Shohei Ohtani Is Getting Better

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Shohei Ohtani was up to some Tungsten Arm O’Doyle antics last night. He batted twice before throwing his first pitch of the game, something no one had accomplished in the recorded history of baseball. He bunted for a hit in the sixth inning while throwing a perfect game, almost assuredly the first time any pitcher has done that. That’s par for the course for Ohtani.

If you spend too long thinking about his record-breaking unicorn status, though, you might miss this fact: Ohtani has never looked better on the mound. Last year, he was a hitter first and a pitcher second; his 3.18 ERA over 130 innings was certainly impressive, but it wasn’t the equal of his .257/.372/.592 batting line and 46 home runs. This year, he’s off to a slower start with the bat — not a poor start, to be sure, but not the equal of last season. On the mound, though, he’s looking better and better. If 2021 was the year of Ohtani (hitter-first), 2022 might be the year of Ohtani (pitcher-first), with last night’s brush with perfection signaling his arrival.

That’s a bold claim to make, particularly given that he has a 4.40 ERA through three starts. But if you stop to look at what’s under the hood, your eyes might bug out. Ohtani looks like never before, and if he can sustain this newfound form, we’re going to be writing an entirely different brand of Shohei Ohtani fun facts this year.

A quick example: the highest CSW% of Ohtani’s career — the rate at which he gets either called or swinging strikes — came in last night’s game, at a whopping 46.9%. The third-highest CSW% of his career came in his first start of the season. The only other time he’s touched these heights was in his second start in the majors, a seven-inning, 12-strikeout gem that he hadn’t approached since. He’s first in the majors in CSW%, beating out a bunch of relievers.

His new slider accounts for nearly half of those called and swinging strikes. New slider? Yes, Ohtani has overhauled the pitch significantly since the start of last year. He’s added nearly three miles per hour of velocity to it and retained its excellent horizontal movement. This isn’t one of those “throw a sweeper, you’ll like it” transitions; Ohtani has always thrown a big-breaking slider. But throwing it harder without sacrificing any movement is quite the trick.

With less time to vary from its initial flight path before reaching home plate, releasing a slider with the same spin and angle as before would result in less movement; that’s just physics. To overcome that limitation, you have to put more initial force on the ball — not just the velocity that sends it home, but also the rotational force that causes movement. Here’s another way of putting it. Baseball Savant compares a pitch’s movement to pitches within two miles per hour of speed and 0.5 feet of release point to get a rough cohort. Last year, Ohtani’s slider broke 115% more than the group of sliders he was being compared to. That’s a ton; again, he’s always thrown with a ton of horizontal break. This year, that number is up to 154%, despite the horizontal break remaining roughly unchanged. Harder sliders just don’t move as much — at least, unless you’re Ohtani.

The result is that batters can’t get their bat on this new slider. He’s thrown 78 of them this year, and the results are outrageous:

Shohei’s New Slider is Unhittable
Result Count Percent
Ball 22 28.2%
Called Strike 21 26.9%
Swing/Miss 21 26.9%
Foul 5 6.4%
In Play 9 11.5%

That’s an unsolvable puzzle. When batters swing, they come up empty 60% of the time. When they take, it’s a strike roughly half the time. When Ohtani throws a slider in the strike zone, batters swing only 46.3% of the time, the lowest mark in baseball this year. When he throws one out of the strike zone, they swing 43.2% of the time, the 11th-highest rate in the game. They’re up there guessing, in other words. That’s using Statcast’s definition of the strike zone, so the exact numbers might vary, but the key point remains: batters swing almost as much at bad pitches as they do at ones in the strike zone. They’d do better by never swinging at a slider, but they can’t help themselves.

Last night in Houston, the Astros saw 35 sliders; eight were balls. They took another twelve for strikes and came up empty on 11 of their 15 swings. It’s hard to blame the hitters for that, though. No one in baseball throws their slider like Ohtani. No one who throws harder than him gets more horizontal break, which means that no one who gets more horizontal break throws harder. No one who throws harder is within an inch of break, and no one with more break is within a mile per hour. All of these numbers include relievers.

Last year, this wasn’t the case. Ohtani threw a hard and break-heavy slider, sure, but it wasn’t nearly the standout that it’s become. Corey Kluber and Sonny Gray matched the velocity and got more break. Phil Maton threw a carbon copy. Aaron Bummer’s lefty slider looked similar in a mirror. Those are good comps, but they’re comps. The new Ohtani slider is without equal.

