Dodgers learning quickly that Shohei Ohtani loves the details

PHOENIX — Back in 2019, ahead of his first season as exclusively a hitter, Shohei Ohtani had a request.

He wanted to do his homework as he prepared to return from Tommy John surgery in May. Yes, Ohtani’s rookie season for the Los Angeles Angels had been a flash of brilliance, but much of the league remained new to him.

So Ohtani examined the schedule that spring and asked then-general manager Billy Eppler if he could get footage of the pitchers from the teams the Angels would face that summer.

Every. Single. One.

Flash forward to this spring and Ohtani’s relentless thirst for information continues unabated. The Dodgers see it first-hand every day this spring.
“Everything he does is intentional,” manager Dave Roberts said, “which is pretty amazing but not surprising.”

Ohtani’s physical attributes are a marvel. His eye-popping presence has its own gravitational force, even in a clubhouse that includes plenty of big-money contracts and accolades. After all, he’s one of the few stars in the sport whose celebrity is transcendent enough to be referenced in, say, a Bad Bunny song.

But something else that has stood out during his first spring with his new club. Teammates and club officials are learning that, with the newest Dodger, it’s all in the details.

“Just how intentional every single thing he does is, whether it’s in the weight room, out on the field, that you can’t really fully appreciate until you see it,” Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations said.

Ohtani is a two-time MVP now, owner of the richest contract in sports. And once again, he will be limited to just the hitting part of his game in 2024 after undergoing elbow surgery.

Ohtani’s last full season exclusively as a hitter was a productive one. He debuted in May, got 425 plate appearances and slugged 18 home runs. He was more aggressive on the basepaths in the process and ranked seventh among designated hitters in overall offensive production by wRC+. That 120 mark also remains his worst mark over a full season. Good, but nowhere near the heights that would come.

This spring, Ohtani is again being proactive about his timeline, and the Dodgers respect his judgment. That includes allowing Ohtani to choose when he feels ready to hit. He twice appeared on the club’s schedule to face live pitching before stepping to the plate for the first time last week.

The Dodgers have slow-played his return to game action, which begins with Tuesday’s Cactus League game at Camelback Ranch. Ohtani has outlined his plan to be ready for Opening Day with the club’s hitting staff, signaling to Roberts that he’ll need around 50 at-bats — against live pitching, off a machine or in games — before he declares himself ready for March 20 in Seoul.

Shohei Ohtani takes swings before a Feb. 23 Cactus League game against the Padres. (Masterpress / Getty Images)

Part of the reason, Ohtani explained earlier this month, is because this isn’t his first time going through this.

For Roberts, though, it’s a work in progress.

“It’s tough to navigate, as I’m learning,” Roberts said. “Because context is everything. And with a player like Shohei, sometimes context isn’t brought to light. So I’m just realizing that I have to be very mindful of my words, so they’re not taken out of context, just with respect to him and the organization. Because I’ve never had a dealing with a world player. I mean, there’s only one Shohei.”

It’s still a balancing act that comes down to “a lot of respect between both sides,” Ohtani’s agent, Nez Balelo, said last week. The Dodgers have given Ohtani latitude, and Ohtani has designed a contract (including language about the ownership and the front office) to help ensure that remains the case.

“It’s not like (Ohtani) is on his own program,” Balelo continued.

The Angels had watched him flourish in part because they granted him such freedom. The Dodgers are learning the intricacies of that, too.

The Dodgers have noted the differences in Ohtani’s routine. He’ll use his work inside the cage to work on mechanics and use his swings outdoors (a rarity) as a test of strength as he muscles tape-measure homers. They’ve seen him embrace his time inside the Dodgers’ new indoor hitting facility, noting the way he uses the Trajekt Arc pitching machine (one of the few technological upgrades the Angels splurged for during his time there, as well) to get repetitions against different pitchers’ release points and pitch characteristics.

“Very meticulous,” said hitting coach Aaron Bates. “There’s a reason why he does everything.”

“He measures everything he does,” fellow hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc said.

Everything about Ohtani must be viewed within a grander context now: what it means for the richest deal in sports history, what it means for the Dodgers’ title aspirations, and how the Dodgers shifted so much of their normal behavior to make such a spending spree possible.

Yet when it comes to Ohtani himself, it’s all about the small stuff.



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(Photo of Shohei Ohtani: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

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