Elliott: Forget the spring, Shohei Ohtani a two-way star

 Shohei Ohtani homered in his first at-bat in the Los Angeles Angels home opener as he took Josh Tomlin of the Cleveland Indians deep. 

Shohei Ohtani homered in his first at-bat in the Los Angeles Angels home opener as he took Josh Tomlin of the Cleveland Indians deep. 

By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network

Away back during the courtship period -- long before free agent Shohei Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels -- we asked a scout the player’s best attribute.

“His speed,” said the scout who had been to Japan.

His velocity?

“No, he’s fast, I saw him break late to cover first and he still beat a quick runner to take the throw for the out,” said the scout, who saw Ohtani play for the Nippon Ham Fighters . “He can really run.”

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Thoughts of that November conversation came to mind Wednesday watching Ohtani effortlessly lope home from second in the top of the ninth. He scored what stood as the game winner on Andrelton Simmons’s two-run single. The Simmons single capped a four-run ninth for a 5-4 Angels win.

So to recap Ohtani: his fastball averages 98 MPH, his smooth left-handed swing deposits balls into the second deck  ... AND ... he’s fast.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler estimates Ohtani would be clocked home-to-first in 4.0. Not spectacular. Not Maury Wills or Vince Coleman.

“It’s his stride length,” Eppler said outside the Angels clubhouse. “He has a stride length similar to Larry Walker.”

Walker, of Maple Ridge, B.C., stole 230 bases, including 33 with the 1997 Colorado Rockies. 

Asked the most impressive thing about Ohtani, Eppler does not hesitate, saying: “Shohei’s approach is so detailed. He is so prepared for the pitcher he will face (as a DH) or the opposing lineup when he is pitching.”

Eppler grew up in San Diego watching Tony Gwynn slash line drives all over Jack Murphy Stadium on his way to winning batting titles for the Padres. 

Eppler said he remembers watching interviews of Gwynn “at his house in Poway. There were stacks and stacks of VHS tapes in the background.”

Hideki Okuda of Sport Nippon, the dean of ball scribes from Japan, after Gaku Tashiro returned to Tokyo, has been covering players from his country from his base in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. His first season was covering Hideo Nomo’s third year in 1997 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

And he was there for Kazuhiro Sasaki’s arrival in 2000 as the Seattle Mariners closer, Ichiro Suzuki’s arrival with the M’s in 2001, Daisuke Matsuzaka with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and Yu Darvish with the Texas Rangers in 2012.
 
“Each player had different levels of excitement in Japan,” Okuda said. “The most important statement I have heard about Shohei Ohtani was when an American reporter asked Mike Scioscia (Angels manager) ‘If Ohtani was the best player he had seen from Japan.’

“Mike Scioscia answered ‘We should be comparing Shohei Ohtani to Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Trout -- the best to ever play the game.’”

Leading up to Dec. 8, when Ohtani made his decision with the Angels, favourites to sign him were the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Okuda said he thought Ohtani would sign with the Blue Jays since “they spent the most resources scouting Ohtani. The Angels did not even scout Ohtani.”

Two Blue Jays scouts who saw Ohtani declined to comment, one politely. They remain under the Cone of Silence Alex Anthopoulos installed.

In Japan, Ohtani spent five seasons (2013-17) as a member of the Nippon Ham Fighters and was a five-time All-Star and 2016 Pacific Coast League MVP. On the mound he combined to go 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and 624 strikeouts. At the plate he hit .286 with 48 home runs and 166 RBIs. His final two seasons he batted .328.

Why did the Angels wind up with Ohtani? The common answer is “I wish I knew.”

When Ohtani visited Anaheim a group of eight executives made a presentation to Ohtani: on what life was like in the Angel organization, every day, every month, from spring training until the end of the season. Mike Trout phoned in on FaceTime to speak.

 DH Ohtani slide in safely ahead of the tag of Blue Jays catcher Luke Maille. 

DH Ohtani slide in safely ahead of the tag of Blue Jays catcher Luke Maille. 

