TEMPE, Ariz. -- After a breakout rookie season that showed he can be both an elite starting pitcher and hitter, Shohei Ohtani will have a new challenge in his sophomore year. He’ll be limited to designated hitter duty after undergoing Tommy John surgery on Oct. 1.
Ohtani is on track for a return in early May. Although he’ll continue to rehab his elbow to be able to pitch again in 2020, he’ll be focusing only on hitting for the first time in his career. He was also a two-way player in his five seasons in Japan before he joined the Angels.
So, even the reigning American League Rookie of the Year doesn’t know what to expect from himself offensively in 2019.
“I’ve never really experienced playing every day as a hitter,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “I’ve always pitched in between. So, I need to experience that and maybe I’ll see things I haven’t seen in the past. But it’s going to be hard to play every day in the big leagues.”
Ohtani, 23, hit .285/.361/.564 with 22 homers, 21 doubles and 61 RBIs in 104 games last year, while also posting a 3.31 ERA with 63 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings in 10 starts as a pitcher. He became the first player since Babe Ruth to hit 20 homers and make 10 pitching appearances in a season.
Now Ohtani figures to get more at-bats this season, as he can serve as DH without having to worry about pitching. The Angels will still be careful with him and he could sit out on days when he ramps up his throwing program, but he’ll be the regular DH when available.
“We are being extremely cautious,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “We don’t want him potentially being able to DH to affect him being able to pitch in 2020.”
Ohtani will bring much-needed power from the left side to the lineup, but he’s also one of the fastest players on the team and stole 10 bases in 14 attempts last year. His average sprint speed was 28.4 feet per second, which was, by far, the fastest speed for a DH and puts him in the 81st percentile among all Major Leaguers, per Statcast.
“It’s clear that he’s a tremendous athlete,” Ausmus said. “Physically, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Now, if we can just get him back to where he was at the start of last year, it would be perfect. The fans love to watch him. One of the best-kept secrets about him is how well he runs the bases and the dirt he chews up going first to third and second to home. He’s a gifted athlete, and his focus and intensity make him even better.”
Ohtani was also among the game’s best in terms of making hard contact. He ranked 11th among all hitters in average exit velocity, at 92.6 mph, per Statcast. Of his 225 batted balls in play tracked by Statcast, 113 were hit harder than 95 mph, which gave him a hard-hit rate of 50.2 percent. That ranked 10th in the Majors and has him in the same company as Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton.
“He put up unbelievable numbers last year,” Angels center fielder Mike Trout said. “I’m excited for this year. He works hard. The main thing I see about him is the adjustments he makes, going from leg kick in spring and then first day, Opening Day, goes to a toe tap and he’s hitting balls like 500 feet. It’s pretty impressive. He’s unbelievable.”