LOS ANGELES: His arrival was greeted, amid a blaze of publicity, with breathless comparisons to Babe Ruth and soaring hype about a double-threat talent that was poised to take Major League Baseball by storm.
But as Shohei Ohtani prepares to embark on his career in the most demanding —and least forgiving—baseball league in the world, the 23-year-old Japanese pitcher-hitter still has everything to prove.
Coveted across the league after becoming available at the end of 2017 under the MLB’s new posting rules, Ohtani eventually landed at the Los Angeles Angels after resisting overtures from several other teams including the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants.
However, a string of shaky performances in spring training have left many of his unsuccessful suitors wondering if they, in fact, dodged a bullet when they failed to secure Ohtani’s signature.
Ohtani has struggled both at the mound and at the plate during pre-season games for the Angels, including one outing in Arizona that saw him cough up seven runs in only 1 1/3 innings against the Colorado Rockies.
In a pre-season outing last Saturday, Ohtani failed to get to grips with his fastball, and gave up five walks, a hit batter and two wild pitches.
‘He’ll be fine’
Angels manager Mike Scioscia attempted to put a brave face on that performance, insisting that Ohtani’s development was on track.
“There were some things he was working on, he’s trying to nail down,” Scioscia said. “When it’s in sync, his fastball is hot. Early on, it was somewhat erratic. He’s working on some things. He’ll be fine.”
Ohtani, meanwhile, whose exploits with the Angels are being followed by a large group of Japanese media, is also relaxed, insisting he is used to starting slowly.
“I feel like I’ve done everything I can to get ready for Opening Day, and I felt like I’ve done everything 100 percent, but it’s hard,” Ohtani said.
“Even in Japan, I was never 100 percent on Opening Day, so it’s going to go gradually into the season. I think it’s going to be the same this time.
“In a perfect world, I would’ve like to have faced more major league hitters, but it’s more than that. “It’s also about me making adjustments with the mound and the ball and all that. It didn’t matter who I faced.”
Ohtani has fared little better at the plate, appearing over-matched in some of his early contests against major league pitchers.
Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw showed no mercy to the rookie during one game, striking out Ohtani with a curveball.
Ohtani’s indifferent form has led some to question whether he is even ready for the big leagues. One MLB scout told ESPN he believes Ohtani should have spent time in the minor leagues this year before being asked to make the leap into the majors.
Other analysts have urged caution, noting that it is unrealistic to expect a 23-year-old rookie to make an instant, dominant impact in his debut season.
The Angels, meanwhile, are unified in talking up Ohtani’s potential, comfortable with his progress as the season looms.
“He’s not panicking, not at all,” Angels general manager Billy Eppler told USA Today. “From a GM or a manager standpoint, that’s comforting. When your players are calm, you’re calm, too.
“We’ve seen the ability. We’ve seen the track record. We believe that the (Japanese league) is the closest of all leagues to Major League Baseball as you can get, and he dominated that league. Just like with any player, you give them the opportunity before addressing something.”
Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, hinted that sour grapes may be behind some of the criticism of his player’s form.
“There are always going to be doubters,” Balelo told USA Today.
“The head scratcher for me is the organizations and scouts that are doubting him now, that didn’t get him, are the same teams and scouts four months ago telling me he is the next chosen one.”