One month ago Monday, pitchers and catchers started to trickle into spring training camps across Arizona and Florida. The Cactus League and Grapefruit League seasons started two weeks ago, which means Opening Day is only two weeks away. Two weeks and three days, to be exact. Meaningful baseball isn't too far away.
So far this spring the league-wide home run rate is up despite the (supposedly) deadened baseball. Here are six other things we've learned at the halfway point of the exhibition season.
1. Ohtani is as talented as ever
Last year was a disaster season for Angels wunderkind Shohei Ohtani. He returned to the mound for the first time since Tommy John surgery and walked eight of the 16 batters he faced, and gave up seven runs in 1 2/3 innings before going down with a forearm strain. At the plate, Ohtani hit a .190/.291/.366 with seven homers in 44 games. It was the worst season of his career.
This feels like a make or break year for the two-way experiment and, so far this spring, the still only 26-year-old Ohtani is reminding everyone why the two-way dream is worth pursuing. He is 7 for 13 (.528) at the plate with a 468-foot home run that cleared the batter's eye in center field. To the action footage:
More importantly, Ohtani has looked very good on the mound. Last year his fastball averaged 94.2 mph in his limited action and he did not throw a pitch above 97.5 mph. In 2018, his heater averaged 97.3 mph and topped out at 101.9 mph. That was before his elbow gave out and he needed Tommy John surgery.
Two starts into the spring Ohtani is showing his old velocity -- his heater has been up to 101 mph -- and he's shown renewed faith in his splitter, a pitch that abandoned him in 2020. Simply put, Ohtani has looked much more like the 2018 Ohtani on the mound, not the 2020 version. He again looks like he can dominate.
"The last couple years, I had some type of rehab schedule for each of my spring training days," Ohtani recently told reporters, including The Athletic's Fabian Ardaya. "This year, it's not like that, so I'm definitely having more fun. It was hard for me to have fun the last couple years because of that."
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Manager Joe Maddon says the two-way plan is a "full go" this season. The Angels are going to let Ohtani hit, something he's done very well in his MLB career outside 2020, and let him take a regular rotation turn. Will he stay healthy? Unclear. What is clear is Ohtani remains one of the most talented baseball players in the world. He's a freak and I mean that in the nicest way possible.
2. deGrom is still adding velocity
Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom is a two-time Cy Young winner and on the very, very short list of the best pitchers in baseball. For my money, he is the best pitcher in baseball, though I'm willing to hear arguments for Shane Bieber, Gerrit Cole, and a few others. We can all agree deGrom is outstanding though. One of the best of this generation.
DeGrom will also turn 33 years old in June, so he's at the age when most pitchers begin to lose velocity. It is perfectly normal. All the innings and wear and tear take a toll, and the ball doesn't come out as easily as it once did. DeGrom is not most pitchers though. He's been adding velocity in recent years. His fastball velocity chart is remarkable:
In 2018, deGrom's fastball averaged 96.7 mph and topped out at 100.1 mph. It was 97.2 mph and 100.4 mph in 2019, and 99.0 mph and 102.7 mph (!) in 2020. In his most recent Grapefruit League outing, deGrom was sitting 100-102 mph. It was only a three-inning outing, but pitchers just don't throw this hard in spring training. Velocity typically peaks in July and August, when it's hot.
"I don't know. I guess we'll find out," deGrom told reporters, including Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News, when asked whether he still has even more velocity in the tank. "... I feel good. I tried to stay as smooth as I can, and it just seems to be coming out good."
Throwing 100-102 mph in a three-inning burst in March is much different than maintaining that velocity through a 162-game season. Given the last few years, would you put it past deGrom though? He is the Benjamin Button of velocity. He's throwing harder and harder with each passing year and that is true again this spring.
3. Taillon is a new pitcher
The Yankees acquired right-hander Jameson Taillon in a trade with the Pirates over the winter even though he has not appeared in an MLB game since May 2019. Taillon has his second career Tommy John surgery two years ago and he did not pitch at all last season, as he went through the rehab process. New York rolled the dice on a very talented pitcher.
Taillon, 29, completed his rehab and returned to the mound this spring, and he looks like a new pitcher. In more ways than one too. Most notably, Taillon has changed his delivery. He's shortened his arm action in an effort to reduce stress on his twice-repaired elbow. Lucas Giolito, Joe Kelly, and Taijuan Walker have made similar adjustments in recent years. Here's the before and after:
"One of these throwing motions used to feel really natural (which is scary), and one currently has become really natural through lots of intentional/focused work," Taillon wrote in November. "Crazy to take a step back and look at every once in a while!"
In addition to the new delivery, Taillon has also changed his approach on the mound. The Pirates had a "pitch at the knees and get quick outs on the ground" approach under former pitching coach Ray Searage, which worked very well for a very long time, but is a bit outdated in the modern game. These days it's all about missing bats. Avoiding contact is the key to the kingdom.
Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow all broke out after leaving the Pirates and adopting a more north-south approach, meaning four-seam fastballs up the zone and offspeed pitches down. Taillon is now doing the same. Here are heat maps showing Taillon's fastball location in 2018 (his last full, healthy season) on the left and his fastball locations this spring on the right:
Taillon's has been gradually building arm strength this spring -- last time out he averaged 93.9 mph after topping out at 93.8 mph in his first two spring starts -- and elevated fastballs are an excellent swing-and-miss pitch. Between the new delivery and the new north-south approach, Taillon looks little like the pitcher who spent 2016-19 with Pittsburgh.
"He took another good step," Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including MLB.com's Bryan Hoch, following Taillon's second Grapefruit League start. "He worked himself into a little bit of trouble there in the second inning and he kept making pitches. I thought he executed a couple of really good fastballs to get out of that inning at the top of the zone."
4. La Russa is winning over the ChiSox
It's a good thing spring training records are meaningless, because the upstart White Sox are 3-8-3 and have been outscored by 14 runs so far. If you're a White Sox fan and you're panicking, don't. You won't even remember these last two weeks happened once the regular season rolls around. Spring training is not worth committing to memory.
What does matter this spring is the arrival of Chicago's new manager, 76-year-old Tony La Russa, who was hired after a decade away from the dugout. Appointed is probably more accurate than hired, because owner Jerry Reinsdorf went over his front office's head and bypassed a rigorous interview process to hire La Russa, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.
It was (and still is, really) fair to wonder how the old school La Russa would mix with a young and diverse roster. Those questions are now being answered. Tim Anderson met face-to-face with La Russa early in camp and came out of the meeting saying he is "behind him 110 percent." Here's what Lucas Giolito recently told reporters, including The Athletic's James Fegan:
"I never really paid it any mind because people on Twitter are going to talk, there has to be stories, there has to be something," Giolito said. "My biggest worry is like, 'I hope you still get to play rap music in the clubhouse.' And sure enough, we can play whatever music we want in the clubhouse. It's our clubhouse. So there you go.
"If I had to give you a worry, it's like, 'Oh man, you know, Tony's definitely older, maybe he doesn't mess with Future,' But nope, we're good."
La Russa added: "You want players to personalize their commitment to the team." Of course, it's easy to say that in spring training, when the results don't matter and everyone is still in a honeymoon period. We'll see how things go when the White Sox lose four straight or have an 8-12 stretch during the regular season, which will happen at some point (because it happens to every team).
For now, La Russa's managerial comeback is off to a strong start. The results on the field haven't been good but who cares? It's spring training. The important thing is La Russa is not only getting the players on his side, but he's getting everyone pulling in the same direction. It hasn't taken him long to get Anderson and Giolito, two team leaders, in his corner.
5. The kids can mash
With each passing year, more spring training parks are being outfitted with Statcast, giving us an unprecedented amount of access and information. We have to be careful with spring statistics -- someone going 10 for 25 doesn't mean he's suddenly a true talent .400 hitter -- but, generally speaking, the more information the better.
Thanks to the Statcast expansion, we have data on more prospects than ever. For example: Padres outfield prospect Joshua Mears can hit a ball 117.3 mph. We know that because Mears, a 2019 second-round pick, did it in a game against an actual big-league pitcher (Rockies righty Carlos Estevez) last week. Check it out:
Only 11 players have hit a ball 117.3 mph in a big-league game the last two years, and here's a 20-year-old kid who's yet to play a game above rookie ball doing it in spring training. MLB.com ranks Mears the No. 10 prospect in San Diego's system, and says he has the "potential to be a run-producing right fielder, in a Nelson Cruz kind of mold."
"He's just a freak athlete," Padres manager Jayce Tingler told reporters, including MLB.com's AJ Cassavell, about Mears' homer. "Been waiting to see it ... We've seen it in BP, we've seen it in some of the intrasquad games. But his power is ridiculous -- how quickly the ball got out of the stadium. It was really cool to see him connect for one and good to see him smile."
Rockies infielder Brendan Rodgers (115.6 mph single), Yankees first baseman Chris Gittens (114.3 mph grand slam), and Yankees infielder Ezequiel Duran (112.3 mph single) are among the other prospects to light up Statcast this spring. Blue Jays wunderkind Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who turns only 22 on Tuesday, has three batted balls over 110 mph. The kids, they can rake.
6. Fans are back
And it is wonderful. All 30 clubs have limited attendance at their spring training games, which is all we can safely do right now, and it is so great to hear real cheers and see real live people chasing homers and foul balls. MLB did the best it could last year given the circumstances (the fake crowd noise was surprisingly convincing in person, not so much on television) and now we don't have to fake anything. Real fans are back and it is glorious. Sports aren't the same without 'em.