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Spring Training Report: Has Shohei Ohtani Finally Returned To Form?

(CBS LA) -- With so much else happening in the sports world, it's hard to believe that opening day is just over two weeks away. All 30 teams will be in action come April 1, when meaningless spring training games give way to meaningful regular season games. At least as meaningful as any one of 162 games can be.

This time last year everyone was wondering if there would even be a season. So the imminent return of America's Game, and the certainty that comes with it, is enough to brighten any fan's step. Players are rounding into form. Rosters are starting to take shape. And major league ballparks will soon be filled with some reduced number of cheering fans.

Life is beginning to feel a little more normal.

Spring Training Report this week takes a spin around the majors to look at a seemingly healthy Shohei Ohtani, Jacob deGrom's increasing velocity and teams' plans to have fans in seats.

Shohei Ohtani Looking Good

The Los Angeles Angels two-way phenom is looking better after an abysmal 2020 season. Tommy John surgery in late 2018 to repair his right elbow kept him off the mound in 2019. Shohei Ohtani did hit .286, with 18 home runs and 62 RBI in his 384 at-bats as a DH that season.

The 2020 season was hardly the return to the mound that the Angels hoped for. He faced a grand total of 16 batters in 1 and 2/3 innings and managed to walk eight of them. A forearm strain quickly put him out of his pitching misery. Ohtani suffered at the plate as well, batting just .190, with 7 HRs and 24 RBI in 153 ABs.

But spring training this year has Ohtani flashing more of the two-way potential that got the Angels so excited. The speed on his fastball is averaging over 97 mph and peaking at 101 mph, much like it did before the surgery. He looks good at the plate, where he has hits in 9 of his 16 ABs. That includes a monster 468-foot homerun to dead center.

The Angels are dedicated to continuing the two-way experiment with the 26-year-old this season. And early evidence suggests that it might actually be a success.

Jacob deGrom Getting Faster

The New York Mets starter remains among the best pitchers in baseball. He won the National League Cy Young in the last two 162-game seasons and finished third in the pandemic-altered 2020 season. Over the course of those three seasons, his ERA hasn't topped 2.50. In 2018, when he struck out 269 batters in 217 innings, his ERA was 1.70.

That three-season stretch has also seen the velocity on his fastball increase, from an average of 96.7 mph and a max of 100.1 mph in 2018 to an average of 99 mph and a max of 102.7 mph in 2020. In a recent spring training outing, he was pitching in the 100-102 mph range. It's not that rare for younger pitcher to get faster. It's virtually unheard of for a pitcher pushing 33 years old to add speed. Yet somehow deGrom is doing exactly that, despite all the wear and tear on his arm over the years.

March is a little early to read too much into these velocity gains. He's had a lot of time to rest these last few months. But that's still pretty fast for the time of year when pitchers are supposed to be ramping up. We're still months from the dog days of summer, when pitchers are typically at their fastest.

Fans Returning To Games

This season will look and feel a little more like the pre-pandemic seasons of yesteryear. That's because the seats in ballparks across the the majors will be filled -- or at least dotted -- with fans.

The 2020 season lacked an in-person audience until the end of the postseason. The piped-in crowd noise did add a little something to the atmosphere. But not enough to make it feel normal. On the other hand, hearing the sounds of the game usually covered over by the crowd noise did enhance the experience in its own way.

The 2021 season will begin mostly with fans in seats. The numbers will be generally be limited based on local restrictions. That ranges from full capacity for the Texas Rangers opener at Globe Life Field and socially distanced seating thereafter to no fans for any Washington Nationals games at Nationals Park. (The DC government plans to revisit their decision before April 1, however.) The other 28 teams will allow some reduced number of fans or have yet to decide. Many of those that have decided will cap the percentage at 25 percent or less. Mask-wearing and social distancing will be required; vaccinations and negative COVID tests will not.

The Toronto Blue Jays will open regular season play in Florida due to the ongoing closure at the U.S. Canada border. It's unclear fans whether fans will be allowed in the park for the first game. But there's a good chance. The Miami Marlins will cap attendance at 25 percent, while the Tampa Bay Rays are shooting for about 17 percent.

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