First Pitch: Can Shohei Ohtani handle Babe Ruth-sized expectations?

Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

Is Shohei Ohtani the next Babe Ruth? With Joe Maddon as the Angels manager, perhaps it’s time we expect the impossible.

Shohei Ohtani is a baseball anomaly, at least in the modern age. No MLB player has thrown 100-plus innings and had 200-plus at-bats in the same season since “The Great Bambino” himself, and while Ohtani likely won’t put up those kinds of power numbers, assuming he can stay healthy, that could be similar to what the Los Angeles Angels need from him to realistically make a playoff push.

If there were ever a man to test the limits of the modern era, it’s Joe Maddon. This is the same manager who used to bat his pitcher eighth for years in the National League and among the first proponents of the “opener” pitching strategy. Now, he has another toy to tinker with — and don’t you doubt for a second he’s not excited for playtime.

The 26-year-old Ohtani has had an impressive spring at the dish, hitting .571 with a .594 on-base percentage, five home runs and 10 RBIs entering Monday’s game. On the mound, it’s been a bit shaky. While Ohtani flashes triple-digit pitch speeds, his control has also been wild at times, and his 7.88 ERA paired with 2.00 WHIP in three starts isn’t necessarily pretty.

The most important observation for Ohtani is his health. He didn’t pitch in 2019 to recover from Tommy John surgery, while his 2020 season was cut short on the mound due to various ailments, including a forearm strain. Meanwhile, FanGraphs projects him to pitch anywhere from 18-23 games, throwing over 90 innings in the process and taking on the double-duty of nearly 500 plate appearances. That’s a larger workload than his Rookie of the Year season in 2018.

Maddon has already stated that the team doesn’t plan on placing any limitations on Ohtani, and that the Angels’ X-factor looks like he’s “on a mission,” per the Los Angeles Times. Still, both Ohtani and Maddon will play it by ear by their own admission.

What should Angels fans expect from two-way star Shohei Ohtani?

Ohtani’s resurgence was the story of the spring, and with it brought renewed fanfare for a team that already possesses the best player in all of baseball on a regular basis. With that in mind, we asked Halos Hangout site expert Alfonso Cerna what Angels fans can expect from a healthy Ohtani is 2021.

1. Shohei Ohtani has increased expectations in every way this spring, with Jim Bowden even predicting him to win Comeback Player of the Year. Is this too much to expect from a two-way player coming off major injury?

Alfonso Cerna:  “I think it’s too much to expect from a fan’s perspective, but Ohtani, being the competitor he is, would never admit that. This is a player coming off an injury that ended his season as a pitcher last summer … and it affected his offensive production as well. If he can stay healthy — and that’s a big if — I think we will see a lot of the production we have from him as a hitter and a pitcher in spring training (450-plus feet home runs and 100 mph fastballs). If that happens, I think he is an easy favorite as Comeback Player of the Year.”

2. The Angels’ pitching acquisitions have been, well, subpar to say the least over the past few offseasons. This leaves the rotation vulnerable. Can a player like Ohtani fill that void on his own, or is more needed to give the Angels a competent rotation/staff to pair with their star-driven lineup?

AC:  “I think it’s asking a lot for Ohtani to carry the pitching staff for an entire season. He’s never made more than 10 starts in a season, and he still has to prove he can stay healthy. Right now, the Angels have a rotation with starters who would be middle-of-the-pack arms on more competitive teams. The hope is for guys like Dylan Bundy and Jose Quintana to carry the rotation, but they have not done it consistently in their careers. If the Angels want to be true contenders, they will need to go after a proven ace. Otherwise, they are just hoping for the best with this group.”

3. Ohtani’s two-way potential feels like a perfect fit with Joe Maddon. How can the Angels best employ Ohtani but not overuse him to the point of injury or fatigue late in the year?

AC:  “This is a million-dollar question … I think the best thing to do is to trust that Ohtani knows his limits better than anyone. That’s what manager Joe Maddon has done to this point, saying the team will not hold Ohtani back from his preparations as a pitcher and hitter, but they will monitor his progress. Ohtani will be used as a regular in a six-man rotation and as a designated hitter. I think his usage will be similar to what we’ve seen thus far, being closely watched by Maddon and the coaching staff. Making pre-determined decisions rather than going with the flow could be detrimental to getting the best from their two-way phenom.

4. How overwhelming is the pressure on Maddon, Ohtani and others to take advantage of Mike Trout’s prime years that thus far have gone to relative waste given the lack of postseason success?

AC: I think there is a lot of pressure from the fans, but you never really hear about the urgency from Maddon or the front office/ownership. Trout himself has stated how badly he wants to win, but with the average additions the team made in the offseason, it doesn’t seem like GM Perry Minasian and owner Arte Moreno are in a rush to win, at least for this season. All of the offseason moves have brought in players on one-year deals. To me, that is the obvious “hope for the best” strategy. If the Angels are competing around the trade deadline, they can bring in an impact player to make them legitimate contenders. If they fall out of contention, expect a majority of the one-year rentals traded for a head start on a retooling for 2022. There are only four players under contract for next season, leaving a lot more room for payroll flexibility. There’s a chance they could be more aggressive after this season, but the clock is ticking on Trout’s prime years.

By the sound of it, Ohtani may be asked to follow in the Babe’s footsteps after all.

Next. Inside the Clubhouse: The risk of putting pitchers in the batter’s box. dark

First Pitch is a weekly MLB feature in coordination with the FanSided network.