Shohei Ohtani’s New Cutter(s)

We are reaching peak levels of Shohei Ohtani early in the 2021 season. The true two-way play we were teased with in 2018 is now on full display, with both hitting and pitching in the same game. But as incredible as the hitting has been, there are still questions about Ohtani’s performance as a pitcher: In 18.2 innings, he has somehow pitched to a 2.41 ERA and 3.96 FIP despite a 22% walk rate that is third worst in the league among pitchers with 10 innings or more. Yet in the midst of massive control issues and everything he’s doing at the plate, Ohtani is continuing to develop as a pitcher, adding a multi-faceted cutter to the pitch mix.

There’s a Jekyll and Hyde nature that comes about even within Ohtani’s starts. Take a look at his April 26 outing in Texas to see what I’m talking about.

Something obviously clicked after the first, and all was well again. But looking at his pitch usage that night tells a story itself about where Ohtani is in his development as a pitcher.

It’s an overly simple bit of visualization, and it should be pretty clear what’s going on: Ohtani is largely only comfortable with the fastball and splitter. You can see that the slider, curveball and cutter barely feature, with the latter two popping up in the first inning but not after and the slider appearing only in the fifth and sixth. That’s in line with his career (70 innings) to date: fastball (52% usage), splitter (21%), slider (12%), curve (6%), and cutter (7%). Not that there isn’t precedent for a pitcher who can live primarily off of a four-seam/splitter mix (cf. Kevin Gausman), but it’s a dangerous line for a starter to walk, especially with Ohtani’s command as is.

Part of why you’re seeing the cutter likely has to do with Ohtani’s slider. It’s a fairly loopy one at present: Among right-handed pitchers, only four have more horizontal break, and the closest one by horizontal break is Adam Ottavino’s. There is what can only be described as a lack of feel going on right now.

These are just sliders from this year, so there’s the caveat that there simply haven’t been many of them, but only nine of these were thrown to left-handed hitters. The height isn’t ideal, and he can’t get it over to his glove-side, even against righties. An example of what I’m talking about is useful to see:

The catcher’s positioning and shift to the left-handed batters box is telling you exactly where he wants it, and it just sails.

With that in mind, the cutter makes sense. I’m not going to play pitching coach and assess mechanics, but there is good reason as to why Ohtani felt the need to add it in the first place: It’s a tight breaking pitch that moves glove-side. (The cutter is not new to him, though: It’s something he threw in Japan but had shelved since coming over to MLB.)

Before comparing it to the rest of his arsenal or showing you video, though, let’s look at some similar cutters for reference.

Shohei Ohtani Cutter Comps
Name Pitch Type Velo sd_velo pfx pfz pfz_sd
Shohei Ohtani FC 86.6 2.02 0.37 0.2 0.26
Carson Fulmer FC 86.21 1.23 0.43 0.15 0.25
Yu Darvish FC 86.07 2.17 0.42 0.13 0.32
JD Hammer FC 85.5 0.48 0.33 0.13 0.05
Chi Chi González FC 87.7 0.76 0.33 0.29 0.19
Tyler Chatwood FC 88.27 1.08 0.41 0.12 0.27
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
pfx, pfz, pfz_sd are in Feet. FC = Cutter

I normalized each of the measures so they were on a similar scale and then grabbed the most similar cutters by Euclidean distance. Pitch movements here do not directly translate to the inches of movement measures you might see on BaseballSavant, but they are on the same scale.

The result is by no means a robust method, even with all variables on comparable scales; it’d be naive to assume that they’re all equally important, so it’s helpful to eyeball the results. While Fulmer and Hammer are close by movement, what caught my eye was how close Ohtani was to Darvish in terms of velocity standard deviation. They’re remarkably high standard deviations even amongst cutters — third and fourth highest among all cutters thrown this year.

A widely known fact about Darvish is how many pitches he throws. His ability to bend and shape in all matter of directions is incredible, and it makes studying his pitch usage pages feel pointless, since individual pitch types are actually boxing together multiple pitches. Ben Clemens took an excellent look at this with Darvish last season in picking out the multiple cutters he throws and found a distinction between two of them: one hard, one softer but with a bit more drop. With that velocity deviation, Ohtani looks to be in the same boat.

There’s different movement going on with each pitch, and I hope you can see it as I’m seeing it. There’s one cutter for speed (90.0 MPH, 0.17 pfx_x, 0.28 pfx_z), and one for a little more horizontal movement and bite (84.9 MPH, 0.56 pfx_x, -0.04 pfx_z).

