ANAHEIM, Calif. — Three-time World Series champion and Angels hitting coach Eric Hinske burst into the clubhouse like a man possessed. Inside, the Angels relievers and a few other players, including Mike Trout, were decompressing before their May 8 game at the Rockies’ notoriously hitter-friendly ballpark.
“Oh my God,” Hinske said, to no one in particular. “That was the most ridiculous BP run I think I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The way Angels reliever Noe Ramirez tells the story makes Hinske’s “Oh my God” sound like Will Ferrell as Harry Caray.
“I guess I was pretty excited,” Hinske told me, with a laugh.
Two-way star Shohei Ohtani had just finished his first career batting practice session in Denver, and he did not disappoint. Four of the approximately 20 homers he mashed hit the third deck—one in particular landed right below The Rooftop, a standing-room-only area beyond the third level. The ball left a dent on a wall several rows up. Another came a few feet short of entering a terrace bar beyond the seats of the third deck.
“My mouth was just open like, ‘Bro, you guys don’t even get it, how far these balls were going,’” Hinske said. “Nobody’s ever hit it up there, and he just does it every swing.”
Ohtani’s Rooftop blast was estimated at 517 feet, according to Greg Rybarczyk, the creator of ESPN’s HR Tracker and an analyst for the Red Sox.
“It looked like it went 600-plus feet,” Hinske said.
“I’d like to keep trying so that I can hit like that in a game,” Ohtani told me through a translator.
A number of Angels who were onlookers to the proceedings corroborated Hinske’s claims of grandeur. For a man accustomed to hyperbolic characterizations—Ohtani is actively compared to Babe Ruth, for fuck’s sake—hyperbolic language seemed to be the only way to describe the episode that they just witnessed.
“I’ve never seen anyone hit the ball like that in my career,” Angels third baseman Luis Valbuena said. “It’s crazy.”
“I haven’t seen anybody hit it up there before, and he was doing it swing after swing,” Angels outfielder Chris Young said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that,” Angels reliever Blake Parker said. “I remember just thinking, like, damn, that was loud.”
“I’ve never seen the ball hit that far before,” teammate Jefry Marte said through a translator. “He probably hit it 600 feet.”
“We were hoping he would hit it out of the stadium,” Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons said. “But I guess that will suffice.”
Just two videos exist—one by Fox Sports West and the other from a Japanese television channel—and neither camera followed the balls smoothly. The session will have to live on in the minds of the people there to witness it that night.
“The whole stadium—he got a standing ovation,” Angels third base coach Dino Ebel said. “You could hear the awe. Everybody couldn’t believe the power that he has.”
Ebel has been around the majors in some capacity for 30 years, and with the Angels for 13, long enough to have pitched in the Home Run Derby for Vladimir Guerrero in 2007 and Albert Pujols in 2015. The coach said he felt the same electricity from fans during Ohtani’s BP as he did at the Derby.
“It reminded me of the days when [Mark] McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa would take batting practice and it would almost be a sell-out crowd to watch those guys hit,” Ebel added.
While Ohtani hit a number of mind-boggling bombs throughout that session, some said that other BPs have been equally impressive. One oft-cited anecdote was a homer he hit over the State Farm sign in Angel Stadium’s right field. Hinske said a man who has worked at the park for 19 years told him he’d never seen a ball hit there before. Another was an artillery shell he fired in Toronto. The ball ended up in the third deck of the Blue Jays’ stadium.
A third took place on May 18, before the Angels faced the Rays at Angel Stadium, when he belted a drive that struck several feet up the scoreboard in deep, deep right field. The Angels’ PR team, IT department, and grounds crew collaborated to estimate the distance of the homer using a range finder, which is typically used for golf or hunting. It weighed in at 513 feet, just below the 517-foot estimate at Coors. The homer in Anaheim yielded equally incredulous reactions from those who saw it.
“That was 100 percent the furthest I’ve seen a ball hit,” said Angels outfielder Michael Hermosillo, who made his major-league debut on that same May 18, meaning he was not there to witness the blasts in Colorado.
In the 2002 World Series, the Giants’ Barry Bonds crushed a homer at the then-Edison International Field of Anaheim beyond the right field seats and likely into a tunnel several feet beyond, one that prompted the Angels’ Tim Salmon, caught on camera, to utter, “That was the farthest ball I’ve ever seen hit in my life.” Bonds’ shot was estimated at 485 feet. Salmon wasn’t there to witness the Ohtani homer to provide his perspective.
