Shohei Ohtani said he topped out at 97 mph while throwing live batting practice on Wednesday, an encouraging development that further supports the enthusiasm voiced by prominent members of the Los Angeles Angels throughout the offseason.
Ohtani, the two-way player from Japan who hasn’t pitched regularly since the start of the 2018 season, threw against infielders Jared Walsh and Luis Rengifo at the team’s spring training complex in Tempe, Arizona, and stated through an interpreter that his right elbow feels “much better compared to last year.” The session came 24 hours after Ohtani hit in live batting practice, which falls in line with the Angels’ plan not to be so restrictive with his usage.
Ohtani, 26, made his highly anticipated return from Tommy John surgery during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, but he lasted two starts — recording only five outs — before straining the flexor pronator mass near his surgically repaired elbow, limiting him to only hitting.
After a rough summer on both sides of the field, Ohtani set out on an aggressive offseason program in which he put himself in more game-like situations, adjusted his diet, tweaked his weight-training program, collected data to better measure his fatigue and sought counsel from third parties, including, sources said, experts at the popular training facility Driveline.
“We just kind of lift up the hood this offseason and really got down to the nitty-gritty to find out what we’re dealing with,” Ohtani’s agent from CAA, Nez Balelo, said. “And then from there, we built him back up and formed a program that we thought was extremely applicable to where he’s at right now in his career.”
The Angels checked on Ohtani’s progress constantly. And as he navigated through his first offseason as the team’s general manager, Perry Minasian raved about the reports he received, at one point predicting Ohtani would be “a difference-maker-type player” in 2021. The Angels vowed to keep him as a two-way player and not treat him as cautiously as they might have in prior years.
“The rules are — there aren’t going to be any rules,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said shortly after pitchers and catchers reported last Wednesday.
The following day, Maddon met with Ohtani and his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, to lay out the details of a weekly schedule in which Ohtani’s hitting would play off his pitching and also stress upon the importance of transparency.
“I want him to take charge and command his career more, in a sense, and what happens on a daily basis,” Maddon said. “The thing about him, coming from Japan — he comes from such a respectful background where I think authoritative figures are not gonna be questioned as much as it happens over here. And I wanted to tell him, ‘Hey, I’m good with this. I want you to know that I want you to tell me what you’re thinking. I don’t want you to hold back.'”
Thirty teams basically wanted Ohtani when he made himself available three offseasons ago. He chose the Angels partly because of their promise to commit to him as a two-way player, then flashed that potential in April and May of his first season — before suffering the torn ulnar collateral ligament that necessitated surgery. While rehabbing, Ohtani remained a productive designated hitter, batting .286/.351/.532 in 792 plate appearances from 2018 to 2019.
In 2020, though, Ohtani managed a .190 batting average and a 37.80 ERA. Maddon saw a pitcher who struggled to repeat his delivery and a hitter who constantly over-rotated, clear indications, in his mind, of someone who had been taken out of his routine and might have put too much pressure on himself to produce in a limited schedule.
This year, Ohtani said, “I wanna have fun and just feel good out there. And do my job where it’s [needed]. I wanna make Joe use me as much as possible.”