Shohei Ohtani stepped into the batter’s box on Sunday with red striped socks covering his calves and his uniform pants cropped just below the knees, a new look that all but advertised the Angels’ two-way star’s desire to shake a season-long funk at the plate.
When Ohtani stepped into the box for Monday night’s game against the Cleveland Guardians at Angel Stadium, he did so in a new lineup spot, manager Joe Maddon dropping the slugger from leadoff to second and inserting Taylor Ward at the top of the order.
Though Maddon said the move was “all Taylor Ward-driven,” a nod to the outfielder’s .528 on-base percentage and 10 walks in his first eight games, perhaps it will provide a spark for Ohtani, the reigning American League most valuable player who is searching to regain his consistent power stroke.
Ohtani entered Monday with a .224 average, .691 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, three homers and nine RBIs in 16 games, a far cry from the lethal hitter who batted .257 with a .965 OPS, 46 homers and 100 RBIs in 2021.
“I mean, it’s so early, we’re talking 60 at-bats,” Angels hitting coach Jeremy Reed said before the game. “I think if you put these 60 at-bats in the middle of the year, in June or July, people will kind of go, ‘OK, he’s going through a little rut.’ It’s just gets magnified when it’s April, and the start isn’t the way you want it, because there’s an MVP on his name now.”
The left-handed-hitting Ohtani appears to be pulling off too many pitches, his body leaning too much toward first base on his follow through, a mechanical flaw that leaves him especially vulnerable to breaking balls away from left-handers.
Ohtani actually hit lefties better than right-handers in 2021, batting .263 with a .980 OPS against them, compared to a .254 average and .954 OPS against right-handers. But he entered Monday with a .200 average (six for 30) and .593 OPS against lefties, compared to a .243 average and .766 OPS against right-handers.
“There are times when maybe the balance hasn’t been the same, the landing position is a tick open, and you see some of these swings,” Reed said. “But it happens to Mike [Trout] and to all these guys throughout the course of the year. It’s just a little alarming. But it’s April. We can’t panic. He’s not panicking.”
Ohtani was hitless with five strikeouts in his first 10 at-bats of a weekend series against Baltimore when he stroked a leadoff single to right field in the seventh inning and scored the eventual winning run in Sunday’s 7-6 victory.
Ohtani then poked an 0-and-2 slider from left-hander Cionel Perez into center field for an eighth-inning single, an encouraging end to a game that the Angels hope will be the start of an extended hot streak.
“There was less swing-and-miss, less chase [on Sunday],” Reed said. “Then he gets an 0-2 breaker up in the zone that he can hammer, and he doesn’t try to do too much, even though in May, that pitch is hit in the seats. You can’t predict home runs. You can’t predict things, but you can predict body position.
“When he gets his body and his head in the right spots and he’s able to hold his firing positions, it’s eye-opening when he gets there. You know that something great is coming. It’s electric when it goes off the bat.”
Maddon believes it will only take a few big games for Ohtani to take off.
“It’s just confidence right now,” Maddon said. “He’s so good, but it’s all about confidence. He’s going to get hot, like scalding hot, soon.”
It wouldn’t hurt to have some runners on base when Ohtani comes up, which is why Maddon moved Ward, whom Reed said “controls the strike zone as good as anyone we have, to the leadoff spot Monday after spending 2½ weeks defending his decision to bat Ohtani first.
“He was doing a great job getting on base for the 7-8-9 hitters; I figured let’s just put him at the top,” Maddon said of Ward, who missed the first week of the season because of a left-groin strain. “He makes the most sense there now. Then he gets to feed Shohei, who gets to feed [Trout] …
“Taylor has been doing an incredible job of getting on base. He has a really good approach. I just thought we’d be wasting his services by not permitting him to get up a little bit higher in the order.”