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The Shohei Ohtani Rules: Handling a Two-Way Experiment With Care

The Shohei Ohtani Rules: Handling a Two-Way Experiment With Care


“We have stages,” he said. “We have ‘full gorilla,’ ‘touch and feel’ and ‘just get on the bump.’ So there’s varying degrees of what a pitcher will do depending on what he’s trying to accomplish. Do we have an understanding?”

“So tomorrow’s a full gorilla bullpen?” McNamee said.

“Yes,” the manager concurred.

Then Scioscia had a question.

Wondering how this might play out in Japanese newspapers the next day, he said, “Are we going to have a big picture of a gorilla and Ohtani?”

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Members of the Angels, including Luis Valbuena, left, and Mike Trout, right, congratulated Ohtani after he hit a home run against the Indians on April 3.

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Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

King Kong imagery aside, the arrival of the baby-faced Ohtani, who can belt tape-measure home runs and fire 100 mile-an-hour fastballs, has thrust this sleepy franchise into the national (and international) spotlight in a way that even Mike Trout, widely considered the best player in baseball, and Albert Pujols, who is closing in on 3,000 career hits, have not been able to do.

Ohtani’s assimilation has been — like Scioscia’s recent exchange — entertaining, uncertain and full of contortions, linguistic and otherwise, as the Angels go to extraordinary lengths to accommodate his desire to become the major leagues’ first two-way star since Babe Ruth a century ago.

They have, in fact, given Ohtani the full gorilla treatment.

The Angels will soon begin using a six-man pitching rotation that will require shuttling starters back and forth from the minor leagues so that Ohtani can take the mound once a week, as pitchers do in Japan. Although Ohtani is one of the team’s best hitters — he batted cleanup last Sunday — he does not go to the plate on the days he pitches, or on the days just before and after, so he can get mental and physical breaks.

The Angels adhere to this regimen so tightly that in their loss to Houston on Wednesday, Scioscia declined to use Ohtani as a pinch-hitter for Luis Valbuena in the seventh inning, even though a home run would have tied the score. (Valbuena flied out against Justin Verlander, against whom he is 3 for 33 in his career, and the Angels did not bring the tying run to the plate for the rest of the game.)

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Entering Friday’s game against the Yankees, Ohtani was batting .333 with three home runs and 11 runs batted in.

Credit
Chris Carlson/Associated Press

And though he is one of the team’s best athletes, at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Ohtani will not play in the outfield this season. This has meant that Pujols, 38, an immobile slugger, has often ceded the designated hitter role and played first base, where he has already appeared in twice as many games as he did all of last season.

Ohtani, who wears protective padding on his right hand, elbow and ankle when he bats, is just as shielded by the Angels outside the lines.

He speaks to reporters only after games in which he plays — and only in a news conference, which is sometimes limited to a handful of questions in English. When the Angels’ clubhouse is open for about an hour before games, reporters are free to interview Trout, Pujols or anyone else — but not Ohtani, who may be the most intriguing player in baseball at the moment.

Reporters have also been told they are prohibited from going into the left-field bleachers for an up-close view of Ohtani’s bullpen sessions, something that hundreds of fans did on Sunday.

Tim Mead, the Angels’ longtime vice president for communications, said Japanese reporters were used to limited access to players because they are not allowed in clubhouses in their country. In the future, he added, the Angels — who have turned down a request for a sit-down interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” — may allow one-on-one interviews, but for now “everybody will get the same information.”

Mead added, “We wanted to create an environment where when he comes to the ballpark, it’s all work.”

The bubble the Angels have created afforded Ohtani time last weekend to sit uninterrupted at his locker and sign memorabilia and play games on his phone.

Ohtani, who is not scheduled to pitch in a series against the Yankees this weekend, has done little to temper interest.

Entering Friday’s game, the left-handed hitting Ohtani was batting .333 with three home runs and 11 runs batted in. On the mound, where he throws right-handed, he is 2-1 with a 4.43 earned run average, and in one stretch he retired 33 of 34 hitters. He struck out Jose Altuve, the reigning American League most valuable player, twice on Tuesday night, when his fastball reached 101 m.p.h.

Still, if Ohtani ultimately proves to be little more than a middling pitcher and a run-of-the-mill hitter, will all these accommodations have been worthwhile?

“I’m not really sure how to answer that because it’s hypothetical,” Angels General Manager Billy Eppler said. “We’re just trying to stay present and deal with our circumstances because this game is going to have so much ebb and flow, and throw things at you.”

Indeed, the only promise the Angels will make is to be flexible. How the experiment works — or doesn’t — figures to inform other clubs that have become more open to using a player who can pitch and hit. The Tampa Bay Rays drafted Brendan McKay fourth over all last year, and he is on a dual track in Class A.

In addition to workouts and games, Ohtani has video to watch and scouting reports to study.

“As offensive players, we work on hitting every day,” Ian Kinsler, the veteran second baseman, said. “As a pitcher, they work on pitching everyday somehow. That’s a lot of preparation. The last time I played with somebody that did both was in high school, and there’s no preparation in high school. You just practice and hit. You’re not trying to master a craft.”

