After watching Shohei Ohtani’s major league debut on the mound, here’s a little piece of advice: Let this play out. Don’t rush to any judgments. Appreciate the athlete, applaud his pursuit of something that hasn’t been done in 100 years and sit back and enjoy performances like the one he gave Sunday.
The hype around Ohtani was tempered a bit after an unimpressive spring training, but with the bright lights of the regular season turned on, Ohtani showed the stuff and the makeup that makes his potential as a pitcher so exciting. He reached 100 mph on the radar gun a couple of times, averaged 97.8 mph with his fastball and hit 98 in his final inning of work in the sixth and retired 14 of his final 15 batters. This was the pitcher every team dreamed of signing.
The Los Angeles Angels held off the Oakland Athletics 7-4, with Ohtani earning the win. It wasn’t a perfect outing. In the second inning, he hung a slider that Matt Chapman crushed for a three-run home run. His fastball command was shaky at times, and his slider was inconsistent, although it became sharper as the game went on. Most impressive was how he settled down after Chapman’s home run, not rattled by one mistake. After a long rest in the top of the sixth, he finished off his outing in quick order, retiring the A’s on eight pitches.
The raw stuff was obviously impressive. He induced 18 swing-and-misses -- Angels starters beat that just three times in 2017, and only one pitcher (Alex Colome) generated more misses in his first career start over the past 10 seasons. The splitter will definitely be his big strikeout weapon, as five of his six strikeouts came on that pitch. He had a tendency to yank his fastball to right-handed batters when trying to hit the outside corner, and the slider at times looked more like a lazy curveball. Based on the Statcast pitch readings, he has a couple of different splitters -- one that dives down and one that moves more horizontally. He kept bouncing fastballs in the dirt in Arizona, but he had only a couple of those Sunday, a sign of a more consistent release point.
He worked from the stretch the entire game, and I saw just one overt display of emotion, when he pulled a 2-2 fastball to Chapman in the fourth and shook his head in disgust. But he went on to strike out Chapman with a 3-2 splitter. Ohtani's competitiveness has been heralded, and perhaps that was what we saw Sunday: that spring training is just a way to get ready for the season, and Ohtani kept to his routine and kept his best stuff for when it matters. Keep in mind that because of ankle surgery, he pitched only 25 innings last season, so some of the problems during spring training might have just been rust. He has to deal with a baseball that is slightly different from the one used in Japan (where the ball is softer and has higher seams) while handling all the culture changes.
And he has to do this under intense scrutiny. The A’s issued 240 credentials just to members of the Japanese media. As Ohtani emerged from the dugout to take his pregame warm-up, a throng of photographers besieged him, temporarily blocking his way to the bullpen. As Tim Keown wrote, "The magnitude of this moment should not be minimized."
Indeed, Ohtani has become the first player to start a game at pitcher and as a DH or position player in the same season since Rick Rhoden of the Yankees in 1988. Rhoden was a good-hitting pitcher, but it happened just once and was mostly a gimmick by manager Billy Martin. You might remember Brooks Kieschnick, who started seven games in the outfield or at DH with the Brewers in 2003, but all 42 of his pitching appearances came in relief. Rick Ankiel won 11 games as a rookie starter with the Cardinals in 2000 and later made it back to the majors as an outfielder.
Before Rhoden, there was the interesting case of Willie Smith, who reached the majors as a pitcher in 1963. With the Angels in 1964, he made one start and 14 relief appearances through mid-June, posting a 2.84 ERA, but the Angels converted him to an outfielder in midseason -- remarkably, batting him cleanup in just his second start in the outfield. Once he started playing the field, however, he stopped pitching. The last player to start at least five games on the mound and five as a position player in the same season was Clint Hartung with the Giants in 1947. So, yes, Ohtani’s attempt to play both ways is remarkable in itself.
While Ohtani showed his potential on the mound, there are more questions about him at the plate. Nobody denies his raw power, but will he be able to tap into it? In his start at DH on Opening Day, he pulled four ground balls, one of which went for a hit, and struck out once. On MLB Network Radio the other day, former general manager Jim Bowden suggested Ohtani was cheating a bit on inside fastballs -- the pitch he had trouble getting around on during spring training -- which can cause a batter to roll over on the ball and pound it into the ground.
As a pitcher, Ohtani is ready for this level, and we’ll see if he’s ready to dominate. As a hitter, he could probably use 500 at-bats in the minors. Instead, he’ll have to learn at the major league level. The Angels might have to show extraordinary patience, and if he starts twice a week at DH, it’s going to take a few months before we can get a good read on him as a hitter.
Only one player in major league history has won 10 games and hit 10 home runs in the same season: Babe Ruth. Only one player has done it in Japan: Shohei Ohtani. Let’s see what happens.