Shohei Ohtani misses pitching, but is DH-only role boosting his plate production?

Los Angeles, CA, Monday, May 6, 2024 - Dodger designated hitter Shohei Ohtani celebrates.

Nine months since his last time atop a big league mound, there is one thing about pitching Shohei Ohtani misses most.

The nerves.

“There’s a distinct nervousness on start days,” Ohtani said in Japanese on Monday, after updating reporters on the latest in his progression back from his second Tommy John surgery last year.

“I think that’s the same for everyone,” he added. “There’s a nervousness. So if I have to say whether I miss it — I miss it.”

For now, it’s a feeling Ohtani will have to continue to do without.

In his first year with the Dodgers, he has faced plenty of other pressure over the season’s first couple of months.

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As a hitter, Ohtani has thus far delivered on the expectations that came with his staggering $700 million offseason contract.

Entering Monday, he was leading the majors in batting average (.336), the National League in slugging percentage (.621) and OPS (1.024), and was emerging as an early-season MVP frontrunner, with only teammate Mookie Betts holding shorter betting odds currently.

Off the field, the two-way star has also navigated the gambling and theft scandal involving his former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara — a situation that remains a topic of questioning in Ohtani’s sporadic media availabilities.

“I don’t think the mental side affects my play,” Ohtani said. “I think that as long as you have solid technique, you can hit regardless of your mental state. I want to separate that [off-the-field problems] from what I have to do on the field.

In recent weeks, Ohtani has played through a couple minor injuries, too.

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Earlier this month, he was battling back tightness that forced him to miss one game. Then, last week, he was hit in the back of the leg by a pickoff throw at first base, resulting in a right hamstring contusion that has limited his ability to run full speed on the bases.

Manager Dave Roberts said over the weekend that Ohtani is playing at about 90% physically right now, though Ohtani noted Monday that his hamstring is “getting better day by day” and hasn’t been impacting his swing.

“I think the condition is improving,” Ohtani said. “I don’t feel my pivot foot has been affected much [in my swing].”

Still, pitching has been the missing piece of Ohtani’s season so far, with the two-time MVP remaining limited to moderate-intensity catch play of about 60-70 throws every other day.

Ohtani hit a milestone last week, clocking 80 mph in his flat-ground throwing drills from 60 feet.

But, with Ohtani not expected to complete his recovery as a pitcher until next season, he said he’d “like to take [the progression] step by step, and take the next step without any feeling of panic.”

Shohei Ohtani throws before a game between the Dodgers and Angels at Dodger Stadium on March 25.
Shohei Ohtani throws before a game between the Dodgers and Angels at Dodger Stadium on March 25. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

There could, of course, be a silver lining to Ohtani’s inability to pitch this year. Entering the season, some Dodgers officials and industry evaluators believed that, as a designated hitter only, Ohtani could achieve even more production at the plate than he did during his final three seasons in Anaheim, when he was twice an MVP winner.

So far, Ohtani’s hot start has given that dynamic increasing credence. The 29-year-old is not only holding career-highs in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS, but is also setting personal bests in underlying metrics such as average exit velocity (94.8 mph), hard-hit percentage (he is hitting 59.3% of his batted balls more than 95 mph) and strikeout rate (19.2%, by far a career low).

Plus, he has become more of a stolen base threat, tied for eighth in the majors with 13 steals already.

So, is Ohtani’s ability to devote more focus to just the offensive side of his game leading to better results?

The player wasn’t ready to decide Monday.

“Until I finish the season,” Ohtani said, “it’s something I can’t say.”

When posed the same question last week, Roberts gave a more insightful answer. While the manager acknowledged his personal belief that Ohtani’s singular role has bolstered his performance, Roberts also emphasized the team’s plan to use Ohtani as a two-way player again next year.

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“Hopefully, when he's pitching next year, he can mirror somewhat what he's doing offensively,” Roberts said. “But I think there's something to just, the kind of focus on the one aspect of the game.”

So far this season, that’s been fine for the Dodgers.

Even without Ohtani on the mound, their starting rotation has been a strength, currently ranking eighth in the majors with a 3.54 ERA. Even with his thunderous bat in the lineup, their offense has been a bigger area of recent concern, going cold during the team’s current five-game losing streak and 7-9 slide in their last 16 games overall — a stretch in which they’ve averaged only 3.5 runs per game.

Ohtani has been part of the problem lately, batting just .211 over his last 10 games.

But given his gaudy overall numbers, his offensive impact on this year’s team remains monstrous.

A return to pitching — and reacquaintance with the pre-start nerves Ohtani has come to miss this year — will have to continue to wait.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.