The Angels devised their program for Ohtani by going through his game logs from Japan, examining pitch counts, days between starts and “everything under the sun,” said Eppler, who declined to elaborate. Then the Angels sent a contingent to Japan to meet with people from Ohtani’s former team, the Nippon-Ham Fighters, and further flesh out how to manage him. Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, was also involved in developing the plan.

“Everything is basically the same,” Ohtani said, speaking through an interpreter. “The same amount of practice swings, similar rhythms.”

The Angels’ sports science and training staffs monitor exertion levels from games and workouts, as well as eating, hydration and sleep for all players, but their attention to Ohtani will be particularly acute.

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Ohtani, left, and Angels Manager Mike Scioscia communicate through Ippei Mizuhara, center, an interpreter who used to work with English-speaking players on Ohtani’s club in Japan.

Credit
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

“It’s the first time we’re all going through this, Shohei included,” Scioscia said. “As we get some experience about what he needs and what’s going to make him the best player, the most productive player, obviously we’ll adjust for it.”

He added, “I’ll be surprised if there aren’t any adjustments.”

If there is any chafing in the clubhouse over accommodations the Angels have made for Ohtani, it surely helps that he has arrived with few trappings.

Unlike Daisuke Matsuzaka, who rankled his teammates in Boston when he showed up with an entourage in 2007, or Masahiro Tanaka, who arrived in New York with a pop star wife, Ohtani came only with an interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, who had worked with English-speaking players for the Fighters.

Ohtani lives in an apartment not far from Anaheim Stadium and is chauffeured by Mizuhara in a Hyundai sedan. It is in keeping with his lifestyle in Japan, where he lived in a dormitory during his five seasons as a professional.

“It’s almost a modern style of a monk,” said Anri Uechi, a reporter who covers Tanaka and the Yankees for Kyodo News. “There’s an idea that baseball is a ritual way of living, like martial arts — a way to live through baseball.”

Ohtani’s teammates have little trouble understanding the depth of his devotion. If he had waited two more years to come to the United States, Ohtani, 23, stood to reap hundreds of millions of dollars. The last Japanese star player to make the jump, Tanaka, received a seven-year, $155 million contract before the 2014 season.

But Ohtani, because he is not yet 25, cost a relative pittance under the collective bargaining agreement — a $20 million fee that went to the Fighters, a $2.3 million signing bonus and a minor league contract that ties him to the Angels for six years.

Ohtani will earn the major league minimum, $545,000, this season, which makes him the lowest-paid player on the Angels’ roster.

“That says a lot about him,” Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs said. “He wants to show us that the money isn’t the reason he’s here. He just wants to play baseball.”

It has been that way for some time for Ohtani. When he was in high school, his coach required everyone on the team to complete a written exercise, which offered an early peek into his focus and attitude.

The players were asked to fill in a chart that looked like a large Tic Tac Toe board made up of nine smaller ones. At the very center, Ohtani wrote his baseball goal: to be a first-round pick by eight teams in Japan. In the small boxes immediately around the center, he wrote the eight qualities he would need to cultivate to reach his goal. He then copied that information into the center boxes in the outer parts of the chart. The eight categories ranged from bodybuilding to developing a 100 m.p.h. fastball to building strong mental and emotional characteristics.

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When Ohtani was in high school, his baseball coach required the team’s players to write their goal in the sport in the center of a grid, surrounded by the qualities needed to attain that goal. Ohtani’s goal was to be a first-round pick by eight teams.

Credit
Shohei Ohtani, via the Angels

There was also luck.

To Ohtani, at age 16, eating seven rice bowls in the evening and three in the morning, improving his spin rate and imagining depth on his breaking pitch were vital to his future success.

But so were being trustworthy, reading books, taking out the trash and cleaning his room.

Asked if the concept of humility was important to him, Ohtani shrugged.

“I don’t really think about that,” he said through an interpreter, maintaining eye contact with the English-speaking reporter as he spoke in Japanese. “I take everything the same way.”

When Blake Parker, a journeyman reliever from Fayetteville, Ark., arrived in Tempe, Ariz., for spring training, he was eager to get to know Ohtani.

One day, as Parker sat at his locker after a workout playing the game Clash Royale on his phone, Ohtani popped over with Mizuhara in tow to ask if he could play.

“We rallied the troops,” Parker said. “It was a good icebreaker.”

Several days into spring training, Ohtani joined some teammates for a round of golf. Reliever Cam Bedrosian has learned how to say, “How ya doing?” — and a few naughty phrases — in Japanese. And when Ohtani triumphed over Mizuhara in a game on their phones, he jumped up from his chair and taunted Mizuhara with a phrase he had learned: “Mucho weak sauce!”

After a recent game, as Mizuhara spelled his first name for a reporter, Ohtani giggled and repeated two letters: “P. P.”

It was an early sign that Ohtani’s assimilation has been as encouraging off the field as on it.

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An Ohtani jersey was for sale at the Angels’ team store in Anaheim, Calif., before a game against the Red Sox.

Credit
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Still, the Angels are moving ahead cautiously. Though their two largest home crowds have come when Ohtani has pitched, and fans near home plate rise almost en masse to take photos when he steps into the on-deck circle, the team will treat Ohtani as a treasure to be handled with care.

For a franchise that has embraced a rally monkey and a full gorilla, the Angels are not quite ready to go ape.



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