In Their Own Words: Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout And Others On A Historic Rookie Season
In the course of writing Shohei Ohtani’s Rookie of the Year feature, a lot of people within the game shared interesting tidbits and thoughts about the two-way Japanese sensation. Some of those made it into our magazine feature, many others did not due to space limitations.
Here is a selection of some of those notable items and insights collected over hours of interviews, including from Ohtani himself.
— A lot was made of Ohtani’s spring training struggles before the season. During our interview I asked Ohtani what his most memorable moment was from his rookie season, and in the course of his answer he acknowledged his spring training struggles affected him.
“Probably Opening Day in Oakland,” Ohtani said was his most memorable moment through translator Ippei Mizuhara. “During spring training and the exhibition games I wasn’t having great results pitching or hitting, so I was pretty worried going into the season. But every year I’m excited about Opening Day, especially a new country, a new league like this, it made it even more exciting. It was a lot of mixed emotions.”
— When I asked if his worries were settled after his big first week, Ohtani said he still wasn’t sure.
“I wouldn’t say all my worries were gone after that first week, because honestly even when I hit those three home runs and pitched well, I’m not sure if that was some luck involved or if that was my skill. I couldn’t really tell at that point.”
Part of that stemmed from Ohtani’s uncertainty as a hitter. When he came over to the U.S, most observers (but not all) felt Ohtani would have more success as a pitcher than hitter. Ohtani, in his own estimation, felt he had a lot more work to do as a hitter than a pitcher to be successful in the major leagues.
“On the hitting side I was trying to make adjustments from the beginning. A lot of people were trying help me give me advice, test out new things. I don’t think that’s ever going to change as a hitter. I’m always going to constantly try to make adjustments trying to get better. That’s one thing I really needed was an adjustment as a hitter at the major league level. On the other hand, on the pitching side, I felt like I didn’t really need to change much from my times in Japan.”
— Ohtani has been compared to Babe Ruth for a long time as a two-way player. Now that it’s no longer hyperbole—he joined Ruth this year as the only players in MLB history hit 20 home runs and pitch 50 innings in the same season—I asked Ohtani how he felt to see physically see his name alongside Ruth in the record books.
“It’s very honoring to be compared or seeing my name next to someone like Babe Ruth. But at the same time, it’s small sample size, it’s only been one year, you can’t really say I’m comparable to Babe Ruth. I want to try and improve each year and get better each year and hopefully after it’s over, it will be somewhat comparable.”
— On a lighter note, I asked Ohtani what was his biggest off-the-field adjustment he had to make coming to the U.S this year. His answer wasn’t quite what I expected.
“Off the field there wasn’t much that I needed to adjust. The only thing different I can think of is I started making breakfast every day.”
And what did he typically make for breakfast?
“Omelettes. It was my first time making omelettes this year. I’m pretty confident I’ve made more omelettes than any other big leaguer this year,” he said, laughing.
— As mentioned in the feature, Angels general manager Billy Eppler first saw Shohei Ohtani in 2013 in Japan when Ohtani was an 18-year-old rookie in Nippon Professional Baseball. Eppler expanded on his thoughts about a teenaged Ohtani, whom he went back to see in Japan in 2014 and 2015 as a Yankees assistant GM.
“I’d seen some really good hitting pitchers in college and so on and so forth, but you start to equate the level of competition and we equate the NPB as (being) as close to the major leagues you can get. Of all the leagues on the planet, that’s the one in our estimation that is the closest to the major leagues. And so now you’re seeing maybe what you saw some other players do in college, but that was college, that’s still a lot of levels away. And he was doing it so close. It was something more unique and remarkable than I had ever seen done before.
“You kind of saw this tall, lengthy, gangly explosive athlete who moved well and threw well and was extremely strong and just needed time, that was it. He was in his development stages over there. It wasn’t surprising to me to know the number of that talked to him about signing out of high school. There’s a reason teams wanted him there at that time.”
The Yankees, Eppler noted, were one of the teams interested in Ohtani out of high school.
“When I was with the Yankees we saw him in high school. I didn’t personally see him in high school but we covered him in high school, we talked to him in high school, and so you knew at that point ‘Oh yeah, you’d love to sign him then.’”
— But it wasn’t in high school or even that rookie season in NPB there was true conviction that Ohtani really could play both ways in the majors leagues. For Eppler at least, that conviction came later.
“I wish I could kind of timestamp it for you, but it was within that ‘15, ‘16, ‘17 season, towards the back end. I couldn’t really articulate the moment of clarity where it all snapped. You tend to approach some things with optimism in scouting but you also approach some things with caution. You start to see, this guy is going to be able to compete on both sides of the baseball and let’s just try to give him the opportunity to do both. And that’s ultimately what we were able to do here, just give him the opportunity and he hit the ground.”
— While Eppler saw Ohtani play in Japan, he never actually met or spoke with him. The first time they formally met was at the Angels recruiting pitch to Ohtani at Creative Artists Agency headquarters in Los Angeles in Dec. 2017.
