Getting something wrong is the worst part of this job, and in writing a piece during spring training about your hitting abilities, I did just that. I relayed the words of scouts with well over 100 years of combined experience who shared the same opinion: That your swing was flawed, and that the difficulty of what you were attempting – to become the first player in a century to start in a rotation and on non-pitching days take regular at-bats, and do so in a new league, speaking a new language, adjusting to a new country – would prevent you from making the necessary adjustments to hit major league stuff.
Over the course of the past week, not only have you invalidated that premise, you have done so in such convincing fashion that during my third helping of crow – one for each of your home runs – I realized I needed to explain how I came to the flawed conclusion. Over the past few days, I’ve essentially re-reported the story to better understand what the scouts may have missed, what biases may have influenced me not challenging the certainty with which they spoke and what I can do going forward to avoid another such a spectacular whiff.
Let’s start with this: For all the substance and intelligence of scouts, their craft is an inexact science. The best scouts collate a lifetime’s worth of seeing players into their brains and make judgments based on what they’ve witnessed lead to success and failure. Their conclusions aren’t guesses; they are educated assessments. Their deep knowledge of baseball and passion for it lends a deep, complementary perspective to the statistical analysis that likewise enriches the game. The emergence of a true outlier – and that’s what you are – doesn’t invalidate their expertise. It offers them another data point to hone their evaluations moving forward.
The first scout to express concern with you in early March spoke with conviction about the issues he saw – namely balance at the plate, trouble with inside fastballs and difficulty hitting major league curveballs. I called others and asked if they’d seen the same. They concurred. One international scout, who had marveled watching you hit multiple times while in Japan, asked where that guy went. Each of the scouts, sensitive to how difficult the game is, wondered how anyone could do an on-the-fly reimagining of his swing in such a short period of time.
And there it was, in the last exhibition game of the year against the Los Angeles Dodgers, seemingly out of nowhere. You ditched your leg kick and tried a new timing mechanism: a slight inward twist of your front ankle. The balance issues disappeared. You weren’t late on fastballs anymore. The scouts weren’t wrong. Something did need to change. You just changed with such ease that they’re still flummoxed.
“I think it has more to do with great athletes making quick adjustments,” the scout said this week, “and teams not knowing how to attack him yet.”
It was a good lesson for me in rendering judgment before a player even tries to adjust. In baseball, the best athletes are often the ones most capable of fixing themselves and finding something new that works. Giancarlo Stanton, one of the game’s purest athletes, reinvents his swing all the time when he slumps badly and finds a way each time to tap into his deep power reserves. All spring, your teammates were telling anyone who would listen: You should see Ohtani in batting practice. It’s special. And I scoffed, having seen dozens of guys who put on a BP show only to shrink during games.
Then you hammered a Josh Tomlin curveball for a home run in your first at-bat at Angel Stadium. And the next day you took reigning American League Cy Young winner Corey Kluber deep to center field. And a day after that, it was a 450-foot shot to the opposite field. I received a text from a longtime scout with whom I didn’t speak for the original story – one who has spent more than a decade scouting baseball in Asia.
“It is safe to assume you are learning the first lesson of scouting Asians,” he said. “Never evaluate them in spring training. They are on their own program. Ichiro and [Akinori] Iwamura didn’t hit a ball hard or to the right side of shortstop their first spring.”
I’d dismissed this the first time through, fearful of lumping you with dissimilar players simply because they’re your countrymen. The scout had a point, though: Baseball culture in Japan differs from that in the United States, and guiding principles accompany most who try to jump to MLB.
“It’s been my experience that Asians are so drilled and regimented in their approach they put no performance stock in spring training,” the scout said. “They work on tracking, sequencing and other process-type stuff. Performance is last. Unlike the vets, they do not appear to turn up the performance side the last week of spring training and instead do so opening day.”
Now, the original story did note that this wasn’t a case of scouts looking at your spring-training performance, though in hindsight I wonder: If you had a couple extra hits here or there, would they have been as inclined to doubt you? I don’t know. I do know that I tried to get a cross-section of younger scouts and veterans, ones with experience in Asia and those without, and that the agreement among them was universal. Maybe there was a subconscious selection bias in those I chose to ask. Perhaps I should’ve kept poking around until I found a contrarian, if only to see if that viewpoint invalidated any of the others’. All good lessons to learn.
