Shohei Ohtani could be right. Mike Trout might have already reclaimed his longstanding place in baseball’s hierarchy.
Except the verdict isn’t nearly as unanimous as Ohtani described, as Ohtani himself is a popular pick these days for the unofficial title of best player.
“No matter who sees it, no matter how you slice it, I think Trout is No. 1,” he said in Japanese.
Ohtani rejected the idea that he and Trout could push each other to greater heights, intimating he was unworthy of exercising such influence over the three-time MVP.
“I feel like I’m being pulled along by him,” Ohtani said. “In reality, last year was my only good season.”
There was almost certainly an element of false modesty that is customary in his culture. Regardless, the opportunity to bestow such praise on a teammate represented a marked change for Ohtani and the team that employs him.
The Angels extended their lead in the American League West on Thursday with a 4-1 victory over the Cleveland Guardians in which Ohtani didn’t play, an appropriate metaphor for the first three weeks of the season.
Ohtani’s inconsistency on the mound and in the batter’s box hasn’t slowed the Angels, who are 13-7 and 1 ½ games ahead of the second-place Seattle Mariners.
Offensively, the Angels are the team they were expected to be the last two seasons.
Their 99 runs are the most in the majors. Their .253 average and .333 on-base percentage lead the AL. And they’re doing that with Ohtani batting .238 and Anthony Rendon .213.
“I think what’s hardest is when I’m not hitting and the team is losing,” Ohtani said. “But the team is winning. I feel I’m being saved by that.”
Compare that to what he said seven months earlier in the final week of his MVP season in which the Angels were often a one-man team. With Trout and Rendon sidelined by injuries in the second half of the year, Ohtani said playing on a weak team tested his resolve. He questioned the front office’s decision to not reinforce the roster at the trade deadline. He wondered whether the Angels could reach the postseason before he was eligible for free agency.
Gratitude has replaced his frustrations. Speaking after a five-inning start in which he earned his second win Wednesday night, Ohtani offered several examples in which his team has “saved” him.
Asked if this was the best team on which he has played in his five years with the Angels, Ohtani replied, “Yes, and the atmosphere is too.”
The Angels are only 20 games into their 162-game schedule but look as if they are finally fielding a team capable of ending a seven-year postseason drought.
Their four-game sweep of the Guardians lengthened their winning streak to five games. They are six games over .500 for the first time in four seasons.
Trout has reclaimed his place as the team’s offensive leader, batting a .352 with five homers and 10 RBIs over 16 games.
Right fielder Taylor Ward has been a revelation, hitting .381 with four homers and 11 RBIs.
“Watching him from behind [in the on-deck circle], you feel he’s going to get on base,” Ohtani said of Ward. “I think the opposing pitchers think that way too.”
Second-year outfielder Brandon Marsh has also started well, batting .340 with 15 RBIs.
Manager Joe Maddon was encouraged by how the Angels closed out the series against the Guardians. Ohtani was out of the lineup for the first time this season. Trout was pitched to carefully. And the Angels didn’t homer. Their 25 homers are tied for second most in the majors.
Of how the Angels manufactured their runs, Maddon said, “They’re playing selfless ball.”
Where they ultimately end up will depend on their pitching. Noah Syndergaard and Michael Lorenzen, the high-velocity starters acquired over the winter by general manager Perry Minasian, have pitched well. So have bullpen additions Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera.
Ohtani has alternated between looking unhittable and shaky, posting a 2-2 record with a 4.19 ERA. As a hitter, he has three homers but has also struck out 25 times in 86 plate appearances.
He knows the Angels are bound to slow down at some point.
“When the team is in a tough stretch, I want to be prepared to help them,” he said.
Ohtani should have more help than he did last season. He has Trout. He will have Rendon. He could also have a capable group of role players.
Which means that come October, Ohtani could have chances to praise not only Trout at his own expense but others too.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.