Shohei Ohtani’s plan of being a two-way player is going well thus far, but what adjustments does he need to make?
It was over four months ago when the Los Angeles Angels signed two-way star Shohei Ohtani. In his last season with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Ohtani impressed both as a hitter and pitcher; through 65 games, he hit .332 with eight home runs and 31 RBIs while sporting a 3-2 record with a 3.20 ERA and 29 strikeouts. He recorded the fastest pitch by a Japanese pitcher and in Nippon Professional Baseball history with a fastball that reached 165 kilometers an hour (or 102.5 MPH).
His Spring Training performance, however, saw him struggle to hit the ball well (he went 4-for-32). Things were even worse on the mound. Ohtani’s command was weak throughout Spring Training, resulting in a high ERA (27.00) and WHIP (4.12) while missing his locations. Many of Ohtani’s location misses led to extra base hits, home runs, or wild pitches:
The beginning of the season has been a much different narrative. Instead of Ohtani looking like a player who needed seasoning in Triple-A Salt Lake, he has emerged as a legitimate threat at the plate and the ace of an Angels staff that has already caught the injury bug. He clobbered three home runs in his first four games at designated hitter, including one off Athletics’ pitcher Daniel Gossett that is the seventh longest home run of 2018:
As a pitcher, Ohtani has been mostly brilliant in his first two starts while getting nailed in the third start. Over his first two starts, his only major blemish was Matt Chapman’s three-run homer in the second inning of his first start:
In his second start, he carried a no-hitter through 6 ⅓ until Marcus Semien hit a ground ball single into left field. Following that game, Ohtani was 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA and a 12.46 K/9, fourth best in baseball. Unlike his poor Spring Training outings, Ohtani demonstrated great command with his fastball and slider in both starts against the Athletics.
However, Ohtani got rocked by Boston in his third start. The Angels wisely pulled him after two innings. His brief outing can be characterized similarly to what many baseball pundits observed in Spring Training. His fastball command was all over the place, resulting in two walks and a homerun in only two innings of work. Taking him 66 pitches to get through two innings while allowing six baserunners and a home run.
Ohtani left the game after two innings due to a blister on his pitching hand, which was a smart move by the Angels. Whether the blister influenced Ohtani’s less-than-stellar performance remains incalculable. After his poor start against the Red Sox, Ohtani is 2-1 with a 3.60 ERA, which is still relatively good for a starting pitcher. His forgettable third start came against a formidable Red Sox team that has only lost a couple games thus far, but Ohtani has found throughout his three starts early success against hitters with his split-finger fastball.
Shohei’s Split-Finger Fastball
A couple weeks into the 2018 season, Ohtani’s split-finger fastball has been one of the nastiest pitches in all of baseball. Based on data from ESPN, Ohtani has relied on it significantly so far as 31.7% of his pitches have been splitters. This pitch has also generated 13 strike threes, many of which came in his second start against the Athletics:
Ohtani’s split-finger has fastball speed (averaging about 92-93 MPH) yet functions like a change-up. As his highlights against the A’s show, Ohtani has been able to fool hitters so far by making this pitch appear to hitters as a fastball. However, due to the pitch breaking abruptly before it gets to the plate, Ohtani has hitters swinging over the ball, which is a major reason why his splitter has been responsible for 65% of his strikeouts. Despite his Boston start, Ohtani’s splitter has remained his best pitch by far over three starts; it has generated a -77 wRC+ and has not allowed a hit yet.
What will be interesting to observe over the course of the season is whether Ohtani’s splitter maintains its effectiveness. The fact that he is inducing a higher whiff rate is encouraging for his strikeout capabilities and overall execution with his pitch. Early on in the season, Ohtani has mostly been successful keeping his splitter down in or beyond the zone.
Besides his splitter, Ohtani has shown encouraging velocity thus far with his four-seam fastball. Ohtani has averaged approximately 98 MPH on his fastball and several times reached the triple digits. Another observation so far with Ohtani is how often he has utilized his fastball compared to his offspeed pitches:
Like most pitchers, Ohtani has primarily thrown fastballs (70% of the time) when he is behind in the count and offers his splitter or slider when he is ahead in the count. In his first two starts against the Athletics, Ohtani consistently found himself in a pitcher’s count often, which allowed him to use his splitter to get hitters to chase it out of the strike zone. Against Boston, however, Ohtani failed to fool Boston’s hitters with his splitter. As a result, Ohtani found himself behind in the count more often last Tuesday, which led to an increased reliance on his fastball (42% of his pitches through two starts, 47.4% after his Boston start).
