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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Dodgers learning quickly that Shohei Ohtani loves the details

The Dodger’s Stadium in Los Angeles on Dec 11, 2023. In spring training, the Dodgers are seeing Shohei Ohtani’s relentless thirst for information firsthand every day. (Ryan Young/The New York Times)

By Fabian Ardaya / The Athletic

In 2019, before his first season exclusively as 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 in 2018 as a hitter and pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels had been a flash of brilliance, but much of MLB remained new to him.

So, Ohtani examined the schedule that spring and asked Billy Eppler, who was the team’s general manager, if he could get video of the pitchers from the teams the Angels would face that summer.

Flash forward to now, and Ohtani’s relentless thirst for information continues unabated. The Los Angeles Dodgers see it firsthand every day.

“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. But something else has stood out during his first spring training 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,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations.

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 had 425 plate appearances and slugged 18 home runs. He was aggressive on the bases and ranked seventh among designated hitters in overall offensive production by weighted runs created plus (120), a statistic known as wRC+. It was good, but nowhere near the heights that would come.

This spring training, 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 two weeks ago.

But last Tuesday, in his first Cactus League game of 2024, he hit a two-run home run against the Chicago White Sox in a 9-6 Dodgers victory at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix. Ohtani has outlined his plan to be ready for opening day with the club’s hitting staff, signaling to Roberts that he will need about 50 at-bats — against live pitching, off a machine or in games — before he declares himself ready for March 20 in Seoul, South Korea.

Part of the reason, Ohtani explained this past month, is that this is not 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 to help ensure that remains the case.

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 will 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 have noted the way he uses the Trajekt Arc pitching machine to get repetitions against different pitchers’ release points and pitch characteristics.

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

“He measures everything he does,” Bates’ 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 is all about the small stuff.

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