Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Shohei Otani’s Thorough Preparation Leads to the Year MVP

Shohei Otani was surrounded on all sides.

Commissioner Rob Manfred covered one shoulder. Translator Ippei Mizuhara followed the other. And around them, a crowd of other MLB employees lurked in a huge circle, holding the double-sided Angel Star through a crowded hallway in Minute Maid Park in Houston, minutes before the World Series kicked off last month.

There are not many cases where baseball players look as strong as movie stars, their mere presence draws attention to the gravity of their orbit.

But not many baseball players are like Otani, whose 2021 season with the Angels not only captured the sport’s imagination, but redefined the boundaries of what once seemed possible for one player.

That is why he has become one of the most attractive in the league this year, having 46 home runs with 100 RBIs, as well as knocking out 156 batters with an average run of 3.18 in 23 serves.

That’s why Manfred challenged Ohtani in front of dozens of media representatives ahead of the Fall Classic, using the national stage to declare the 27-year-old athlete the 16th Special Commissioner of Historic Achievement Award.

And that’s why on Thursday night, Otani is expected to be the undisputed winner of the American League MVP category, becoming the first bilateral winner of that honor since its founding in 1931.

His performance was unprecedented. It’s historical. This is unique.

But now, when autumn gives way to winter, and the mythical trance of his memorable season is increasingly receding into the past, the question arises about the future that remains behind her.

Was it just one magical year, a stunning but erratic surge that will never happen again? Or can Otani really maintain that high atmosphere and turn a once-impossible challenge into an annual event?

When asked that night in Houston, Otani at first strayed, trying to play down the meaning of speculation about the future. But in the end he did give an answer, clarifying his expectations for the future.

“I am quite confident that I can repeat what I did this year,” Otani said through Mizuhara. “I just need to go outside, play every day and show good results. I think I will have at least the same season as this year. “

Twelve months ago, Otani’s future in both roles was in doubt.

He had yet to fully return to the hill following surgery for Tommy John at the end of his MLB rookie season in 2018. His plate playing suffered from knee surgery that interrupted his 2019 campaign.

When new general manager Perry Minasyan was hired a year ago, much of his early conversations with coaches and staff across the club revolved around how to tap Ohtani’s tantalizing raw talent and how to leverage it in 2021?

Soon the team’s clearly documented plan came to fruition: they removed the restrictions on Otani’s use – removed the established rules about how often he took the mound, when he took days off, etc. – and instead determined his workload based on how he felt during the year.

Recalling those discussions during the league’s general managers’ meetings in Carlsbad, California last week, Minasyan chuckled as he watched it all unfold.

Obviously, he said, it worked.

Indeed, Otani’s production was amazing.

He played in 158 games. He has pitched over 130 innings. He escaped any restrictions on the injured list. And he missed only a few starts due to random mishaps, such as a blister on his toe in April and a sore thumb hit by a stray ball in a dugout in July.

He also showed no signs of fatigue. His pitching record improved as the season wore on, a byproduct of his improved fastball skill and ability to work deeper into games. His only long-term decline came in August and early September, when the Angels lineup made it easier for opponents to outflank him.

“Looking back, we can say that in the season there was no moment when I would really feel tired or tired,” said Okhtani before the final game of the team. “I could play every day with a good rhythm. I just kept it up throughout the season. “

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Ohtani’s final stats also included a .257 average, 0.965 base hit percentage, 26 stolen bases and 96 slugger walks, as well as an impressive 9-2 record and 1.09 walks and hits per inning. like a jug. He attributed much of the success to his training program over the past offseason.

For the first time in his MLB career, he didn’t treat an injury or get stuck in rehab, allowing him to push himself in ways he couldn’t in years past.

He sped up his shooting program by integrating bullpen classes earlier in the offseason. He also trained more live, trying to fix the mechanical issues that plagued him during his career-worst 2020 season.

This effort was aided by visits to the Driveline training center near Seattle. So did the improved diet plan, which included blood tests to determine which foods were best for his body, which helped him gain weight and build muscle, especially in his lower half.

The benefits began to show early in spring training. He eclipsed 100 mph with his third bullpen session. He had 460 foot home runs for the first week of the Cactus League.

And as the regular season kicked off, he incorporated an efficient routine into his new daily Angels game schedule.

Instead of practicing before playing on the pitch, he saved energy through effective training in the club’s ball cages.

“This guy is a well-oiled machine,” said hitting coach Jeremy Reid. “From the first day I saw him for the first time, until now, he just continues to understand himself better.”

Between each pitching start, Ohtani replaced traditional lateral bullpen training with regulated workouts such as field ball drills, while Mizuhara monitored his efforts with pocket radar and digital readings with a small black band Ohtani wore around his elbow.

“He was really good at regulating himself,” said nutrition coach Matt Wise. “Everyone’s like, ‘Nobody’s ever done this before.’ But the way he handled it allowed him to do what he did. “

There was also constant communication with manager Joe Maddon, Minasian and other team members in the form of almost daily texts and face-to-face conversations (usually with the help of Mizuhara) to make sure Okhtani remained physically strong and mentally refreshed.

“He really understands himself very well,” Maddon said at the end of the season. “I think this is a contributing factor. This is the main ingredient. “

All of this fueled a consensus among those closest to Otani by the end of the year: as long as he remains healthy, there is little doubt if he can do it all again.

“This is what he set out to do,” said Nez Balelo, Ohtani’s agent at CAA Sports. “I think we are just starting to scratch the surface here. It will be fun to watch him come out and do it year after year. Because that’s what he wants to do. “

“I think it’s sustainable on both sides,” echoed Maddon, who thinks Otani has the potential to offer 40 to 50 extra innings next year and win on the plate with line-up protection against healthy Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon.

Minasyan, who noted that he does not foresee any changes in Otani’s use next season, shares the same view. He knows that what he witnessed this year was historic, more than worthy of all the praise, hardware and attention that followed.

But he thinks he also has the makings of a repeatable routine, and he hopes this may be the beginning of Otani’s crushing accomplishments, not the end.

“This is a big reason why we talked about letting him play every day without rules. Just enjoy the game, go and have fun, ”Minasyan said. “Here’s what he did. And I see no reason why this cannot continue. “

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