Ohtani aims for improvement even after MVP season for Angels

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Baseball had seen nothing like Shohei Ohtani’s unanimous AL MVP season in over a century.

With the new season arriving quickly for his Los Angeles Angels, Ohtani is eager to make more history.

“I feel like I can’t be doing the same thing as last year, to have the same stats as last year,” Ohtani said Tuesday through his interpreter at the Angels’ spring training complex. “I need to get better and keep on improving, so that’s the plan.”

Ohtani’s stats were absolutely daunting in 2021: A 9-2 record with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts over 130 innings on the mound, and a .965 OPS with 46 homers and 100 RBIs at the plate.

Even after the most impressive two-way season since Babe Ruth’s heyday, Ohtani remains unsatisfied.

“Obviously, skills-wise, there’s room for improvement,” Ohtani said. “But physically, I already feel a lot stronger than last year, so I think we’re on a good start.”

Ohtani wants to do more in every area, and he’s hoping that production will translate into more team success for a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since three years before he arrived stateside. He hasn’t made as many significant additions to his offseason training regimen as he did before last season, justifiably feeling that what he has been doing is still working well.

“Nothing is really going to change personally just for having one good year,” Ohtani said. “I feel like the key is to continue having success for a lot of years to come. As long as we can do that, I feel like our team is in a good spot.”

Angels manager Joe Maddon sees one particular area where Ohtani might be able to expand his game, even though he has zero complaints about last season.

“It’s hard to imagine he’s going to do more this year than he did last year,” Maddon said. “I’ll take a repeat performance, adding maybe several more innings as a pitcher. But he’s just a different animal. He’s a good man that happens to be a really good baseball player.”

Ohtani made 23 starts last season in the Angels’ six-man rotation, and that number isn’t likely to rise by more than a couple of starts. Los Angeles bolstered its starting rotation in the offseason with the additions of Noah Syndergaard and Michael Lorenzen, but the Angels are still counting on Ohtani to excel on the mound.

Ohtani hopes to improve his control this year, particularly early in the season. He seems likely to be the Angels’ opening day starter on the mound April 7, although Maddon won’t confirm it yet.

“There is a part of me that would like to start opening day, but it’s not what I’m really thinking about,” Ohtani said. “Whether I’m hitting or pitching on opening day, I just want to get off to a good start.”

Ohtani and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara met with Maddon on Tuesday morning to renew their connection. Maddon believes he has a good system in place with Ohtani and Mizuhara, and he intends to keep the same constant dialogue this season, paying particular attention to the health of Ohtani’s legs because any weakness could lead to overcompensation in other areas.

In fact, the biggest obstacle of Ohtani’s offseason might have arisen when baseball owners imposed their lockout: Mizuhara had to resign from his position as an Angels staff member or he wouldn’t have been able to stay in daily contact with Ohtani as a team employee.

Mizuhara, who grew up in Japan before attending high school and college in the Los Angeles area, has been Ohtani’s right-hand man since their days with the Nippon-Ham Fighters. The Angels immediately rehired Mizuhara after the lockout ended.

Ohtani’s long-term future with the Angels isn’t settled. He is under team control through next season, but he doesn’t sound interested in talking about potential contract extensions during the season.

“There’s a really good vibe in the clubhouse right now,” Ohtani said. “All the new guys seem like they’re really great guys. I’m excited to play with this team. … As long as we can all stay healthy, I feel like we have a really good shot at the postseason.”

If the Angels end their seven-year playoff drought, Ohtani is likely to be a big reason. There’s another way in which Ohtani is hoping to contribute even more: After several significant rule changes were included in the recent collective bargaining agreement, the Angels would love it if baseball figured out a rule alteration to allow Ohtani to stay in games as a designated hitter after he is pulled as a pitcher.

“I’m hoping it happens,” Maddon said. “And the American League West is hoping it does not, if I had to guess.”

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