There’s also the sabermetric element, something I was loath to consider because of the tiny sample of plate appearances when I wrote the piece. Another scout not consulted for the original piece chimed in this week and said: “I did happen to know his exit velos were goofy.” And, yes, in Japan, your speed off the bat was elite.
This brings up an important part of the story, one that caused a fair bit of consternation. One scout said you were “basically like a high school hitter because [you’ve] never seen a good curveball.” My hope was this would be seen for the hyperbole it was. By and large, the curveballs in Japan do not match the quality of those in the big leagues. I should have paraphrased it nonetheless. Because lost in its inflammatory nature was a truly salient argument: Curveballs did perplex you all spring, and the criticisms about the balance were on-point.
The other faux pas was the headline: “The verdict is in on Shohei Ohtani’s bat and it’s not good.” If I replace “verdict” with “early report,” it sounds plenty more reasonable. Still wrong, but at least more fair.
And fairness isn’t just the goal. It’s an imperative. Those exit-velocity numbers would’ve at very least helped balance the story – and looked prescient. All seven of your hits have left the bat traveling at least 100 mph. The hardest-hit ball: 112.8 mph. The last home run: 112.4 mph. Only 32 players in the big leagues this year have reached 112 mph even once.
“He still has work to do as the league catches up and is only 23,” the scout with significant experience in Asia said, “but seen him too much to have doubt. Power to the big field. Bat stays in zone for a long time with strength and bat speed. Has some holes and will have his share of Ks but has some hitterish feel to it. Was better with each view. Thought he was just a free swinger with big bat speed in 2015. By last spring, I was buying in.”
That makes two of us – and the rest of America that enjoys watching a guy hit home runs in three consecutive games and then take a perfect game into the seventh inning and punch out 12. Don’t get me wrong: I think you’re going to struggle sooner than later. Teams are going to adjust and pitchers are going to start respecting your power and you’re going to need to hunt mistakes. But you’ve shown the malleability and fortitude already to thrive in this environment, and for that …
1. Shohei Ohtani, you’ve earned the respects of plenty more doubters in front offices around the game. Sorry to report that scouts, executives, pitching coaches, analysts and pitchers already are workshopping a new approach to you.
“I’d go hard up and in and work away with off-speed, same way I’d approach [Cody] Bellinger,” one official said. “These long guys usually aren’t super strong and they are super long, so bust them in and try to limit their path to the ball. You can’t let these guys extend because then the leverage is in play and they can really launch. I’d also try to move his feet in the box by throwing inside early in counts. You can’t let guys like him find comfort because then they can lean out over the plate and cover the outside better.”
This would be a far better strategy if more pitchers threw inside these days. They don’t. So instead, the diet may consist of high fastballs and those off-speed pitches away – changeups from right-handers and sliders from lefties. Might work. Might not. At very least you’ve got the talent to figure it out.
Because let’s not forget, a week and a half into your major league career, you’ve got a
.389/.421/.889 slash line and 2.08 ERA. Sorry, but that’s even better than …
2. Bryce Harper’s .357/.535/1.000 line, which is saying something. Because Harper is on one of his jags to start the season, and it’s one hell of a way to commence the mother of all contract drives.
Publicly, Harper is not thinking that way. He will not talk about his impending free agency. Will not acknowledge the frenzy that will be in full force seven months from now. Will not address it in the least. Privately, this sort of start stokes fear in the teams that know they’re going to be in the sweepstakes. Because if this is Bryce Harper … if he has evolved into the paragon of patience we’ve seen with 13 walks against five strikeouts … if his home run stroke, which with six gives him more than the entire rosters of the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rays, Tigers, Royals and Marlins, remains true … well, if all that happens, the contract talks start with a 4 and feature eight more digits.
