One small step sent Shohei Ohtani toward two-way success in MLB

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Eric Hinske began by leaving Shohei Ohtani alone. He sat back and watched the 23-year-old two-way phenom get swallowed up by major league fastballs inside and above the belt for the better part of four weeks. Only then did he suggest the drastic mechanical adjustment that ultimately would make all the difference.

Shortly after the Los Angeles Angels wrapped up spring training in Arizona, Hinske, in his first season as the team's hitting coach, asked Ohtani whether he would consider ditching his traditional high leg kick and replacing it with a subtle toe tap. The Freeway Series, an annual three-game set of exhibition games against the crosstown Los Angeles Dodgers, was ongoing. Opening Day stood three days away.

But Ohtani kept an open mind, enough so that he gave the recommendation a pregame test run at Dodger Stadium on the afternoon of March 26.

"He did it in batting practice that day, and he was hitting homers all over the field," Hinske recalled. "He said, 'OK, I'm in.' And that was it."

That adjustment -- made as late as it was -- has given credibility to Ohtani's quest to pull off something that hasn't been done in the major leagues in 100 years.

A little more than four weeks in, Ohtani has a 4.43 ERA in 20⅓ innings and a .333 batting average in 42 at-bats. It is exceedingly early, but Ohtani already looks like a different player from the one who struggled to get outs on the mound and record hits at the plate against inferior talent in the build-up to the regular season.

Those around Ohtani say he has raised his intensity noticeably on the mound. Growing accustomed to the steeper mounds and the flatter seams of American baseball, and throwing off-speed pitches into air that isn't as dry as it is in Arizona, also has helped. At the plate, his success stems mostly from a front foot that has set everything else in motion.

"Whatever you can do to get on time," Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun said of the process of a hitter beginning his swing. "I think he was exposed a little bit, I guess, in the beginning with his leg kick and trying to time everything up. Right when he put his foot down, it's like everything sank up and he was able to use his hands, and you've seen what has happened since then."

Naoyuki Yanagihara is a journalist for Sports Nippon Newspapers who followed Ohtani closely in Japan and is now covering his every move in Southern California. When asked whether he was surprised to see Ohtani ditch the leg kick that is so popular among his countrymen, Yanagihara nodded in affirmation.

"He's never done what he's doing right now," Yanagihara said through an interpreter. "Since he was in high school, he's always had that high leg kick."

After a January workout in Japan, shortly before he would embark on a 5,000-mile journey to a new country and a tougher league, Ohtani stood before the Japanese media and said he would maintain his swing and his approach unless he hit a proverbial wall. That wall came in spring training, when he went 4-for-32 with 10 strikeouts in Cactus League play.

Hinske suggested the toe tap largely because Ohtani, at 6 feet 4, is big and strong enough that he doesn't need the momentum of a high leg kick to drive pitches consistently. Himself a left-handed hitter with a subtle leg kick, Hinske saw Freddie Freeman and Kris Bryant generate prodigious power without an exaggerated kick, and he believed Ohtani could do the same.

Keeping the front foot down eliminates moving parts and excess head movement, simplifying the approach and making it easier for hitters to stay in tune with their mechanics. In Calhoun's mind, "it simplifies everything."

"When you have a high kick, it's hard to time yourself," Angels first baseman Albert Pujols said. "You have to be consistent, man. You have to be really consistent with your swing when you have a high leg kick. And it's hard."

Angels players are still getting to know Ohtani on a personal level, but they have been blown away by his talent -- by the ease with which he throws 100 mph, by the way balls fly off his bat, by his speed around the bases.

They find him uncommonly humble, but also surprisingly inquisitive.

When they first met in spring training, Ohtani told Calhoun, one of few left-handed hitters on the Angels, that he had watched a lot of video from his at-bats. Two weeks in, he asked Pujols about his own toe tap. Pujols told him how much easier it is to recognize pitches and be on time with your swing without having to worry about your stride, a thought that remained with Ohtani when Hinske suggested the tweak several weeks later.

"He's a sponge, man," said Hinske, a 12-year major leaguer who spent four seasons as a coach with the Chicago Cubs. "He wants to learn. He wants to learn the American way."

The concern, really, isn't that Ohtani isn't good enough to succeed as both a pitcher and a hitter; it's whether he'll get enough reps to remain consistent at the latter.

As things stand, Ohtani basically will take three days off from hitting each week. One is the day he serves as the starting pitcher. But there's also the day before he starts, when Ohtani says he is solely "focusing on pitching." And then there's the day after he starts, which Ohtani calls a "recovery day." It's the same schedule he followed in Japan.

"Nothing has changed," Ohtani said through his interpreter. "I think it's fine."

Angels manager Mike Scioscia acknowledged the mental drain of remaining an effective hitter while maintaining a starting pitcher's routine, though he also downplayed Ohtani's infrequent batting practice schedule.

"He's getting plenty of looks in games, and he does a lot more work than you guys see," Scioscia said. "Trust me."

But hitting is a daily rhythm. There's a certain consistency and repetition that typically is required in order to have a chance to succeed at this level. Major league hitters generally take batting practice every day they are healthy, which makes one wonder about Ohtani and his new mechanics.

"I don't know how he's going to maintain it," Pujols said. "That's the hard part."

"I don't think anybody said what he's trying to do is going to be easy," Calhoun added. "I mean, pitchers throw every day and hitters hit every day. To try and do both, and give your body the ample time to rest in between each time, it's definitely going to be hard. But what he's done so far ..."

Yeah, there is that.

Ohtani already is showing that he shouldn't be judged by the limitations of others. He's doing what hasn't been accomplished -- heck, what hasn't even been attempted -- since Babe Ruth in 1919. He's doing it as a rookie in a new country, with what feels like the entire world watching.

As if all that weren't enough, he incorporated a major mechanical adjustment to his swing only days before his major league debut.

"To make an adjustment like that, it'll take guys time to get it down," Calhoun said. "And it's like he put his foot down and hit the ground running."

Hinske was asked about the concern of suggesting such a drastic change so close to the start of the season.

"I knew he could handle it," Hinske said. "I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't think he could handle it."