“I think having the chance to play with Mike might have been a factor, it helped that we were on the coast,” said Eppler, who lives on Laguna Beach. To help the Angels cause Eppler cooped up sand as a souvenir. The Ohtani delegation was presented with Omiyage gifts, a custom in Japan. They gave him Martin Maldonado and Andrelton Simmons bats left behind at the end of the season. 

The only two Blue Jays AL rookie of the year award winners both sit in the Angels coaches room: first base coach Alfredo Griffin (who won in 1979) and Eric Hinske (2002) is the hitting coach.

Ohtani had a troublesome spring for the Angels batting 4-for-32 (.125) with zero home runs and one RBI while fanning 10 times. On the mound, he allowed nine hits and nine runs in 2 2/3 innings.

Like many Japanese hitters, Ohtani had a pronounced leg kick when he arrived in Arizona. Hinske noticed Ohtani was having trouble timing pitches with the kick, so he suggested losing the leg kick, keep his foot down and go with a toe tap. Hinske and the Angels thought Ohtani had too much head movement. 

The Angels were playing the final game of the Freeway Series, an exhibition game at Dodger Stadium, when Ohtani and Hinske discussed the change. “He said he wanted to see if he could still hit home runs in batting practice with his foot down,” Hinske said. “He hit home runs all over in BP. After that, he said ‘I’m all in.’”

Griffin calls Ohtani special: “To hit the way he’s hitting and to not take BP the day before and after he pitches. I have never seen a guy like this. He is a power arm like Randy Johnson and so athletic he could play centre field.”

Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter said, “Ohtani impressed me. He’s like Ichiro with power. He can handle velocity and he can really run.”

Former Blue Jays and Angel Vernon Wells watched Ohtani take swings during batting practice shook his head and described the rookie as “a freak,” in a clubhouse complimentary way. 

Angels Bill (William Hambly) Stoneman, senior advisor, baseball operations and former GM, made the trip. 

“The most amazing thing for me was how his performance (hitting and pitching) changed from unimpressive in the spring to outstanding when the season started,” Stoneman said. “This guy is a true all-around athlete – what the old-time scouts would call ‘A five-tool player.’

“He has a sweeping swing. On the mound he has more than just a good fastball. He has a real good curve and a splitter.”

Ohtani leads AL rookies in strikeouts (52) and is second in wins (four). He has a hit safely in 19-of-23 games. His six homers are tied for most in AL amongst rookies while he had made quality starts in five of seven outing

Ohtani became fourth player in modern era with more than 25 pitching strikeouts and four or more home runs in a month – the first since Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins in Sept. 1971. Only two others, Wes Ferrell and Don Drysdale, has struck out as many and gone deep as often in a single month. 

Comparisons to Walker and Gwynn’s abilities. 

Accomplishment to match Jenkins, Drysdale and Ferrell.

And some day he will be the best two-way man since Babe Ruth.

* * *
You are welcome here: Len Woods helps coach two teams in the Oakville A’s organization. His eldest son Jordan is a lefty hurler, while Trevy is an athletic catcher. Three years ago, on a weekend that both kids had tournaments, he spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday rushing from one park to another.

He decided to meet his wife Julie at Via Allegro Ristorante. Woods walked in wearing his uniform and said to the maitre d’ ‘Look I’m sorry, I know that I am not properly, dressed, but I’ve been running from one park to another all weekend, my wife and I want to have a date night. Can I enter?’

The man smiled and said “Do I have someone for you to meet.” He introduces Wendy Votto, mother of Joey Votto, former National League MVP winner. Wendy the restaurant’s sommelier escorted the Woods to a table, ordered the vino and meal. “We had a wonderful time chatting with Joey’s mother,” said Woods. “It was one of the most memorable dates my wife and I have ever had.”

Home again: After pitching for the Expos, Stoneman worked in Mississauga managing a branch of the Royal Trust and lived in Georgetown. His Georgetown neighbors will attend Thursday’s game. Stoneman visited his daughter Jill in Brampton in time for his grand daughter Eva’s 18th birthday.

MLB Network Line of the week: Ryan Dempster “And here he is ... leading the league is most offensive categories ... including nose hairs.”

MLB Network Line of the week runner-up: Harold Reynolds to Greg Amsinger: “Do you have your side burns groomed? Of course you don’t ... they’re uneven.”