Shohei Ohtani began making adjustments to Major League Baseball before the regular season started. After scuffling for a few weeks in spring training, during which he went 4-for-32 with 10 strikeouts, Ohtani accepted a late-March suggestion from Angels hitting coach Eric Hinske to drop his habitual leg kick and replace it with a more understated toe tap. With the toe tap in tow, he’s slashed .325/.366/.597 in 82 plate appearances since Opening Day, coupling impressive power with a roughly league-average contact rate and resisting regression until encountering the offense-suppressing Astros this week.
Ohtani’s overnight toe-tap implementation is one of the many aspects of his season that beggars belief. The leg kick carried Ohtani to the top of his profession in his home country and helped make him one of the world’s most coveted talents. Given his unique two-way skill set, he’d be almost entitled to have a big head or believe himself beyond the assistance of a middling hitter like Hinske, who batted .249 in a big-league career in which he wasn’t asked to pull double duty as an ace. Yet after years of success with one way of hitting, the 23-year-old was willing and able to overhaul his approach on the eve of the season based on a tip from a source who’d played zero role in his prior performance. Ohtani’s spring reinvention was a testament not only to his natural talent, but also to his adaptability.
Both of those qualities have stayed on display in the several weeks since Ohtani first tried out his new pre-pitch routine. Opposing pitchers have already experimented with a dramatic adjustment in an attempt to quell the rookie’s raking, which Ohtani, in turn, has to counter. Meanwhile, on the mound, Ohtani himself has made changes to keep opposing hitters from figuring him out. The former underscores his imperviousness to exploitation by the best arms in the world; the latter highlights his ability to find hitters’ holes. We’re still in small-sample territory, but neither development bodes well for big leaguers who’ll have to face him in the future in either of his roles.
Ohtani at the Plate
One of the reasons that Hinske advised Ohtani to kick the leg kick is that the rookie had struggled to time fastballs inside, of which he’d seen a steady diet. “Fastballs in” was a big part of the book on Ohtani coming into the year. When FanGraphs writer Jeff Sullivan and I talked to reigning Japanese Pacific League MVP Dennis Sarfate last December, the hard-throwing closer who held Ohtani to a 2-for-11 line with five strikeouts in Nippon Professional Baseball told us that Ohtani had the best raw power he’d ever seen and that the two-way sensation would ultimately be a better hitter than a pitcher. But he also said, “I think he’s going to struggle at first with fastballs in.” According to Sarfate, Japanese pitchers, unlike him, had rarely pitched Ohtani inside out of respect for his status and fear of injuring the “golden child.” In January, former MLB and current NPB pitcher Koji Uehara (who has never faced Ohtani), as well as longtime NPB reporter Jim Allen, also stressed the importance of pitching Ohtani in.
Early in the season, opposing pitchers stuck extremely close to that scouting report. No hitter who faced a minimum of 50 pitches through the end of April saw a higher percentage of them over the inner third of the plate or off the plate inside than Ohtani, who drew an inside pitch on almost every other offering. For reference, the MLB-average rate of inside pitches to left-handed hitters was 32.2 percent.
Inside-Pitch Rate Through April 30
This tactic clearly didn’t work. Ohtani, who recorded a 184 wRC+ through the end of April, produced a .485 weighted on-base average over the same span against the pitches that were supposed to be his bugaboo, ranking 17th out of 235 hitters who’d put at least 20 such pitches in play.
Perhaps the homer Ohtani hit in his last April game—a 112 mph bomb off a 97 mph pitch from Yankees ace Luis Severino—was the blast that alerted the league. It was, as Sullivan noted, an extreme example of inside-slugging prowess: the second-farthest-inside pitch hit at least 110 mph by a lefty in the 2015-18 Statcast era, and the third-farthest-inside homer hit by a lefty in the same period off a pitch of at least 95 mph. It was as effective a single-swing demonstration of inside-pitch aptitude as Ohtani could have concocted. If he ever had been vulnerable to inside pitches in the pre-toe-tap period, he wasn’t anymore.
