Angels: Shohei Ohtani’s spring pitching debut a step in right direction

Los Angeles Angels, MLB Spring Training

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Shohei Ohtani made his first start of Spring Training on Friday against the Oakland Athletics and looked to be back to the pitcher he was in 2018.

The stuff wasn’t as good as it can be, but for the Los Angeles Angels, watching Shohei Ohtani pitch in a game for the first time this spring, it must seem like a case of so far, so good.

Ohtani threw 41 pitches in his Spring Training debut at Hohokam Stadium on Friday, striking out five Oakland Athletics hitters over 1.2 innings while giving up three extra-base hits and walking two. His fastball, which seemed to abandon him in 2020, averaged between 96-99 mph, according to Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen.

But it was his splitter that fooled the Athletics the most. Three of his five strikeouts came on the sharp-breaking pitch that seems to just drop out of the zone. Mitch Moreland swung over a splitter to end the first inning, while Mark Canha feebly waved at one low and inside — the last pitch Ohtani threw before he was lifted for reliever Kyle Keller. If the splitter is working as it did on Friday, Ohtani is at his best; in his only full season as pitcher, 2018, opponents hit just .036 off of it, with just two hits in 191 pitches. Ohtani said following the game he was “encouraged with where his splitter is right now,” according to The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya.

Shohei Ohtani providing plenty of excitement this spring

Ohtani can be baseball’s premier two-way player if he’s able to make a successful return to the pitching mound. He’s thrown just 1.2 innings since 2018. After missing the entire 2019 season following Tommy John surgery, he had an ERA of 37.80 in his only two games in 2020. The last three fastballs he threw topped out at 89 before he was shut down for the rest of the season with a right elbow strain, limited only to appearances at the plate.

Manager Joe Maddon, though, says there are no restrictions on Ohtani going into the 2021 season. The Angels are planning to utilize a six-man rotation, and Ohtani, who usually only pitched on pre-determined days, will make his regular turn.

The Angels signed Ohtani in 2018 to be a two-day player, rejecting any calls for him to be used exclusively as either a batter or hitter. He changed his workout routine this offseason in order to overcome the injuries that have plagued his short Major League career. He even paid a visit to Driveline Baseball in Kent, Wash., which bills itself as “the first data-driven baseball player development organization in the world” and boasts a clientele that includes more than 75 professional pitchers, including Trevor Bauer and Clayton Kershaw.

Ohtani showed off his potential at the plate on Wednesday, sending a ball 468-feet over the batter’s eye in center field in a game against the Texas Rangers. On Friday, he got his turn on the mound, and for Maddon and the Angels, it should be a relief that he looked like the pitcher he was in 2018.

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