Shohei Ohtani’s new glove isn’t about new positions, but freeing his mind

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PHOENIX — An intriguing package greeted Shohei Ohtani at his locker on Tuesday morning, piquing his interest. The contents could help the two-way superstar occupy some of his time while he is limited to one-way duties this summer as he recuperates from elbow surgery.

Within the package was the outfielder’s glove he would carry around for much of the afternoon, telling Japanese reporters he wanted the position to remain an option just in case. He also pulled a first baseman’s glove from the box, sliding his left hand inside to get a feel and to check out the custom stitching within, which included his No. 17 along with some Japanese characters.

No, Ohtani doesn’t appear to be heading toward a position change anytime soon, even after moonlighting as an outfielder early in his career in Japan. Nor should anyone expect him to appear anywhere other than designated hitter for the Dodgers in 2024.

“Until I hear otherwise, the only focus for me is having him DH,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday when Ohtani’s outfield glove was mentioned.

But the Dodgers aren’t closing the door on him working out at different positions, league sources told The Athletic, with one source saying it’s “definitely possible” but nothing close to imminent.

The possibility of Ohtani playing other positions down the road came up during discussions between the two sides when he was a free agent this winter, sources said, though anticipating any sort of change even far into the future of his 10-year, $700 million deal is premature.

Instead, the Dodgers are leaving the door open for Ohtani to keep active – be it shagging fly balls, or taking groundballs at first base – in his first time serving as just a hitter since before his breakout 2021 campaign.

“He’s a player. He wants to be involved. He loves being on the field. … He knows he’s not pitching this year, so anyway he can help this team win, he is all in,” infield coach Dino Ebel said, noting he hasn’t broken out his fungo bat for Ohtani just yet.

Even starting basic drills is ultimately up to the state of Ohtani’s elbow rehab. The 29-year-old hasn’t started his throwing progression after undergoing his second major elbow surgery. His agent, Nez Balelo, said “time is on our side” in terms of integrating that part of his rehab with Ohtani officially ruled out for the entire 2024 season on the mound.

Having that outlet, a source said, could help Ohtani manage his time as he shuts down half his usual self for the season.

Ohtani’s last full season as exclusively a hitter, 2019, was a productive one — he made his season debut in May, got 425 plate appearances and slugged 18 home runs, being more aggressive on the basepaths in the process and ranking seventh among designated hitters in overall offensive production by wRC+. That also remains his worst mark over a full season.

His ill-fated return to the mound in 2020 resulted in an injury that limited him to hitting only again. That time, his offense spiraled (a .657 OPS) to the point that the Angels flat-out benched him for a stretch of the abbreviated season as they sought to keep their postseason hopes alive.

There were physical explanations for his woes in those hitter-only seasons — a congenital knee issue that ended his 2019 still bothered him in 2020. There was also frustration stemming from a forearm issue. But officials around the Angels at the time openly wondered if turning the two-way star into just an offensive player had a detrimental effect, that doing both actually freed his detail-oriented mind and kept him from over-tinkering.

Coaches noticed that season as Ohtani routinely shuffled his stance and setup, trying to find a solution. During that prolonged down stretch, his manager expressed the same concern aloud.

“This is a young man that’s used to doing things one way, which would be pitch and hit,” Joe Maddon said back in 2020, noting how, rather than having pitching (or pitching rehab) to clear his mind, he would retreat to the dugout with interpreter Ippei Mizuhara and fixate on what went wrong on that particular at-bat.

“I do believe if he’s given permission to play a position also, that would ameliorate some of this,” Maddon posited back then.

“This is my perspective: When Shohei thinks about two things, he doesn’t think about one thing,” former Angels hitting coach Jeremy Reed told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal in 2021. “He’s so detail-oriented that detail can turn into a single-minded, ‘want-to-be-great’ thing. When he dedicates his time throughout the day to, ‘I’ve got to do this, this and this’ to be ready to play, I think there is less focus on one thing to be great and he’s great at both.”

That, of course, remains a different time in Ohtani’s career. He ended that 2020 campaign with a .657 OPS and almost immediately crafted a plan that helped stabilize his career. An offseason trip to Driveline and a revamped training program translated into his first MVP campaign in 2021. He returned to the mound with force, producing perhaps the best three-year run the sport has ever seen — until he re-tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and, weeks later, was shut down for the season with an oblique injury.

Ohtani has changed since 2020, in not just production but physique. With a record-setting contract in hand, his viability as a two-way star is no longer in question.

But, perhaps, there’s a way to keep him moving and prevent him from becoming overly focused on his offense, the only side of his game available to him this season.

(Photo of Shohei Ohtani: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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