The takeaway is that a good Ohtani outing will feature three pitches utilized consistently (around 40% for a fastball, and 30% each for his splitter and slider). If Ohtani has to rely on his fastball more than half the time, it’s a sign that he is digging himself into holes with hitters, and his chances of allowing more baserunners and earned runs increases.
Overall, through his three starts, Ohtani looks like a pitcher who has two signature pitches and a couple of offspeed pitches that are capable of striking batters out and keeping runs off the board.
Shohei Showing Power Early
In a league that is seeing an increase in home runs as of late, Ohtani’s display of power early on has him fitting right in with most MLB sluggers. His batting line of .367/.424/.767 prompted Angels manager Mike Scioscia to move him up the lineup, and Ohtani responded with another multiple-hit game.
The good news for Ohtani is that he has shown the ability to hit for similar power he displayed in Japan against MLB hitters. The bad news is that Ohtani does not look quite as polished as a hitter compared to how he looks as a pitcher. Whereas with his pitching Ohtani has shown good command of his split-finger and a fastball with excellent velocity, his hitting mechanics and plate discipline reveal a couple concerning signs that foreshadow inevitable growing pains once he cools off.
First, the good signs for Ohtani. What is observable from the start is the type of contact he is making when he puts the bat on the ball. He has had a 0% Soft%, a 56.5% Medium%, and a 43.5% Hard%, which suggests he is not only getting good wood on the baseball but also hitting the ball hard. This is an encouraging trend especially considering his home ballpark is Angels Stadium; it is the only ballpark in the past five seasons to have a park factor that ranked among the top-10 most pitching friendly in every category. Angels Stadium remains a tough ballpark for left-handed hitters, and its 18-foot fence in right and right-center field contributes to that.
However, Ohtani has developed a habit of swinging at the first pitch 150% more often than the MLB average so far. However, it has only lead to one single thus far. The point: Ohtani’s first-pitch swinging has not consistently led to good results for the Angels. It also explains why Ohtani lands in a hitter’s count (defined as either a 2-0, 3-0, or 2-1 count) about half as much as the average league hitter. Ohtani, like most hitters, increases his likelihood of striking out when faced with an unfavorable hitter’s count.
As it is, Ohtani, despite his prodigious power, is susceptible to striking out frequently (over 21% through Thursday’s game). Frequently landing in pitcher’s counts will give him less pitches to take a good cut at and increase his already high strikeout percentage. His ability to work the count will be something to keep an eye on over the course of the season, particularly when Ohtani struggles at the dish.
Early on, Ohtani appears to fit the profile of a power hitter, as his walk, strikeout rates, and quality of contact percentage indicate. He strikes out a lot, but the contact he makes is generally very strong. If the early indications are correct, it can be reasonably expected that Ohtani’s batting average will dip below .300, but his ability to get consistent quality contact should help his power numbers and result in him being a consistent run producer.
What Ohtani needs to develop is learning to lay off first pitches that are out of the strike zone in order to develop into a more formidable hitter. This will only become more important when Ohtani faces his first batting slump of the season.
While it is still early, Ohtani’s good start shows that he is capable of being a good major league player. Growing pains should be expected. His recent pitching debut showcases this; Ohtani’s split-finger failed to fool hitters consistently in his third start, and it is only a matter of time until Ohtani has a multiple strikeout game with zero hits.
However, sports fans can take comfort in the fact that the Statcast data suggests his arm, power, and baserunning is above average. Ohtani can throw faster than 87% of pitchers in the MLB, his swing exerts an exit velocity faster than 89% of major league hitters, and his legs can carry him faster than 84% of MLB baserunners.
Despite his blister, Ohtani is still set to bat and be the designated hitter for the Angels as planned. The Angels are optimistic as well that the blister will not be an issue going forward, as reports are out saying that the team fully expects Ohtani to be ready to go for his next start.
Sho-time in Los Angeles has Angels fans hopeful that Ohtani can be a major contributor consistently over the course of the 2018 season and result in their first playoff appearance since 2014. Angels fans would love to hear the play-by-play announcer exclaim: “Ohtani-san has done it again!” in October while the Japanese rookie makes positive contributions for the potential playoff team.
All statistics and information come from ESPN.com, FanGraphs.com, and Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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