The 1.535 OPS might not last, but the fundamental evolution of Harper at 25 years old very well could. Seeing a monster turn into an uber-monster is something, though what …
3. Patrick Corbin has done in his first two starts makes me sorry nobody seems inclined to mention him among the top free agents this winter. Because between the quality of his stuff, the discovery of how to deploy it and the fact that at 29 years old he will be the youngest healthy starting pitcher on the market, Corbin may have the most to gain of any pending free agent.
Here’s the book on Corbin: Was chosen by the Angels out of the Syracuse area as part of what could be the best draft class in history, with Mike Trout, Garrett Richards, Randal Grichuk, Tyler Skaggs and Corbin five of their first six picks. Went to the Diamondbacks in the Dan Haren deal. Among his free-agent peers, he’s younger than Dallas Keuchel, has better stuff than Matt Harvey and throws harder than Gio Gonzalez.
He’s starting to figure things out as well, with a league-leading 20 strikeouts in his first two starts. He is, as Jeff Sullivan put it, McCullersing – i.e. throwing his breaking stuff far more frequently. The use of Corbin’s slider – his variations of sliders, really – has been impeccable. It doesn’t hurt having Haren – now employed by the Diamondbacks as a pitching strategist – helping devise the best way forward.
Because if the Diamondbacks want to make a run at the Dodgers, they need Corbin and Zack Godley and Taijuan Walker to be as good as they’ve been. With Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray, too, Arizona could challenge for the title of the best rotation in baseball. Which make you feel a little sorry for …
4. Charlie Blackmon having to play Arizona 19 times and hit one of those starters every time out. In a division with the Dodgers, and with the Padres set to graduate a number of phenomenal arms to the big leagues within the next two years, and with San Francisco a perpetual pitchers’ park, it does help to have some bats.
And so for the general praise lavished on Blackmon for his end of the six-year, $108 million contract he signed last week, the Rockies likewise deserve credit for how they played their end of the deal. Admittedly, Coors Field has the capacity to make average players look great, so the Rockies theoretically could have grown another Charlie Blackmon.
It’s difficult to bank on that. And it’s even harder to imagine bringing a marquee free agent to Colorado. It’s the sort of place that because of Coors Field and the volatility of playing there, the best free agents rarely consider the Rockies. So to get a talent like Blackmon is going to cost, but at very least Colorado knows what it bought. Blackmon’s numbers. His presence. Hopefully a better crack at re-signing superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado after next season. And no apologies – at least now – for signing a player into his late 30s. The St. Louis Cardinals, after all, aren’t sorry they locked up …
5. Yadier Molina into the twilight of his career, even if the benches-clearing incident Sunday was entirely avoidable. It’s important to clear up the context of what happened Sunday. Molina had stolen a pair of strikes on Luke Weaver pitches that looked outside the zone. When home-plate umpire Tim Timmons called a low third strike on A.J. Pollock, Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo left the dugout and immediately was ejected for arguing balls and strikes. How he did so drew Molina’s ire.
“All I know, is this [expletive] here,” Lovullo said, pointing to Molina, his words caught by a Fox Sports Arizona microphone, “he can’t make balls strikes! He can’t make balls strikes.”
In that situation, is Lovullo calling Molina an [expletive], in an insulting or derogatory way? Of course he isn’t. It’s almost a sign of respect – like, this thief, how dare he steal strikes from us? This guy, who does he think he is? This [expletive].
Molina’s temper boiled over in a hurry. As Timmons stood between him and Lovullo, Molina pushed the ump. He was not ejected, and if the umpires’ postgame comments are any indication, they seemed to agree with Molina – that the [expletive] was a rightful trigger for contempt. That sounds like quite the sorry take, though in terms of sorry, little can match the …
6. Tampa Bay Rays these days. The Rays have lost eight straight, and their 1-8 record is the worst in baseball. Their offense is almost unbelievably bad, hitting .188/.254/.264 going into Sunday’s game in which they scored a season-high seven runs … and blew a 7-2 lead to Boston in the eighth inning by surrendering six runs with two outs.
About nothing has gone right for the Rays this year. They lost potential starting pitchers Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon to Tommy John surgery for the year. Nathan Eovaldi, on whom they were relying as he came back from Tommy John, needed to be shut down. The four-man rotation experiment is interesting, certainly, but good, worthwhile, productive? It’s a long season.