“Never spoke to him directly in Japan. I was not comfortable going down on the field. They’ll let you go down on the field for batting practice sometimes, things of that nature, if you have a relationship with the club. I was not comfortable, while I was going down and watching BP or whatever up close, I was not comfortable introducing myself to the player. He had a job to do, he wanted to focus on the game and that club wanted to win their game and I didn’t kind of want to break that.
— Eppler and his staff presented Ohtani with a plan to utilize him both ways at the meeting. However, it took a trip to Japan the following month to actually get the information needed to put the theoretical plan into action.
“We flew over in January to meet with him and kind of discuss…a lot of the process in December was us talking to Shohei about what we would do, we never really got an opportunity to say ‘Ok, now critique our plan.’ So we needed that opportunity and we took that in January, myself and Bernard Li, who is our director of sports science, and Yoichi Terada who is our massage therapist who is actually from Japan—he kind of came over also as he knows the lay of the land and acted as an interpreter on our behalf—and then Eric Chavez. So us four went over to Japan to meet with him in January and we met with him and we met with his parents, we met with his coaches, we met with his manager Mr. (Hideki) Kuriyama, everybody with Nippon Ham. (We) spent some days there to put our hands on the player and start to take our own assessments and also to get his feedback on the plan, and sit down with his strength and conditioning coaches, and really understand everything that went into it.”
Based on their talks and findings in Japan in January, that’s how Eppler and the Angels settled on Ohtani’s schedule – pitch one day a week, have the days before and after off and hit the other four days.
“That was a lot of the impetus behind us going to Japan. To understand that workload and understand what roadmap they used. It’s a different environment, different travel demands, different schedules, so on and so forth, but they did have a working model and we wanted to better understand that and use that as a template to derive our own model. Once we met with Shohei and kind of went through the plans with him we knew that, look, a starting pitcher that’s going to throw anywhere between 90 and 115 pitches or whatever they’re going to throw, that pitcher is going to be the most tired player at the end of the game. That’s 90 or 100 or 110 explosions on the mound, like everything you have. So taking the day before and taking the day after allowed, for one, for him to fuel kind of before the start and for him to kind of recover after the start. So we knew the day before and the day pitching and the day after were going to be days allocated to pitching, and then the other four days could be allocated towards hitting but they still also had some pitching aspect whether it was dry work on the mound or a light side work or heavy side.”
— Regulating that workload was going to be critical, and the Angels didn’t leave anything to chance. They ran Ohtani through extensive tests every day to monitor his health.
“We just knew that we had to maintain his fuel tank, and that’s why you saw us occasionally just proactively step in and give him a day off. Every single day we were collecting physical data from him and medical data from him and subjective data from him—things that he would tell us, ‘How do you feel?’, ‘How’d you sleep?” and so on and so forth—and then things we could actually measure. There was data we were getting every day. And so we would made our assessments on play, no play, based off of that data and based off of his feedback to us. And that at times just say, ‘You know what? I think there’s probably more risk than reward in having him play here.’ So that kind of helped us establish a day-to-day operation with him. It was unique because while we do take the measurements on players and get their feedback and their subjective information, you’re dealing with a player that’s playing like a constant position. And in this case you have to really examine it closely to see what they’re going through.”
— Of course, it didn't prevent Ohtani from ultimately needing Tommy John surgery. Eppler has stated on multiple occasions, including in the feature, the surgery has not changed the Angels' plans to use him as both a starting pitcher and designated hitter simultaneously when he returns to full health. He expanded on that here:
"He’s impactful in the batter’s box and he’s impactful on the mound. So for us to be able to get him back to that, unfortunately we’re going to have to sit out a year of watching him get on the mound. I trust the surgeons, I trust the process, I trust the players work ethic and attention to detail and how he approaches everything that he wants to be great at, so it gives me confidence. My goal is that this story ends with Shohei back on that mound striking out hitters and taking the game deep into the later innings and dominating on the mound and continuing to dominate in the batters box, which he’ll still be able to do while he’s in his rehabilitation made."
— As far as on the field this season, while Ohtani struggled badly in spring training to the point he acknowledged it rattled him a little bit, Eppler said starting Ohtani in the minors was never an option he considered.
“I talked to Shohei a couple times in spring training, but ultimately he was going to go because what else did he have to prove? There was nothing left to prove. The mindset I was trying to get everybody in was take the mindset of a top prospect. Pretend we have the No. 1 prospect in baseball who has dominated everywhere he’s been except the major leagues, and what’s left? The only thing that’s left is major leagues. So don’t overthink it. Get out of your own way. We were going to put him in the major leagues, and let him go.”
— Angels manager Mike Scioscia discussed Ohtani a lot during the Angels final series of the season, which also turned out to be Scioscia’s final series as Angels manager. Prior to the penultimate game of the season, Scioscia was asked if he initially harbored any doubts before the season about Ohtani being able playing both ways.
“Not once I saw video on him pitching, seeing him carve up some of the best hitters in our league in the Japan Tour that Major League Baseball went over on (in 2014). There was no doubt he could pitch. You see the swing, you see the bat speed, where you could surmise he was going to be able to hit also. Although he hasn’t pitched as much as maybe we had hoped, he definitely showed tremendous stuff and what he’s done in the batter’s box is obvious.”
