Shohei in the leadoff spot? Right now, my feeling is "Oh No"

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Ohtani whiff

Shohei Ohtani goes down on strikes on a not-so wicked Masahiro Tanaka splitter. | USA Today Sports

Folks have been speculating that the Angels use Shohei Ohtani’s bat more prominently. Leadoff? No thanks.

By Stu Matthews | @stumatthews11

Everybody is just spitballing when it comes to where to bat Shohei Ohtani in the lineup, including manager Mike Scioscia, so it was interesting to hear what Angels podcaster Patrick Zajac had to say on Friday.

After being discussed as a solution to the Angels’ leadoff woes on Zajac’s excellent "Locked On Angels" pod – which is the only regular podcast dedicated exclusively to the Angels – Shohei Ohtani The Batter suddenly hit the first significant batting speedbump of his major-league career.

The Angels’ Japanese prodigy ended up Oh-fer-the Bronx.

All players go into slumps (just ask Mike Trout), but Ohtani’s middling weekend in New York with the stick stood out as much as any random 6-foot-4 Japanese two-way dude does.

As the Scottish indie legendary band Aztec Camera memorably sang in the 1982 hit "Oblivious", "It’s Obvious …!"

To be fair, Ohtani wasn’t the only Angel whose bat went MIA in NY. Outside of a career game by Trout and a shock show by MLB debutante Jose Briceno on Saturday, most of the Angels bats looked like they had holes drilled in them by nasty Yankee fans. (Wouldn’t put it past them).

So, despite outscoring the Yankees 13-9 over the series in the Bombers’ "Mancave," the Angels dropped the series 1-2.

Ohtani did contribute as the designated hitter, despite going hitless when "designated" to do the opposite.

He drew four walks in the series, showing very good discipline against the best the Yanks could throw at him, and drove in a run on a bases-loaded walk. He's a rookie.

Take heart in small mercies. And enjoy this stat line from the opposing ranks:

Giancarla Giancarlo Stanton, the monster slugger whose signing on Dec. 9 by the Yankees stole the Angels’ thunder after Anaheim’s shock signing of Ohtani, had an even worse weekend than Sho-Time.

Aaron Judge was a pest, but Stanton was 0-for-12 in the Yanks’ cleanup spot, and the Angels pitching staff – minus their ace Ohtani on the hill – mowed that damfool Stanton down with seven strikeouts.

Yeah, take that, Giancarla.

To get back to Ohtani the concept in the leadoff hole, he wasn’t anywhere near the top over Memorial Day weekend. He was in the heart of the order again the Evil Empire to boost a struggling Angels lineup.

Ohtani has batted dutifully in whatever slot Scioscia puts him.

Manager Mike Scioscia skipped his turn in the rotation, ostensibly to take advantage of Ohtani’s power stroke in the little bandbox in the Bronx, and penciled him in the lineup at No. 5, No. 5 and cleanup in the series.

Sadly, Shohei’s lumber slumbered slightly, and he had no sting for the Yankees.

When the Angels’ rookie checked into his hotel in New York, he was sporting a batting average of .319, with 14 extra-base hits (including six bombs) and a .991 OPS. Scioscia showed his confidence by batting Ohtani fifth twice, and in the cleanup spot on Sunday.

What happened? A mini-slump happened.

When Ohtani checked out of the hotel for the charter flight to Detroit Sunday night, the batting average had dipped to .291; the OPS to .929. But I think any Angel fan would have taken those numbers after Ohtani’s dreadful spring.

I know as a hitter, it’s tough to do just one thing. And he’s doing well at both. It’s pretty impressive. He’s fine. ~ Mike Trout

Mike Trout isn’t worried: "It’s been unbelievable," the MLB GOAT said. "I know as a hitter, it’s tough to do just one thing. And he’s doing well at both. It’s pretty impressive. He’s fine."

Ohtani told the Orange County Register: "I didn’t get any hits, but I drew a lot of walks. A lot of good at-bats, a lot of good contact. I’m not worried about it."

So, what happened to Ohtani’s magic wand in the Bronx? Let’s examine:

Against Yankee ace Luis Severino on Friday, Ohtani was 0-for-3 but mixed in a walk with one strikeout. In a game the Angels found every way they could to lose 2-1, Ohtani had a chance to be a hero in the eighth. After a tense battle, he grounded out to shortstop kill a rally against Yankee girlfriend-abusing flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman.

The Ohtani batting average was now .309.

On Saturday, against a very vulnerable Sonny Gray, Ohtani was a sideshow to the Mike Trout Fireworks Extravaganza. He drew a bases-loaded walk off Gray and drove in Zack Cozart with the bases loaded for his only RBI.

Alarmingly, we awoke Sunday to see the Ohtani batting average at .297 – the first time it’s been below .300 since Opening Day.

Sunday, we did get to see the matchup against a fellow Japanese, Tanaka, who won again mano a mano.

(To be fair, Tanaka has owned Ohtani going back to their days in Japan. In 2013, Ohtani was an 18-year-old rookie in Nippon Professional Baseball and he went 0-for-11 in 2013 against Tanaka. But at the time, nobody was hitting Tanaka. He posted a 24-0 record for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in his last season in Japan, before – of course, signing for $155 million over seven years to join the Yankees as a free agent.)

In Ohtani’s first at-bat Sunday, Old Man Tanaka, age 29, gave the young whippersnapper a taste of his own medicine, striking him out on a split-fingered fastball that Ohtani swung over.

Get offa muh lawn, Ohtani-San.