Almost as quickly as Ohtani had transitioned to the toe tap, his opponents learned and applied the lesson that the lefty wasn’t to be trifled with inside. Through the first two weeks of May, the scouting report reversed itself: Ohtani saw only 13.1 percent of pitches inside, the lowest percentage of any lefty with at least 80 pitches seen. The GIF below alternates between heat maps of pitch locations to Ohtani prior to May and during the first two weeks of May. Both images are displayed from a behind-the-plate perspective, so more red to the right means more pitches inside.
This shift away from inside pitches has also coincided with a shift away from four-seam fastballs and toward sinkers, which NPB’s lower mounds and flatter-seamed balls supposedly impair. That, too, seems like a sign that pitchers have grown warier of challenging Ohtani and more likely to stay away and hope he hits the ball on the ground.
Of course, neither the sinkers nor the outside pitches (which go hand in hand) have held him back either: Over that same two-week period, Ohtani—who has completed an inexorable climb from the eighth spot in the order to a more exalted station, batting second behind Mike Trout—produced a 177 wRC+ in 27 plate appearances. In the early going, pitchers may have overlearned their lessons and fixated too much on certain slices of the plate. They’ve tested Ohtani’s defenses on both edges of the dish, and he’s rebuffed both attempts to find his weak spot. Eventually, the pitcher-batter battle will reach an equilibrium, but if Ohtani has a hole, it hasn’t announced itself. The phenom pressured pitchers into changing their aim, and then he nullified the new tactic, too. Many more tests lie ahead, but the first two rounds go to the rookie.
Ohtani on the Mound
In his four April starts, Ohtani was effectively a two-pitch pitcher. He threw sliders about 22 percent of the time and curves about 3 percent of the time, but he made all his hay with his fastball and splitter. Last month, those two pitches accounted for 51 of his 56 whiffs.
In mid-April, a blister briefly wrecked Ohtani’s command, as evidenced by the deep depression in the below start-by-start command measurements provided by STATS LLC.
Provided the blister doesn’t recur, Ohtani could coast to competence, if not dominance, on two great pitches: the third-fastest fastball of any starter, just barely behind Severino’s and Noah Syndergaard’s, and a splitter that boasts by far the highest whiff-per-swing rate of any pitch of its type in 2018. Those two offerings form a firm foundation. But Ohtani’s touted acehood depended in part on his reputed power to throw three, if not four, plus pitches. And through his first month in the majors, his breaking balls hadn’t shown up.
Maybe he just needed time to adjust to the difference between baseballs with blister-free fingers. Whatever the reason for the sudden improvement, Ohtani’s feel for his breaking balls is back. In his first two starts of May, 20 of Ohtani’s 33 whiffs have come on his curveballs and sliders combined.
He’s also throwing his breakers—particularly his curve—much more often, an indicator of his increased comfort with those pitches.
The key for Ohtani has been keeping his breaking balls low. In April, no pitcher who threw at least 50 sliders threw them higher, on average, than Ohtani. This month, though, Ohtani has delivered his sliders almost 10 inches lower, on average, ranking 19th-lowest in slider height among starters who’ve thrown the pitch at least 25 times. The GIF below contrasts his slider locations in April, when he was regularly leaving the slider up, and May, when he’s been burying it to his glove side.
Here’s what the leveled-up Ohtani looked like in his most recent start, throwing three consecutive sliders to Bobby Wilson and getting whiffs with all three. Sure, it’s Bobby Wilson, but still.
And here he is in the same start, striking out poor Robbie Grossman with the following sequence: low-middle fastball at 97; splitter in almost the same spot at 87; fastball up and in at 99; curve high and outside at 80; and slider a little lower at 81. The two breaking balls that finish Grossman off aren’t even particularly tight by Ohtani’s recent standards, but by that point in the plate appearance, Grossman’s will has been broken.
If hitters could focus on the fastball and splitter; they might be able to spit on the off-speed pitch, which the righty has thrown in the strike zone only a little more than a third of the time (although even that would be easier said than done). But this month, Ohtani has thrown all four of his pitches at least 13 percent of the time, and this season, he’s thrown pitches ranging in speed from 101 mph to 68.5. He’s confounding far more experienced competitors in extremely unfair fashion. And he’s only getting better, on both sides of the ball.
Thanks to Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads of STATS LLC for research assistance.