Dear Shohei Ohtani, I’m sorry. Getting something wrong is the worst part of this job, and in writing a piece during spring training about your hitting abilities, I did just that.
I relayed the words of scouts with well over 100 years of combined experience who shared the same opinion: That your swing was flawed, and that the difficulty of what you were attempting – to become the first player in a century to start in a rotation and on non-pitching days take regular at-bats, and do so in a new league, speaking a new language, adjusting to a new country – would prevent you from making the necessary adjustments to hit major league stuff.
Over the course of the past week, not only have you invalidated that premise, you have done so in such convincing fashion that during my third helping of crow – one for each of your home runs – I realized I needed to explain how I came to the flawed conclusion. Over the past few days, I’ve essentially re-reported the story to better understand what the scouts may have missed, what biases may have influenced me not challenging the certainty with which they spoke and what I can do going forward to avoid another such a spectacular whiff.
Let’s start with this: For all the substance and intelligence of scouts, their craft is an inexact science. The best scouts collate a lifetime’s worth of seeing players into their brains and make judgments based on what they’ve witnessed lead to success and failure. Their conclusions aren’t guesses; they are educated assessments. Their deep knowledge of baseball and passion for it lends a deep, complementary perspective to the statistical analysis that likewise enriches the game. The emergence of a true outlier – and that’s what you are – doesn’t invalidate their expertise. It offers them another data point to hone their evaluations moving forward.
The first scout to express concern with you in early March spoke with conviction about the issues he saw – namely balance at the plate, trouble with inside fastballs and difficulty hitting major league curveballs. I called others and asked if they’d seen the same. They concurred. One international scout, who had marveled watching you hit multiple times while in Japan, asked where that guy went. Each of the scouts, sensitive to how difficult the game is, wondered how anyone could do an on-the-fly reimagining of his swing in such a short period of time.
And there it was, in the last exhibition game of the year against the Los Angeles Dodgers, seemingly out of nowhere. You ditched your leg kick and tried a new timing mechanism: a slight inward twist of your front ankle. The balance issues disappeared. You weren’t late on fastballs anymore. The scouts weren’t wrong. Something did need to change. You just changed with such ease that they’re still flummoxed.
“I think it has more to do with great athletes making quick adjustments,” the scout said this week, “and teams not knowing how to attack him yet.”
It was a good lesson for me in rendering judgment before a player even tries to adjust. In baseball, the best athletes are often the ones most capable of fixing themselves and finding something new that works. Giancarlo Stanton, one of the game’s purest athletes, reinvents his swing all the time when he slumps badly and finds a way each time to tap into his deep power reserves. All spring, your teammates were telling anyone who would listen: You should see Ohtani in batting practice. It’s special. And I scoffed, having seen dozens of guys who put on a BP show only to shrink during games.
Then you hammered a Josh Tomlin curveball for a home run in your first at-bat at Angel Stadium. And the next day you took reigning American League Cy Young winner Corey Kluber deep to center field. And a day after that, it was a 450-foot shot to the opposite field. I received a text from a longtime scout with whom I didn’t speak for the original story – one who has spent more than a decade scouting baseball in Asia.
“It is safe to assume you are learning the first lesson of scouting Asians,” he said. “Never evaluate them in spring training. They are on their own program. Ichiro and [Akinori] Iwamura didn’t hit a ball hard or to the right side of shortstop their first spring.”
I’d dismissed this the first time through, fearful of lumping you with dissimilar players simply because they’re your countrymen. The scout had a point, though: Baseball culture in Japan differs from that in the United States, and guiding principles accompany most who try to jump to MLB.
“It’s been my experience that Asians are so drilled and regimented in their approach they put no performance stock in spring training,” the scout said. “They work on tracking, sequencing and other process-type stuff. Performance is last. Unlike the vets, they do not appear to turn up the performance side the last week of spring training and instead do so opening day.”
Now, the original story did note that this wasn’t a case of scouts looking at your spring-training performance, though in hindsight I wonder: If you had a couple extra hits here or there, would they have been as inclined to doubt you? I don’t know. I do know that I tried to get a cross-section of younger scouts and veterans, ones with experience in Asia and those without, and that the agreement among them was universal. Maybe there was a subconscious selection bias in those I chose to ask. Perhaps I should’ve kept poking around until I found a contrarian, if only to see if that viewpoint invalidated any of the others’. All good lessons to learn.
There’s also the sabermetric element, something I was loath to consider because of the tiny sample of plate appearances when I wrote the piece. Another scout not consulted for the original piece chimed in this week and said: “I did happen to know his exit velos were goofy.” And, yes, in Japan, your speed off the bat was elite.
This brings up an important part of the story, one that caused a fair bit of consternation. One scout said you were “basically like a high school hitter because [you’ve] never seen a good curveball.” My hope was this would be seen for the hyperbole it was. By and large, the curveballs in Japan do not match the quality of those in the big leagues. I should have paraphrased it nonetheless. Because lost in its inflammatory nature was a truly salient argument: Curveballs did perplex you all spring, and the criticisms about the balance were on-point.
The other faux pas was the headline: “The verdict is in on Shohei Ohtani’s bat and it’s not good.” If I replace “verdict” with “early report,” it sounds plenty more reasonable. Still wrong, but at least more fair.
And fairness isn’t just the goal. It’s an imperative. Those exit-velocity numbers would’ve at very least helped balance the story – and looked prescient. All seven of your hits have left the bat traveling at least 100 mph. The hardest-hit ball: 112.8 mph. The last home run: 112.4 mph. Only 32 players in the big leagues this year have reached 112 mph even once.
“He still has work to do as the league catches up and is only 23,” the scout with significant experience in Asia said, “but seen him too much to have doubt. Power to the big field. Bat stays in zone for a long time with strength and bat speed. Has some holes and will have his share of Ks but has some hitterish feel to it. Was better with each view. Thought he was just a free swinger with big bat speed in 2015. By last spring, I was buying in.”
That makes two of us – and the rest of America that enjoys watching a guy hit home runs in three consecutive games and then take a perfect game into the seventh inning and punch out 12. Don’t get me wrong: I think you’re going to struggle sooner than later. Teams are going to adjust and pitchers are going to start respecting your power and you’re going to need to hunt mistakes. But you’ve shown the malleability and fortitude already to thrive in this environment, and for that …
Shohei Ohtani, you’ve earned the respects of plenty more doubters in front offices around the game. Sorry to report that scouts, executives, pitching coaches, analysts and pitchers already are workshopping a new approach to you.
By Jeff Passan