“If you can hit it over the Coca-Cola tunnel right there, that’s a bomb, and you’re saying that he’s hit it even further than that?” Salmon told me. “I’ve never seen anybody hit that scoreboard, and I played in the steroid era.”
Word travels fast. The Angels’ next series after Colorado was against the Twins at home, where Ohtani’s BP was must-see—for Twins players. The vast majority of the team, staff included, was outside or on the rails of their dugout, watching intently, ready to bear witness. The following week, the Rays made a trip to Anaheim for a four-game series. They followed suit.
“I heard our guys talk about [Ohtani’s BP],” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “They said it was very impressive.”
“That’s what’s happening now, is that the visiting team is starting to watch us take batting practice,” Hinske added. “Everybody stops when he gets in the cage. It’s pretty cool.”
The Angels split their batting practice into three groups of four or five hitters. Valbuena is not usually a part of Ohtani’s group, but he’s begun to stay behind for a few extra minutes to watch Ohtani swing the bat—it’s how Valbuena saw the May 8 blasts in their entirety.
Even with all these eyes on Ohtani in the cages, marveling at his power and ogling the trajectory, he still considers himself unworthy of a spot in the Home Run Derby.
“I’m honored to be in the conversation, but I feel like I’m not at that level yet,” Ohtani said through a translator.
That conversation was tabled after Ohtani suffered a partially torn UCL during a start on June 6, robbing everyone of the opportunity to see some Ohtani taters on a national stage. It’s not outside of the realm of possibilities that he returns to action before the Derby on July 16—GM Billy Eppler said today that Ohtani was likely to come back this season as a hitter regardless of his status as a pitcher—but it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be taking cuts at Nationals Park.
At this point, the Angels are doing everything in their power—PRP and stem-cell injections, limiting his overall activity—in an attempt to avoid the Tommy John surgery that about 50 percent of pitchers with a Grade 2 UCL strain eventually need. Even if Ohtani is forced to have Tommy John surgery in the offseason or beyond, that would keep him off the mound for 12-18 months, but not necessarily away from the plate.
For position players, the typical return time is 6-8 months—for Ohtani, possibly less, considering that he doesn’t need to play the field—so the Angels might face a unique situation on how to handle his recovery. While Ohtani the pitcher is recovering from his surgery, Ohtani the hitter could feasibly return to hit a few months after such an operation. It depends on how risky the team wants to be.
Ohtani can crush balls in meaningful situations, too. In his 129 plate appearances this season, he has a .289/.372/.535 line with six home runs and a wRC+ of 151. He’s hit homers off of Corey Kluber and Luis Severino, the first- and third-place finishers for the 2017 AL Cy Young. His slugging percentage is ranked 13th in the AL with a minimum of 100 at-bats.
Ohtani’s power comes from his ability to create so much leverage on his swing. Former Angels outfielder and two-time Silver Slugger Torii Hunter broke down how Ohtani generates that force from his lower body.
“He’s using his legs as his foundation—it’s like the four legs of a chair,” Hunter said. “The legs of a chair stabilize it for you sit on—his strong legs are able to stabilize him, with his power, to drive the ball.”
Hinske, the man responsible for advising Ohtani to switch from a high leg kick to more of a toe tap after the rookie’s lackluster Spring Training, would agree with that sentiment.
“He’s down and ready to fire—his lower half is amazing,” Hinske said. “The mechanics of his swing work. And he’s a giant person, man. He’s tall; his shoulders are square. He just rages. It’s awesome.
“He commands the batter’s box,” Hinske added. “If you run up to him and try to knock him over you’d just fall off. He’s just that grounded. And you turn that into torque and leverage and what he uses with his hands and lower half—he’s a freak.”
This is the hitting ability of a starting pitcher who can hit triple digits with his pitches, too. Just as Ohtani is capable of doing twice as many things as a regular baseball player, his absence creates twice as many holes. Even when he’s injured, his sheer talent—his velocity, his splitter, his BP homers that seem on the outer edge of reality—keep everyone awestruck and clamoring for more.
“In a span of a week and a half, he struck out [2017 AL MVP] Jose Altuve and took [2017 AL Cy Young] Corey Kluber deep,” Angels reliever Keynan Middleton said, mouth wide open after uttering that statement. “It’s like, how do you do both of those things?”