From the moment Shohei Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels back in December, speculation ran wild in regards to how the team would use Ohtani’s abilities as both a hitter and pitcher. This is the hype that comes when one is deemed the “Japanese Babe Ruth.”
The regular season got into full swing on March 29, meaning the time had come for one of the most highly touted international prospects of all time to make his MLB debut. In his first series against the Oakland Athletics, Ohtani showed glimpses of why he was so heavily recruited, as well as some expected struggles as he gets acquainted with a new league.
In the first game of the season, Ohtani was inserted into the starting lineup as the designated hitter, a spot usually reserved for Albert Pujols. Ohtani’s performance at the plate was underwhelming, as he went 1-5 for a .200 batting average. These numbers don’t exactly jump off the stat sheet, but Ohtani’s batting has never been as strong as his pitching.
In his Japanese Pacific League career, Ohtani obtained his career highs in home runs and RBIs in 2016, with 22 and 67, respectively. During that same year, he earned an ERA of just 1.86, culminating in him being named the league’s MVP. While his 2016 ERA would be amongst the MLB’s best, his hitting numbers pale in comparison to the league’s top-tier hitters.
Speaking of pitching, Angels’ fans had their first glimpse of Ohtani on the mound in the team’s 7-4 win against the A’s on March 31. Aside from allowing three earned runs in the second inning, leading to a 4.50 ERA, Ohtani pitched well enough to notch six strikeouts, and collect his first MLB win.
The most impressive element to the strikeouts Ohtani recorded was that a majority of them came on hitters swinging and missing. This is due to the fact that Ohtani has a dangerous splitter ball in his arsenal, a pitch he used to retire four batters.
Ohtani was helpful to the Angels as they won their first series with Oakland three games to one, but Los Angeles started the season strong due to their ability to mesh as a team, and from key contributions from another newcomer in second-baseman Zack Cozart.
If Cozart continues to play the way he did against the A’s, he can easily be seen as the steal of the offseason. In 2017, he made his first All-Star appearance as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, before signing a three-year, $38 million deal with the Angels in December. For just over $12 million a year, Los Angeles received a player that is already making waves for them on offense and defense.
After the A’s series, Cozart is second on the team in batting average, with .368, RBIs with three, and slugging percentage with .737. Cozart also hit a home run in his first game with Los Angeles, although the team went on to lose 6-5 in 11 innings. Defensively, Cozart has been nothing short of perfection. He has a perfect fielding percentage, with seven putouts and 13 assists on 20 total chances. He is also tied for first on the team in double plays turned with three.
Short stop Andrelton Simmons quietly played a pivotal role in the Oakland series, leading the team with a .438 batting average, and tying Mike Trout for team-high in RBIs, with four. He, too, had a perfect fielding percentage in the series, with three putouts and 11 assists, and is who Cozart is tied with for most double plays turned.
In regards to fielding percentages, it’d be easier to list all of the Angels players who didn’t have a perfect percentage – none. After four games with the A’s, Los Angeles is one of just six teams to still maintain a perfect fielding percentage. The team had 112 putouts and 37 assists on 149 total chances. This stout defense is one reason why the Angels cultivated a +8 differential in runs scored to runs allowed against Oakland, but another factor is at play as well.
Los Angeles had one of the best overall pitching performances in their opening series in all of the MLB. They are top-10 in the league in both strikeouts and ERA, coming in sixth in the former, with 36, and ninth in the latter, with 3.38. An area in which they can improve is the batting average they allow opponents. In this category the Angels come in 15th place, allowing the opposition a .229 batting average.
Their strongest individual pitching outing came from Tyler Skaggs, who manned the mound in Los Angeles’ 2-1 win over Oakland on March 30. Skaggs squared off with 23 batters, allowing just three hits, recording five strikeouts, and allowing no earned runs in the 6.1 innings he pitched. After the dust from the A’s series settled, Skaggs was the only starter to still have a 0.00 ERA.
Many caveats come with trying to make inferences based on the first series of an MLB season, the biggest one being that there are 162 games and teams are just beginning to find themselves. So, if you’re thinking about fretting over Ohtani’s somewhat shaky start, don’t. Los Angeles will figure out how to weave him into the batting lineup as the season progresses, and Ohtani has already picked up his first win as a pitcher, alleviating any pressure that might come in trying to obtain a victory.
As a whole, the Angels were one of the better defensive teams last year, even though they ended 2017 at 80-82. It appears as though they have brought the same approach to fielding as they did a year ago, but again, it’s way too early to tell. One can only wait and watch to see if all of the positive traits that allowed the Angels success in their first series, become a part of the team’s identity in 2018.