Ohtani feels like he’s a rookie again with Dodgers


GLENDALE, Ariz. — Roughly 70 media members formed a half-circle around a small backdrop at the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ facility late Friday morning, waiting for Shohei Ohtani to conduct his first media session. About a dozen of them had shown up hours earlier, before the sun had fully risen, just to catch a glimpse of him driving into the players’ parking lot.

Ohtani’s gravitas has been glaringly obvious through the first two days of spring training, but he’s merely trying to conduct himself as the new guy. After six years with the crosstown rival Los Angeles Angels, he sees himself as a “rookie” all over again.

“I like to go up and say hi, introduce myself,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara. “But there are so many people that I have to make sure I don’t introduce myself twice. If I do, hopefully they’ll let it go.”

Ohtani said he’s close to swinging at full intensity and will soon begin hitting velocity, a sign that he remains on track to be the Dodgers’ designated hitter when the team opens its season in South Korea on March 20. He dismissed concerns about the complexities of preparing himself as a hitter while rehabbing elbow surgery as a pitcher, noting he previously went through that process leading up to the 2022 season. He believes it will be “easier the second time around.”

The dedication and discipline that allowed Ohtani to thrive as a two-way player from 2021 to 2023 is already standing out. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has noticed how “intentional” and “regimented” Ohtani is with his work, adding that “every minute on the clock matters,” leaving precious few of them for small talk. Other players, Roberts said, have made it a point to observe him.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody more meticulous with their work, with every rep,” said Dodgers infielder Chris Taylor, among the small group of players who gathered at Dodger Stadium for workouts leading up to the start of spring training, alongside Ohtani, Gavin Lux and Walker Buehler, among others.

“Obviously we knew his work ethic was top shelf,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said, “but to see how deliberate everything he does is — our training staff has commented that they’ve never seen a guy returning from surgery that is so intentional about every single thing they do, from every swing he takes. Most guys get in the cage and they just kind of mindlessly swing. He does his whole pre-pitch routine before every swing. Just how intentional every single thing he does, whether it’s in the weight room, the cage, out on the field, that you can’t really fully appreciate until you see.”

Ohtani was diagnosed with a Grade 2 sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament in his right (pitching) elbow three months into his major league career in 2018 and didn’t emerge as a full-time two-way player until the start of his fourth season. From 2021 to 2023, Ohtani won two MVPs unanimously — he would’ve had a third if not for Aaron Judge‘s record-breaking home run season in 2022 — and accumulated 26.5 FanGraphs wins above replacement, far more than anybody else.

On Friday, Roberts confirmed what has long been obvious — that Ohtani, who underwent a hybrid version of a second Tommy John surgery in September, isn’t an option to pitch at any point in 2024. He believes having him as a Dodger will nonetheless “raise the bar” for the whole team, even though Ohtani is only fulfilling half his duties.

“There’s just a great sense of humility and kindness,” Roberts said of Ohtani, “but there’s that lion in there. You see it. And that, for me — that’s the perfect combo.”

Roberts told a DodgerFest crowd this past Saturday about his plan to bat Mookie Betts leadoff, Freddie Freeman second and Ohtani third when the games begin to count, but he cautioned Friday that he was just throwing that alignment out as an “exercise” to gauge fan sentiment. He wants to have a conversation with all three of them before solidifying the first three spots.

Ohtani significantly improved as a hitter from 2022 to 2023, his OPS jumping from .875 to a major league-leading 1.066. There was a thought within the Angels that juggling a two-way role actually helped him offensively, largely because he didn’t have time to dwell on negative outcomes. But perhaps focusing exclusively as a DH again — while residing in a superior lineup, and with far more experience than when he last took on that role exclusively in 2019 — will elevate his offensive game even further.

“I feel like there’s not just one level but several levels ahead offense-wise,” Ohtani said. “It’s just going to depend on what kind of lineup I’m in and everything. But at the end, my focus is going to be the same — keep the focus on my hitting and trying to get better.”

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