ANAHEIM, Calif. — Billy Eppler had been traveling to Japan to scout Shohei Ohtani since 2013, which meant that by the time this spring rolled around, Eppler’s Los Angeles Angels knew pretty much everything there was to know about Ohtani’s on-field ability. They knew about the live arm, they knew about the prodigious power, and, though a bit understated, they knew about the blazing speed. “But video doesn’t do him justice of how he runs,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “You have to see it in person.”
It didn’t truly sink in until Feb. 27, during an afternoon spring training game against the Colorado Rockies. Ohtani bounced a routine grounder to the left side — a potential double-play ball that Ohtani turned into a forceout because he made it down the first-base line so quickly.
“Wow,” one of the Angels’ coaches said from the dugout. “He’s Mike Trout.”
Well, close. Ohtani, as Scioscia correctly pointed out, is the second-fastest player on the Angels, which is amazing when you consider that he is also the most uniquely versatile player in baseball. Ohtani’s average sprint speed, according to Statcast, is 28.2 feet per second, which ranks within the top 25 percent in the majors and isn’t too far behind Trout (29.2 feet per second).
On Friday, while facing the crosstown Los Angeles Dodgers, Ohtani stole second base easily off Kenley Jansen, allowing him to score the tying run with two outs in the ninth inning. The focus then shifted to Ohtani’s stolen-base potential, a subject for which he is surprisingly diffident.
“I think I still lack the skill part in stealing a base,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, “so I only try to go when it’s as close to 100 percent, where I think I can be as safe as possible.”
Scioscia disagreed with Ohtani’s assessment.
“Anytime we’ve given him opportunities to run, he’s gotten good jumps,” he said. “His speed’s there. I haven’t noticed any of those flaws that he might perceive.”
Scouts who have watched the Angels and coaches who are employed by them agree that Ohtani has the ability to be a 20-stolen-bases-a-year threat if he really wanted to be. But he only stole a combined 13 bases while with Japan’s Nippon Ham Fighters from 2013 to 2017, largely because his dual role as a pitcher and a hitter triggered caution as a baserunner.
Ohtani has attempted only two steals with the Angels this season, converting both, but Scioscia denied that any restrictions are in place.
“The template that we’re working off, that Billy created, certainly has recovery days in it,” Scioscia said. “It has him doing anything he would need to do on the offensive end — whether it was sliding, going first to third, whatever it would be — and then being ready to take that batting helmet off, put that cap on and go pitch. He’s able to go and play baseball in between.”
Ohtani doesn’t have to worry about pitching at the moment. The right-hander received a stem-cell and platelet-rich plasma injection to treat a Grade 2 sprain on the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow on June 7 and is still waiting to see if the treatment worked. Ohtani is expected to be re-evaluated on July 19. In the meantime, he only has to worry about offense, which might allow for more aggression on the bases.
Ohtani is 6-foot-4 and lengthy, so it takes him a little longer to accelerate. But the likes of Alex Rios, Darryl Strawberry, Matt Kemp and Dale Murphy were effective base stealers with similar body types.
For Ohtani, Scioscia said, “It’s going to be totally contingent on how many at-bats he gets in a season. When he’s pitching and he’s hitting, you’re talking in the 275-, 300-at-bat range, somewhere around there. So, that’s basically a little more than half the opportunities other guys might get.”
Ohtani made his seventh start since coming off the disabled list against the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday. He worked a walk in his first plate appearance, then hit a slow roller to the right side in his second. Mariners second baseman Dee Gordon darted to his right, backhanded the baseball and immediately felt hurried, which caused his throw to sail wide of first baseman Ryon Healy. A two-base error was charged.
Ohtani made it from home to first in four seconds flat, according to Statcast.
The major league average last year, on max-effort plays, was 4.21 seconds for left-handed hitters.
“He flies, man,” Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun. “He’s a big guy, and he gets down the line pretty well.”