— While Ohtani’s physical skills are what draw raves, Scioscia made a point to highlight mental preparation as a key to Ohtani’s success in actually achieving both disciplines.
“He’s a very meticulous preparer. He prepares for hitting and pitching to the nth degree. It’s something that he’s always done in Japan and he came over here and just was seamless in his transition. He’s grown by knowing the league, getting used to the parks, understanding umpires, the nuances of umpires zones and just a lot of stuff.”
— A Japanese reporter asked Scioscia how the impact of Ohtani’s rookie season compared to Hideo Nomo’s in 1995. Scioscia, who was the Dodgers minor league catching coordinator in 1995, said Nomo might have been more impactful but for different reasons.
“It’s a little bit different because of 1994. Because after baseball shut down it was a perilous time for our sport and when Hideo came over in a major market and to do what he did, there’s no doubt that it was a great thing for our sport…. I think what Shohei has done has been incredible. He’s helped our organization tremendously just with the talent and I think that he’s had a magnificent season. But I don’t think you can compare the two with what Hideo did back in 1995 and what Shohei is accomplishing this year.”
— Scioscia was asked if he though Ohtani’s success both pitching and hitting this year would open the path for more players to play both ways in the major leagues. His response:
“What he’s done is not easy. It’s not like saying ‘Oh anybody can do it now.’ What he’s done is exceptional. He’s an exceptional talent. If there’s another guy that comes along with the exceptional talent of hitting at that level and being able to pitch at that level, then obviously they’ll get the opportunity. He’s shown it because of exceptional talent, not just the opportunity. There are going to be guys that hit better than they pitch. There are going to be guys that maybe pitch better than they hit. He happens to do both at a very, very high level, and that’s why he’s getting the opportunity.”
— That led into a discussion of past players Scioscia thought maybe could have played both ways if they had received the opportunity. A veteran reporter brought up Fernando Valenzuela who, while rightly remembered for his pitching excellence as a rookie in 1981, also hit .250 that year. Said Scioscia:
“Fernando was not the offensive talent that Shohei is. Shohei’s got so much oppo power. But Fernando was a very, very good hitter, I mean a good hitter. I think he could have done it to be honest with you. He was only hitting every fourth or fifth day but still, he was a threat. Ken Brett, no doubt. He could have easily done it. I saw him growing up in Philly…. Darren Dreifort, he’s someone else that could have done it. No doubt. The only thing is as a starter. When he went to the bullpen, it makes it more problematic. But he could hit.”
— The best player in baseball had a front-row seat to Ohtani this year. Even Mike Trout acknowledges that at first, he had doubts someone actually pitch and hit simultaneously in the major leagues today.
“Coming into it, I was like there’s no way,” Trout said. “But I hadn’t really personally met him before spring and once I came into spring and I saw him pitch and saw him hit I said ‘This guy has everything he needs to succeed up here.’”
— Trout’s gave a glowing assessment of Ohtani as both a player and teammate. It was also clear Ohtani earned the respect of his teammates by continuing to hit through his torn UCL.
“He was unbelievable. Pretty impressive, pretty unique situation he’s in. He throws 100 and can hit 500-foot homers. He could have easily shut it down and he told himself ‘I want to keep pushing, putting up great numbers and finish strong,’ and you can’t take that fight away from him. I’m sure he’s a little upset about surgery, but he’s going to come back stronger and throwing harder. It’s pretty special.
“He’s gotta have a great mindset (to do what he did). You can’t get down on yourself. He asks questions a lot. You never see him angry. He’s always smiling. If he gets out he comes out next at-bat and just keeps grinding and just trying to get better. And he’s learning. It’s scary. He’s putting up great numbers this year, wait ‘til he learns and figures out the league.”
— The admiration for Ohtani amongst players wasn’t limited to his teammates. Ohtani made two starts against the A’s and also hit in 10 games against them, giving Oakland players a close look at him both ways.
Stephen Piscotty: “Generational type of talent. It’s special and it’s rare. It’s just great someone can do both so well. He’s got plus stuff and pitched pretty aggressively. Obviously he had that game against us where he struck us out again and again and again. He was electric. If he can do that for an entire season he’s going to be very special. (Offensively) he’s got great numbers. As an outfielder we treat him like a power guy that can run, so you gotta honor both. It’s been impressive how he battles and stays in there. He’s had a lot of, at least against us, quality at-bats where he’s moving guys over and taking the sac fly when he can and all that sort of stuff. He’s pretty polished.”
Jed Lowrie: “It’s pretty amazing what he’s doing. It’s a lot of fun to watch, particularly when you’re not in the box against him. The guy is a bonafide superstar.
“The stuff can just be overpowering, particularly when he got ahead in the count. And then I feel like he’s just as gifted if not more in the box than he is on the mound. To come in as a rookie and hit 20 homers and 20 doubles in 300 something at-bats, anytime you got a guy with one extra base hit every 10 at-bats, you know a guy is hitting pretty well.”