How Shohei Ohtani has gotten even better as a pitcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's largely forgotten by now, trampled by the overwhelming success that followed, but Shohei Ohtani's introduction as a major league pitcher was dreadful.

He allowed nine runs and recorded eight outs over the course of two Cactus League starts in the spring of 2018, plus another six runs in an unofficial exhibition game against a Mexican League team. But what was most concerning to Martin Maldonado, the Los Angeles Angels' starting catcher at the time, was his velocity. A celebrated two-way player who was hailed for throwing his fastball into the triple digits couldn't eclipse the low 90s when he first arrived in the United States.

Maldonado, now with the Houston Astros, found comfort through Ohtani's batting-practice rounds.

"The ball was usually jumping off his bat," Maldonado recalled, "so I said, 'If pitching doesn't work, he can always just play left field or DH in the big leagues.'"

That, of course, wasn't ultimately necessary. Ohtani adjusted to a slicker baseball and a steeper mound, escaped the dry air of Arizona and looked like a different person when the games began to count, pitching effectively for two-plus regular-season months before a damaged ulnar collateral ligament necessitated Tommy John surgery. In an instant, he seemed to make believers out of everybody.

"He got used to the league, got used to what he needs to do to get better," Maldonado said. "But I feel like every year he's learning and getting better and better."

And that's part of what's so fascinating about Ohtani -- he's an unprecedented talent with noticeable room for improvement, particularly on the pitching side.