The Rays do boast an excellent farm system, even with Honeywell and De Leon down, so help is on the way. Just not in time for this Rays team. They’re just sorry that they’re not more like the …
7. Pittsburgh Pirates, another team in an in-between transition pegged for a losing season. And here they are, 7-2, with the third-best run differential in baseball at +19, the pitching pretty meh but the bats putting on a show.
Six Pirates regulars are hitting over .300, and that doesn’t include Starling Marte, who may be their best player. Colin Moran and Corey Dickerson, both trade acquisitions this winter, are OPSing around .900. The breakout of Gregory Polanco may at long last be here: three home runs, a major league-leading 13 RBIs and, best of all, eight walks and six strikeouts.
The Pirates might be the best story in the National League right now if not for something happening about 350 miles due east. Sorry, yinzers, but the …
8. New York Mets are 7-1, just swept the Nationals in Washington, and have won four times during their five-game winning streak by two or fewer runs. In other words, the Mets are doing it with an excellent bullpen.
That’s right: With Jeurys Familia at the back, A.J. Ramos nearby for support, former starters Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo thriving, Jerry Blevins a lefty extraordinaire, Hansel Robles and Anthony Swarzak providing depth and even Jacob Rhame there for the extra-innings save Sunday night, the Mets have a lot of relief pitching, and a lot of pretty good relief pitching.
And that alone is going to win them the East. The Nationals remain a more talented team and, with Harper’s and Daniel Murphy’s free agency upcoming, one with the most urgency to win immediately. After ripping off four straight wins to start the season, they’ve now lost five consecutive. And it’s giving the Mets ample opportunity to own New York, at least for the time being, when Yankees fans want to feel all sorry for themselves because …
9. Giancarlo Stanton hung another platinum sombrero Sunday. In the Yankees’ 10th game of the season, Stanton became the first player ever to twice in one season strike out five times in a game without recording a hit.
There is no doubt that two five-strikeout games within six days says bad things about Stanton’s current state. Or that 20 strikeouts in 42 at-bats with a .167/.271/.429 line pretty much does the same. The Yankees are 5-5 while the Mets are 7-1. The Yankees guaranteed hundreds of millions of dollars to Stanton this offseason. The Mets brought back Jay Bruce, brought in Todd Frazier, stuck Jason Vargas at the back of their rotation and signed Swarzak. It was the quietest $88 million a team could possibly spend.
The money and hype around Stanton prompted the boos that rained down during the first sombrero. What Yankees fans will learn is that this is Stanton. He slumps about as badly as anyone in baseball. He looks lost. Sometimes he is. And then, eventually, he isn’t, and at which point he starts hitting home runs in bunches, and the strikeouts winnow away some, and this memory of Stanton getting booed seems that much more egregious.
He’s a big boy physically and emotionally, and when he gets back on track, maybe soon, maybe later, it may be …
10. Shohei Ohtani’s world and the rest of us are but servile inhabitants. Something like you – an actual phenomenon in baseball – does not come along all that often, so when it does, it’s worth enjoying.
Nobody is loving it more than the Angels, whom you chose because … well, executives around the league still aren’t sure. They’re just getting more jealous by the day. The Angels didn’t panic when you struggled. They had a plan. They stuck to it. They didn’t ditch the bat like some short-sighted people might have suggested.
And now they’re reaping the rewards. They have a 23-year-old right-handed pitcher who’s dotting 100-mph fastballs on the corners and devastating fools with a splitter. They have a 23-year-old left-handed-hitting DH with uncommon power, a decent eye and room to grow. It still boggles the mind that those are the same guy.
While a couple of the scouts still do believe that pitchers will exploit you offensively in the long run – “Anyone can have a great week in April,” one said – more than a few had a-ha moments this week. I hate to go back to the original column, but it’s important, because there’s a paragraph at the end that wasn’t a hedge but rather an acknowledgment that baseball is weird and that what’s never been seen today shows up tomorrow. Pardon the self-quoting here, but: “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.”
Yes. Yes they do. And of all the ways to describe you, and what you’re doing, special about sums it up.
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