He’s definitely noticed, too. He’s throwing the pitch a third of the time this year, the highest mark of his career. He’s scrapped the cutter he debuted in 2021 to do so, and I can see why: his new slider is essentially a cutter that moves twice as much. That’s not to say his new cutter — he’s thrown five of those this year — won’t be great; he’s doubled its horizontal movement and added three ticks to it. But he’s only thrown five of them, because the slider is too good to ignore.

Oh yeah: everything Ohtani throws reaches the plate faster now. His average fastball velocity is up two miles per hour, and so is his splitter’s. If his slider weren’t so dominant, his splitter would stand out nearly as much. He doesn’t throw it for a strike very often, which means the numbers can’t be as impressive, but batters simply can’t touch it. They made contact on 53.8% of their swings last year, and that number is down to 40% so far this year. It’s more obviously without parallel; it’s a 90-mph splitter, for crying out loud. But it makes professional hitters look like this:

If you want to be a skeptic, you could point out that the stuff has never been the question with Ohtani. He’s always been electric on the mound; he was popping 100 mph back in Japan, when it was measured in kilometers. But if you were worried about his command — he walked 10.4% of batters in his debut MLB season and 12.4% in the first half of last season — he seems to have fixed that too. Beginning in the second half of last season, Ohtani walked only 3.6% of batters. He’s at 6.8% so far this season, which would be his lowest full-season mark.

He’s doing it in the obvious way: by getting ahead in the count more often and winning from there. In his career up to last year’s All Star break, Ohtani threw the first pitch of an at-bat in the strike zone 50% of the time. He’s at 56% since then, which might not sound like much, but if he faces 22 batters per game, that’s an extra 1.3 at-bats that start with a strike instead of a ball. Even when he misses the zone, he’s missing closer; he’s halved the number of pitches he throws in the “waste” zone, or the pitches that batters never swing at.

You might think that this makes him more prone to leaving a meatball over the middle, but it somehow hasn’t. His rate of first pitches over the heart of the plate is unchanged. What can you do but marvel? I don’t know if that will keep up, but we’re not talking about one fluky start here. He’s faced 308 batters in his more recent high-control stretch, enough that dismissing it as a fluke feels unfair. He’s just better.

In fact, I’ll make a ludicrous comparison here. Recent-vintage Ohtani looks like a high-velocity version of peak Corey Kluber. He doesn’t have the cutter/slider pair in the same way, but his slider behaves a lot like Kluber’s big sweeper did at its best. His splitter isn’t an exact parallel for Kluber’s changeup; it’s better, and he uses it more often, replacing some of Kluber’s cutters. And Ohtani throws 98 with four-seam action, whereas Kluber sported a mid-90s sinker. But if you’re looking for analogs, they’re closer than you might think. Kluber consistently missed bats with his bigger breaking ball. He wasn’t afraid to attack the zone with it. And he got ahead in the count all the time thanks to impressive called strike rates and a penchant for missing bats. That led to low walk rates, lots of strikeouts, and plenty of uncomfortable swings from batters behind in the count.

Ohtani has a long way to go to match Kluber, who topped 200 innings pitched for five straight years and averaged 6 WAR per season in those years. Ohtani has done it for 13 starts, and thanks to the fact that he’s also one of the best hitters in baseball, the degree of difficulty to keeping this remarkable performance going through the fatiguing rigors of a complete season is unfathomably high.

I think he might do it, though. Doubting Ohtani’s ability to master new skills has been a consistently poor bet so far in his career. This new slider might have been there all along, waiting for him to gain strength and comfort after Tommy John surgery; last September, he was already throwing the pitch harder without sacrificing movement. You can make a strong case that if you ignore innings — Ohtani will always be at a disadvantage there to conserve his energy for two-way play — he’s one of the ten best starters in baseball right now.

That’s heady stuff. Ohtani was already hard to fathom as an All Star pitcher who was also an MVP-caliber DH. He’s better than that? It feels impossible. Watch him pitch, though, and it’s getting easier and easier to believe. Ohtani is a shooting star, a player we’ll never see again, and he’s getting better in front of our eyes. Here, have a ludicrous slider for the road:

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

Wow. That’s all I got: just wow

2 years ago
Reply to  Klubot3000

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