We’re still working with relatively few Ohtani cutters: It’s early in the season, he’s on a unique throwing schedule, and he’s adding or scrapping as he goes along in a start. It’d be nice to have more cutters to evaluate (and more Ohtani innings overall), but there’s still some room to do a little bit of an exercise. One coarse way of determining whether or not there are two cutters is to measure how different they are in regards to pitch comps. I used a method of finding pitch comps already in this piece: We can arbitrarily split Ohtani’s cutters on the median velocity, treating each as individual pitches and pulling their comps.

Shohei Ohtani Fast Cutter Comps
Name Pitch Type Velo sd_velo pfx pfz pfz_sd
Shohei Ohtani FC (fast) 88.61 1.25 0.31 0.32 0.15
Chad Kuhl SL 87.96 1.5 0.32 0.31 0.2
Jorge Alcala SL 87.92 1.76 0.31 0.34 0.23
Mitch White SL 87.85 0.55 0.3 0.34 0.17
Chi Chi González FC 87.7 0.76 0.33 0.29 0.19
Jordan Romano SL 88.39 1.44 0.34 0.25 0.25
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
pfx, pfz, pfz_sd are in Feet.

Shohei Ohtani Slow Cutter Comps
Name pitch_type velo sd_velo pfx pfz pfz_sd
Shohei Ohtani FC (slow) 85.68 0.84 0.43 0.17 0.21
Duane Underwood Jr. SL 85.88 1.41 0.42 0.18 0.17
Chi Chi González SL 85.51 0.69 0.41 0.17 0.19
Nathan Eovaldi SL 85.14 1.01 0.44 0.16 0.21
Carson Fulmer FC 86.21 1.23 0.43 0.15 0.25
Nick Pivetta SL 85.58 1.61 0.44 0.13 0.24
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
pfx, pfz, pfz_sd are in Feet.

The difference in Ohtani’s cutters is clearly visible by average velocity and movement, and they both have different sets of nearest comps (though two separate Chi Chi González pitches are being captured). This is relying heavily on a small-ish number of pitches, but these differences feel much more real than simple chance, and individual pitch movement deviations from the two groups are not explainable from the velocity alone. There are distinct pitches in there, whether Ohtani is purposely doing this or not; he effectively has two more sliders at his disposal. With the rest of his arsenal, a singular cutter could be a useful complement to the fastball, but having two cutters offers him complements to both the fastball and splitter, as well as maybe a backup plan for the slider.

There’s a larger study to be done on the applicability of a slider like Ohtani’s that has a near 15-mph velocity gap with the fastball and an 8-mph gap with the splitter. That latter pitch is obliterating hitters, with Ohtani holding a 38% SwStr% on it, and he’s good enough that he doesn’t need the slider or two different cutters to make him a productive starting pitcher. But compared to the splitter, the slow cutter has similar vertical movement (0.17 FT vs 0.15 FT) and opposite horizontal movement (0.42 FT vs -0.3 FT). They mirror each other in a way, and if you look at Ohtani’s whiffs, that could be a massive add.

The direction and length of the arrows represent the individual pitch movements. It’s a little messy, but you can see where each of the fastball, splitter, and slider have worked for whiffs. The splitter in the light red/gray has carried a heavy load and works almost like a hard curve can, missing bats when placed over the middle of the plate. But Ohtani’s slider has been the one weapon to attack the outside half against righties, and the drop-off in velocity with the splitter is stark. That pitch worked for Ohtani his first time around the league, but if he can’t re-gain the feel, or if hitters start laying off because of the velocity difference, then having the slower cutter that mirrors his splitter is a real benefit.

I’ve spent this time going through the numbers behind Ohtani’s cutters, but in reality, he just might not use either because he doesn’t have to, or he might not even be trying to. In his last start against the Rays, he didn’t throw a single cutter, threw only one slider that made it to the lower third if the strike zone or below, walked six, and somehow came out with no runs given up. Sometimes talent just takes over, and it doesn’t even matter if the player himself stands in his own way with control problems. We’re watching a major league starter work through starts like he’s a reliever warming up to come in a game, and as he goes through, he’s scrapping pitches if they aren’t working for the day, several innings in!

I don’t know how to explain it all, but Ohtani does appear to have two different cutters that represent two distinct weapons. They could be folded in to keep him from becoming a two-pitch pitcher, or be an insurance plan for a possible faulty slider, or they could cease to exist. They could be any list of things that I can’t imagine right now. Ohtani is incredibly talented and, pitch classifications be damned, he has two new breaking pitches, whether he knows it or not.

Owen is a contributor at FanGraphs. He got his start blogging about baseball when he was in college and you can find him maybe talking about something on Twitter @O_dotco.

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I know Ohtani has been dealing with blisters. I’m not 100% on this but I’d imagine knowing each pitch is just going to make his finger gradually worse might cause him to not warm up to 100%. That might be why it appears he’s figuring it out on the fly more so than normal, because I doubt he is ramping all the way up before his pitches count.