Remember the version of Shohei Ohtani that blistered baseballs and launched them over the fences of Angel Stadium? That hit home runs once every 14 or so at-bats as a rookie in 2018?
You should be seeing him again soon.
Angels hitting coach Jeremy Reed said in a Friday videoconference that the power outage Ohtani endured in 2019 could be traced to discomfort the two-way player felt in his left knee, which required surgery in September. Now that he’s fully healthy, Ohtani looks the best Reed has seen since joining the major league staff last year.
“He's squared his body up a little bit better,” Reed said. “I generally don't talk a lot about mechanics about him. That's his job. But he just looks like he can use the whole field — he is. And I think he's repeating his swing as good as anybody right now.”
Ohtani hit 18 home runs in 384 at-bats in 2019, a respectable rate. But he outdid those numbers in his debut, launching four more home runs in 58 fewer at-bats.
The difference wasn’t in how well he struck the ball — his 92.8 mph exit velocity was the ninth highest in MLB last season, and was nearly identical to his 2018 results — but in how he put the ball in the air. His average launch angle wilted from 12.3 degrees in 2018 to 6.8 degrees in 2019.
Reed believes Ohtani didn’t acknowledge how much his knee bothered him last season.
Ohtani learned he had left knee bipartite patella, a congenital condition caused when the bones in the kneecap do not fuse after birth, in February 2019. The Angels managed it by decreasing the weight load on his lower-body exercises. Ohtani didn’t seem to suffer ill effects at the time.
Even when they announced Ohtani needed season-ending surgery, the Angels didn’t think the condition had affected his offense. He was still sprinting at speeds that remained in line with his rookie season. He was also a productive hitter, batting .286 with 20 doubles, five triples and 62 RBIs.
Ohtani hadn’t complained about pain in his knee until he started to intensify his pitching rehab during the second half of the season. That was around the same time Ohtani struggled to hit balls out the park; he only hit four home runs after the All-Star break.
By the time he began batting in spring training this year, Ohtani seemed back to normal. His Cactus League performance left much to be desired — he went two for 19 with 11 strikeouts — but he wasn’t concerned. He was experimenting with reincorporating a leg kick during his swing in an effort to improve his timing.
Now Ohtani is barely paying the leg kick any mind. Reed is encouraged by Ohtani’s progress.
“Simply comparing ’19 to now, where I see the body and how it's reacting, this is the best I've ever seen,” Reed said. “So I think the knee is healthy. I think there was some typical pains that he was going through last year that I don't see any sort of grimace at all. The positions he's getting into lead me to believe that he’ll be as good as ’18, from a launch standpoint, or better.”
The only problem is fans might not see Ohtani very often this year. In a 60-game season in which he’s expected to pitch once a week, Ohtani will only be available to hit in approximately 30 games. The Angels prefer to give him a break from full-time hitting on the days before and after he pitches.
Manager Joe Maddon has said often since joining the Angels that he would like to see Ohtani pitch and hit in the same game. But the Angels will be cautious for now.
“I have to listen,” Maddon said. “I’m in listen mode on this one. I don’t have the answer to that except that I’d love to see it at some point. I think Shohei would too. This is a medical consideration. … I want to believe over the next couple of years, as we settle in, it’s probably going to be easier to do something like this.
“But for the beginning [of this season], I would just write down 33 [games] and think that’s how it’s gonna play out. Let’s just let him get his feet on the ground, get well and we’ll continue to monitor it and see if there’s any adjustments to be made.”