Angels' Shohei Ohtani Shows Pitching Potential Again In Return To Mound
ANAHEIM, Calif.—For the Angels to end their six-year postseason drought, they are going to need Shohei Ohtani the pitcher as well as Ohtani the hitter.
With a fastball that reaches triple digits, a devastating splitter and a swing-and-miss slider, Ohtani has a front-of-the-rotation type of arsenal that no Angels pitcher—and few in the American League—can match. For an Angels team whose starters have had ERAs of 5.52 and 5.64 the last two seasons, having a healthy and effective Ohtani is critical.
Ohtani took an important step in that direction Tuesday night, throwing four scoreless innings with one hit allowed in his first start since being sidelined by a blister to help the Angels pick up a 6-2 win over the Rangers.
Ohtani’s control was off, but his stuff was good enough to wriggle out of it. He walked six batters and hit another, but struck out seven and allowed only one ball to leave the infield. Most importantly, he left after reaching his prescribed limit of 80 pitches without any blister issues or other health setbacks.
“There were no issues,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “I was trying to avoid getting a blister, but I think I’m ready to go.”
Three years after arriving in the United States to nearly unprecedented hype, Ohtani the hitter is an established star in the majors. Since entering the league in 2018, Ohtani has a higher OPS than Kris Bryant, Francisco Lindor, DJ LeMahieu and Jose Abreu, among many other stars. His 119 mph maximum exit velocity is the second-highest in the majors this year, and he has the 13th-fastest sprint speed to boot.
Ohtani the pitcher remains an enigma. He is now 4-3, 3.92 in 14 career starts, with 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings but also 5.9 walks per nine. Frequent injuries and his control issues have hampered his durability and and given rise to a sentiment that he should drop pitching and focus exclusively on hitting.
The Angels have no such plans. Ohtani flashed his unparalleled ability when he threw a 100 mph fastball and hit a home run 115 mph off the bat in the same inning against the White Sox in his first start of the season. His outing on Tuesday, in which he pitched but did not hit, was just his fourth start in three years since having Tommy John surgery, and the Angels firmly expect his control will improve the more he throws.
“I think (the walks) will dissipate,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “As (he) gets his rhythm out there, it'll go away. He's had issues in the past a little bit with the fastball command, but the more we get him out there the more the command will show up.”
Ohtani showed why it’s worth holding out for against the Rangers. Even without his control, he was able to get swings and misses by the bunch and keep the runs off the board.
Ohtani walked the bases loaded in the first inning and had runners in scoring position in the second and fourth innings, but each time was able to get strikeouts in big spots with his splitter. He struck out Nick Solak and Willie Calhoun swinging on splitters to escape his first-inning jam, got Isiah Kiner-Falefa to chase a splitter in the dirt to end the second and struck out Kiner-Falefa on a splitter again to end the fourth and finish his night on a high note.
“I would say my splitter was the only pitch that was actually working for me,” Ohtani said. “The other pitches were all over the place, but I was able to get through the outing.”
If Ohtani can stay healthy and build on the outing, it will go a long way for his club. The Angels finished in the top 10 of MLB in most offensive categories last season and again rank in the top 10 in hits, runs and OPS this year. Their starting pitching, however, has once again been an issue. Angels starters have thrown just 70 innings this season, second-fewest in the majors, and have a 5.53 ERA, 26th in the majors.
Ohtani is the individual most capable of fixing that. If he can, the Angels will have a much better chance of turning their playoff dreams into a reality.
“We have to get to the point where the command is to tidied it up a bit and it will,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “I've seen this in the past with other guys. It will tidy up and then you're going to see him more deeply into games, because that kind of stuff doesn't really get knocked around.”