After a shaky spring, Shohei Ohtani was basically as advertised in his first start on the mound — which is remarkable, since he was essentially advertised as the best pitching prospect in nearly a decade.
In his debut, Ohtani maxed out at 99 mph on the fastball and averaged 97.8 mph on the same pitch while also showcasing a darting, 90 mph splitter and breaking ball. If Ohtani can approximate anything like the 19.6% swinging-strike rate of his debut and continue to exhibit solid command, he will be an ace in short order.
Ohtani’s fastball averaged 96.6 mph and 96.1 mph, respectively, his last two years in Japan. He posted 15.8% and 15.0% swinging-strike rates in his last two seasons in the NPB (his 2017 season was injury shortened). Our old friend Eno Sarris found that plate-discipline and batted-ball trends in the NPB and MLB are remarkably similar. While it’s often folly to draw too much upon small sample sizes in April, it would appear as though Ohtani has verified that his power stuff is real.
Ohtani did more verifying Tuesday.
Part of Ohtani’s legend, of course, is that he can also hit — or, at least, he could hit in the NPB. That’s what makes him such a compelling player, and that two-way ability is what made Tuesday night so much fun for those interested in dreaming on Ohtani.
As if there was any reason doubt that Ohtani’s power is real — which is a strange thing to doubt for a player who hit the roof of the Tokyo Dome — he put those reasons to bed on Tuesday night when he launched his first major-league home run off a Josh Tomlin curveball.
Perhaps Ohtani just used spring training to lower the astronomical expectations that accompanied him from Japan. If so, he raised them again on Tuesday. Ohtani’s blast energized Angel Stadium to such a degree that reporters said the reaction of the jubilant crowd shook the press box.
Ohtani later singled off a Tomlin cutter:
And Ohtani also lined a single to center off a 95 mph fastball from Zach McAllister:
Hey, let’s get carried away. Through six games of the season, Ohtani has a 257 wRC+!
Again, it’s tough to make too much of any small-sample performance, but one thing we can take away from Ohtani’s night is that the power — or, at least, the raw power — is legit and will sometimes transition into games.
Shohei Ohtani tonight:
112.8 MPH single
100.6 MPH single
104.5 MPH HR
— Daren Willman (@darenw) April 4, 2018
Ohtani’s single, recorded at 112 mph, represented the hardest-hit ball by an Angel since last August.
Shohei Ohtani's 112.8 mph single tonight is the #Angels' hardest-hit ball of the season so far. It it their hardest base hit since a 113.6 mph Mike Trout single last August 30.
— David Adler (@_dadler) April 4, 2018
Way back in December, MLB dot com stalwart and FanGraphs alum Mike Petriello gained access to NPB Trackman data and found that Ohtani had topped out at 101.6 mph on the mound last season and recorded a top exit velocity of 111.1 mph off his bat.
So what Ohtani has proven in this small sample to begin the regular season is that his underlying skills, his throwing velocity, and exit velocity, are legit. By those power measures, he’s as advertised.
The real glaring question has always been tied to his hit tool. Can he hit major-league pitching? How often will his raw power manifest itself as game power? There’s significant doubt about how just an effective hitter he can be. There was swing-and-miss in Japan which figured to be exacerbated in the majors.
In touring Arizona this spring, I found the Angels, albeit biased, to be bullish on Ohtani The Hitter.
We’ll see. What we’ve learned is the power is very real. Let’s remember that Ohtani is just 23. He was one of the best hitters in one of the world’s top non-MLB professional league just two years ago. Consider, for example, Clay Davenport’s translation of Ohtani’s 2016 NPB campaign, the batter’s age-21 season: 324 at-bats, 14 home runs, 34 walks, 89 strikeouts, a .306/.367/.512 slash line, a 133 wRC+.
Said Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto of Ohtani on his his podcast this offseason.
“I’ve seen players hit a ball 500 feet and players throw a ball 100 mph. I’ve just never seen one player do both of those.”
The promise was that Ohtani could consistently throw near 100 mph and crush home runs Stateside. In his first week in the majors, he’s proven he can do just that. Not a bad first impression.
If he can do each consistently, there would be nothing more compelling in the game.