John surgery in October 2018
- Left knee surgery in September 2019
- Limited to two starts by a forearm strain in 2020
Why to Believe in Ohtani's Arm
When the Angels first signed Ohtani back in 2017, he was coming off a season with the Nippon Ham Fighters in which he'd made only five starts because of an ankle injury. He was also known to have a damaged UCL at the time, so it was no great surprise when he went under the knife less than a year later.
Though Ohtani's elbow had had enough time to heal when he returned to the mound in July 2020, he was only a few months removed from the knee operation that ended his 2019 season early. It was clear even before the pandemic-delayed season started that he was rusty.
Ultimately, that rust carried over into the season proper. He threw only 40 of 80 total pitches for strikes and walked eight batters through two starts, and it's fair to wonder if his obvious mechanical issues contributed to his forearm injury.
Despite all this, the Angels had good reasons not to give up on him as a pitcher.
In his heyday in Japan between 2014 and 2016, Ohtani ripped off a 2.24 ERA with 402 more strikeouts than walks over 458 total innings. The tools that drove that effort also worked as he was putting up a 3.31 ERA with 63 strikeouts and 22 walks in 51.2 innings as a major league rookie in 2018.
To these ends, it was deja vu all over again for Ohtani during his spring pitching debut:
Ohtani's fastball, which ranged between 89 and 97 mph in 2020, touched 100 mph Friday. And not for the first time this spring as he was also clocked at 100 mph during a bullpen session the previous Saturday.
As for his splitter, leave it to Rob Friedman (AKA the "Pitching Ninja") to illustrate just how unhittable it was:
In addition to the sheer nastiness of his two primary weapons, it's also noteworthy that Ohtani threw 24 of 41 pitches for strikes and, in the words of Angels manager Joe Maddon, was more "clean and consistent" with his delivery Friday.
Given his history, whether Ohtani's health will permit him to stay on the mound for regular starts is a good question. But for now, it's good enough that this is the first time in a long time Ohtani has been able to gear up for a season without having to worry about an injury or rust.
Why to Believe in Ohtani's Bat
As impressive as he was on the mound last week, highlights don't get much more rewatchable than the absolute tank of a home run Ohtani hit a couple of days earlier:
The Angels didn't see that kind of power from Ohtani all that often in 2020. In 44 games, he hit just seven home runs and finished in just the 55th percentile with his exit velocity.
But in 2018 and 2019, Ohtani's exit velocity was in the 96th and 97th percentiles, respectively. Because he also kept his walk and strikeout rates in respectable territories, his results included a 134 OPS+ and 40 home runs in 210 games.
As for what happened in 2020, the rust that hindered him on the mound was also a factor at the plate as he struggled with his mechanics and his timing. It also didn't help that MLB prohibited access to in-game video last year—in part because of the pandemic and in part because of the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal—which Ohtani understandably griped about this spring.
Ohtani is determined not to repeat the mechanical struggles he had last year. With his left knee now fully recovered, he's been emphasizing keeping his back foot planted so as to have a stronger hitting base.
"We've been seeing it all camp with that good balance and the ball coming off hot," Maddon said, according to Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com. "He's working good at-bats. The hitting coaches are very happy right now and so is Shohei. I know it can continue. He looks so much better than he did at really any point last year."
In-game video, meanwhile, is set to make a comeback in 2021. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, players will be able to watch video on iPads in a way that doesn't give away the opposing team's signs.
In short, two major forces that worked against Ohtani's bat in 2020 won't be issues again in 2021. Thus is his way cleared back to what he was doing in 2018 and 2019.
Shohei Ohtani, Uncaged
Albeit without any specific plans, the Angels were broadcasting at the outset of spring training that they weren't going to hold Ohtani back as either a hitter or a pitcher in 2021. If all goes well, he'll work as both their primary designated hitter and as a member of their six-man rotation.
Again, Ohtani's health will ultimately have the final say on how many starts he makes and how many plate appearances he takes this season. But since he looks genuinely good to go on both fronts, it's fair game to imagine what a full season's worth of his hitting and pitching might look like.
This is where the first two months of his rookie season are instructive. Before the injury bug came for him in June, Ohtani had made eight starts and taken 117 plate appearances through May. Had he stayed on those trajectories, he would have finished 2018 with 24 starts and between 350 and 400 plate appearances.
On their own, neither of those sample sizes is befitting of an impact player. But together...well, that's a different story. Because not even Babe Ruth hit those marks in a single season, Ohtani would be the first player to do so since Harry Howell all the way back in 1902.
Within those sample sizes, the best possible versions of Ohtani would be a candidate for a .900-plus OPS and 25 home runs as a hitter and a sub-3.00 ERA and upwards of 200 strikeouts as a pitcher. By way of being elite at two part-time jobs, he'd be an elite full-timer.
Or, in other words, an AL MVP candidate.
This is obviously less of a promise and more of a possibility. But it's certainly an intriguing one, and the Angels and baseball fans everywhere will be treated to a season unlike any other if it comes true.