Ohtani, 23, will be part of the Angels’ six-man rotation and make occasional starts as their designated hitter. So far in his first American spring training, he is 1 for 4 with two walks in six trips to the plate. On the mound, he has struck out 10 in four innings while allowing six hits, one walk and three runs.
On Friday, Ohtani pitched at the Milwaukee Brewers’ ballpark in a B game that started at 10 a.m. The press box was packed with dozens of reporters from Japan and a few from the United States, and scouts watched from behind the plate. The stands were almost empty, though — although the Brewers opened the gates early for fans holding tickets to an afternoon game, few showed up.
The Brewers estimated the crowd at 60, nearly one for every pitch Ohtani threw in a tantalizing performance against minor leaguers. He recorded eight outs against 12 batters, all by strikeout, and two of the Brewers’ four hits deflected off a fielder’s glove. Working only from the stretch, Ohtani yanked some sliders into the dirt and struggled with his landing spot on the mound. But he felt comfortable by his third inning, when he struck out the side in order.
“I am satisfied with this outing,” he said through an interpreter. “I felt like I was in the zone with all my pitches compared to last time. I still need to work on the break of my breaking balls, and my timing. But I did take a step forward.”
Ohtani threw to the veteran catcher Rene Rivera and used fastballs, sliders, curveballs and splitters among his 52 pitches.
“He looked nasty today,” Rivera said. “That slider, you see the hitters jumping back, thinking they’re going to hit it, and the ball is right on the corner.”
Rivera, a defensive stalwart for the Mets and the Chicago Cubs last season, was one of several winter additions for the Angels, who have finished 21 games out of first place in each of the last two seasons. They traded for second baseman Ian Kinsler and signed Zack Cozart, an All-Star shortstop for Cincinnati who will play third base. They also re-signed Justin Upton, the slugging outfielder who arrived in a trade last Aug. 31.
The coup, of course, was Ohtani, who was so eager to play in the majors that he left Japan before he could seek his true value as a free agent, a decision that cost him a chance at a nine-figure contract. While Ohtani had his choice of teams, his age restricted his maximum signing bonus. The Angels paid $20 million to the Fighters for his rights, but had less than $2.5 million to spend on Ohtani, who will make the major league minimum salary of $545,000 this season.
“This is his dream,” said Charles Nagy, the Angels’ pitching coach. “He’s a great kid, very respectful, great poise and confidence. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him. He just wants to mesh in and be one of the guys.”
Rivera called Ohtani “a funny dude, always joking and happy,” adding that he was trying to learn English quickly. Ohtani said that he was enjoying camp and his teammates and that the lack of days off had been his biggest adjustment; in Japan, players get to rest every fourth day or so.
Ohtani could not guess which would be his bigger challenge — hitting or pitching — because the competition in the majors is stronger for both.
“Both are going to be pretty much the same,” he said. “It’s going to be hard.”
Maybe, but maybe not. Parker Bridwell, a starter who was 10-3 as a rookie last season, said Ohtani’s pitches seemed to jump from his hand, and he marveled at Ohtani’s variance in speed: a fastball near 100 miles an hour, a curveball under 70. Just as impressive, Bridwell said, was Ohtani’s diligent approach.
“He’ll go through a bullpen, and if he doesn’t like everything he’s feeling, or what the ball’s doing, he’ll finish his bullpen, go hit batting practice, and then go throw more balls against the wall,” Bridwell said. “You can tell he’s paying attention to every detail.”
So is the whole baseball world.
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