But before you Yankees fans get too excited, it wasn’t nearly as cool as watching Ohtani blow away a hitter with his lethal splitter. Tanaka’s splitter broke downwards about six inches, but it was enough. It wasn’t the lethal two-foot plunge that Ohtani’s splitter the Angel hurler uses with amusement.

And then, as if to appease Zajac’s curiosity (and mine), Ohtani appeared as a "leadoff hitter" – of sorts. With the Angels down 3-1, Ohtani led off the ninth, and he did what a good leadoff guy does. He got his team in business.

Facing the southpaw Chapman again, Ohtani faced an array of 100-plus-mph heaters, one sick change-up, worked the count full, then drew an excellent walk when the Yanks’ closer missed the zone with a 101mph heater.

Then Ohtani ran the bases well. He tried for a straight steal, which was foiled as Jefry Marte fouled the pitch off. As Chapman unleashed a pair of wild pitches, Ohtani dashed to second, then third. But with the tying run at the plate, he’d stay there.

Pinch-hitters Marte and demoted leadoff man Ian Kinsler both struck out. The game and inning died when Martin Maldonado hit a shot up the middle – and only the combination of a diving stop by Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius and the slow-footed Maldonado ended the game.

There are several straws we can grasp at to explain Ohtani’s suddenly chilly bat (and is it really that chilly?), and none of them really make sense, but I’ll have a go.

Straw Number 1: Scioscia messed up Ohtani’s mojo by ""workload managing" the youngster out of his routine by skipping his scheduled Sunday start on the mound, ramping up the pressure on Shohei to deliver with the thunderstick.

Straw Number 2: It’s baseball. All players go through slumps with the bat – either extended or mini – and even Ohtani isn’t immune. He was facing excellent pitching, but the matchups looked good on paper.

Straw Number 3: Locked On Angels. Like a no-hitter, there are some things "you don’t talk about" in baseball, Pat Zajac (@OtherPatZajac) discussed Ohtani as a leadoff man on Friday on his podcast.

Well, why not? I’m out of answers. Zajac, handling his Friday mailbag with due diligence, addressed the Angels’ leadoff woes while answering a question from listener Edward Hogan Burgnur (@treyburgs) about whether hot-hitting AAA prospect David Fletcher should ride to the rescue of the struggling Kinsler.

"It’s gotta come soon," Zajac said. "Ian Kinsler – I get it, when he’s hitting (leadoff) is the most ideal spot for him. But until that time, you gotta switch it up.

"Maybe it’s Andrelton Simmons hitting leadoff, although I like him in an RBI spot. Why not try Mike Trout or Shohei Ohtani in that leadoff spot, or bring back Zack Cozart? Mix it up. But Ian Kinsler is not getting the job done."

Why not try Mike Trout or Shohei Ohtani in that leadoff spot, or bring back Zack Cozart? Mix it up. But Ian Kinsler is not getting the job done. ~ Patrick Zajac, Locked On Angels podcast host

Almost all spot on. But Shohei Ohtani, even with his mastery of many dark arts, probably shouldn’t ever bat leadoff.

While it’s tempting to have a fast, slugging guy like who is not afraid of taking a walk at the top of the lineup – and especially to have the protection of Trout’s bat behind him – I would hesitate to use him there.

I’ll put on my Billy Eppler hat here. Too much injury risk.

Yes, you technically get Ohtani’s bat in the lineup more frequently. Ohtani would see better pitches to hit in front of Trout, and I can imagine the numbers! But all that diving back to first on pick-off attempts. The pressure to steal more bases.

And let’s face it, Ohtani isn’t built like Rickey Henderson, who wasn’t just the self-proclaimed "greatest" leadoff hitter of modern time, Rickey was the best. Henderson, baseball’s all-time leader in steals, leadoff homers and runs scored, was all sinew. Rickey was built like a supercharged Sherman tank with a strike zone the size of a peanut.

Ohtani is big and strong, but he’s young. He has holes in his swing still, and leadoff is a dangerous spot. Let a guy like Kinsler take that on the chin. He’s bound to heat up.

Pitchers like to "set the tone" against opposing leadoff guys. They come inside more. And the leadoff batter must "set the tone" as well, being more patient than Ohtani often would like. And leadoff is a better spot for a player who is doing it every day, not a few days a week when not pitching.

Personal experience plays a part in my attitude. In my playing days, I often batted leadoff, and really didn’t like it. I had to see pitches that I would have liked to drive to show the rest of the team what the pitcher had. And steal bases, too, which takes a huge toll on the body.

Perhaps I’m part Dominican, because I wanted to go up there to swing the bat. Hit line drives.

Ohtani does too. But why mess with something that’s working?

Ohtani has batted in every spot in the Angels’ order at least once except third or ninth. He had one PA in the No. 1 slot as a pinch-hitter.

His greatest success has come where Scioscia has slotted him most, at No. 5 or No. 8 (early on). All six of Ohtani’s homers have come out of the No. 5 and 8 holes, including a .360 average and 1.229 OPS at No. 8.

Ugghhh. I just don’t know.

We’ll see what machinations Scioscia has in store for us in Detroit.

Like a road-weary touring band, the Angels will be happy to shout "Hello Detroit!" when they get ready to rock Motown in the first of a string of games against sub-.500 teams.

But I’m still puzzled about outscoring the Yankees and losing the series anyway.

To borrow the closing phrase from Zajac’s Angels' podcast, which he records in Eugene, Oregon (he's the play-by-play voice of the short-season Eugene Emeralds, a Cubs' short-season Class-A team) of all places:

"I gotta get out of here. Peace!"

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