Shohei Ohtani’s New Pitching Plan

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Shohei Ohtani is one of the best pitchers in baseball and one of the best hitters in baseball. That’s the first thing everyone thinks when his name comes up, and it always will be. He pitches and hits! How could you talk about anything other than that?

While that’s true, it’s leaving out something important. Ohtani is fascinating not just because he’s a two-way player, but because he’s completely overhauled his pitching approach in the middle of his best season yet. When Ohtani threw eight two-hit innings in his latest start, he hardly resembled the pitcher he was in 2021 – or even early in 2022.

When Ohtani pitched and hit his way to the American League MVP award last year (my colleague Jay Jaffe recently covered his quest to defend that title), he did so with a garden-variety pitch mix. He relied most on his four-seam fastball and complemented it with two plus secondaries, a slider and a splitter. He mixed in the occasional cutter and curveball, but mostly stuck with his best three offerings. It’s a classic pairing: fastball, breaking ball, offspeed pitch. It worked because all three pitches are excellent; if you had a 100 mph fastball, a fall-off-the-table splitter, and a biting slider, you’d probably do the same.

Over the offseason, though, Ohtani overhauled his slider. He came out this season throwing it harder and more frequently. In his third start of the year, he flirted with perfection against a loaded Astros lineup, and from that point on, he was a slider-first pitcher. Look at his slider usage by month this year and marvel:

That’s right: In September, in a downright dominant performance (1.09 ERA, 1.87 FIP), he’s throwing his slider more than half the time. When you’re talking Ohtani, superlatives get thrown around like candy from a piñata, but I mean this one: he might throw the best slider in baseball. The combination of velocity (85.4 mph on average, a full three ticks harder than he used to throw it) and break (7.8 inches of horizontal movement on average per Pitch Info, almost as much break as his slower slider had) leaves batters shaking their heads.

Think of it this way. Blake Treinen was one of the best relievers in baseball last year, and Evan Phillips has taken that mantle from him this year. Both succeed on the back of their sliders, and both throw a carbon copy of Ohtani’s pitch – same velocity, same horizontal break, and a touch more drop on their path home. They’re both excellent relievers. Ohtani throws the same pitch over a starter’s workload, while mixing in five other pitches to boot.

Wait, five other pitches? Yes, Ohtani has done more than just feature his slider more frequently. Let’s quickly go over his other options. First, there’s the cutter, a pitch he picked up last year and continues to use. He’s throwing it with more total downward break this year and using it roughly equally against lefties and righties. It’s not great at drawing chases, but it does a good job missing bats when hitters offer at it:

Another holdover tertiary pitch from 2021 is his curveball. Ohtani’s curve isn’t his best breaking ball, but he throws fewer sliders to left-handers thanks to platoon issues. He fills in some of the difference with curves. He’s shown inconsistent feel for its location, but when he spots it at the bottom of the zone, it’s excellent:

Of course, Ohtani still throws a splitter, his signature pitch when he came over from Japan. It’s roughly the same as it’s always been; it drops off the table after coming out of his hand like a fastball, which leads to a truly preposterous number of bad swings. The big downside of the pitch is that he doesn’t always locate it well; per Statcast, only 30% of his splitters this year were in the rulebook strike zone. That means it’s best used when he’s ahead in the count, like so:

Lastly when it comes to returning pitches, there’s his four-seamer. A strange fact: Ohtani’s four-seamer isn’t as overpowering as you might expect. He has the velocity down but doesn’t boast movement to match. Think of it this way: fellow former Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighter Yu Darvish throws his fastball 95 mph on average. On its path home, it falls 13.5 inches from its initial trajectory thanks to a heaping helping of pure backspin. Ohtani throws harder – 97.3 mph on average this year. That should mean less time for gravity to pull the ball down, but it still falls 14.5 inches. It’s a notable pitch thanks to its velocity, but it doesn’t have standout movement. That doesn’t mean it can’t make hitters look bad, though:

That brings us to Ohtani’s newest toy, his sinker. It’s got a lot in common with those of some sinker-first pitchers you may have heard of. The best two comps for it in terms of horizontal movement and velocity are Sandy Alcantara and Dustin May. It also sinks more than either of those two. The result is an east-west pairing for his slider that makes batters look consistently foolish:

If you don’t remember Ohtani throwing a sinker, that isn’t weird. He didn’t until recently. In the first four months of the season, he threw exactly one. In September, he threw 67, and he’s now throwing more sinkers than four-seamers. That all happened pretty quickly. Heck, on August 19, Michael Ajeto was analyzing the sinker over at Baseball Prospectus based on only eight pitches. Even in early September, it was still a novelty. Just to emphasize the point, Ohtani told Time magazine he didn’t have a sinker grip. He learned it in-season, and by September he was ditching his four-seamer in favor of it.

In fact, Ohtani is hardly throwing any fastballs at all. With his slider good for 53% of his pitches, there simply isn’t much space for fastballs; he throws the four-seamer, sinker, and cutter each between 10% and 12% of the time. That leaves only scraps for the curveball and the once-mighty splitter.

I’m not sure whether this is the new normal for Ohtani or simply something he’s trying out at year’s end for potential use next year. The Angels have been effectively out of the playoff race for quite a while; testing out some new pitches and getting a head start on next season is a perfectly reasonable plan in that context.

If this really is Ohtani’s new standard form, though, he’ll be breaking new ground when it comes to breaking ball primacy. As Kyle Kishimoto recently noted, the fastball is disappearing, but not to the extent that Ohtani is going away from his. Jakob Junis was the star of Kyle’s article, the first pitcher in more than a decade to throw a secondary pitch more than half the time. Dylan Cease and Clayton Kershaw throw their sliders just over 40% of the time; they’re the top-flight starters who feature a secondary pitch most frequently.

Ohtani’s slider is such a dominant pitch that it’s no wonder he’s leaning on it more and more. He threw it to start nearly half the batters he faced in September, and showed good instinctual feel for the pitch in doing so. Batters swung at his first-pitch offerings quite frequently, so he didn’t get overly aggressive flooding the zone. That sounds like a tough adjustment to make, and it is: pitchers who flip in first-pitch curveballs frequently struggle to adjust to batters swinging freely at them. But Ohtani’s slider isn’t some show-me lollipop; it’s a great out pitch that he happens to command in the strike zone. He may have to make a counter-adjustment and attack more frequently with the pitch as batters realize the futility of swinging at it and back off, but for now, he’s doing good work on the first pitch of at-bats by leaning on his slider without going out of his way to attack the zone.

If he does stick with such heavy slider use – I think that Cease’s low-40s usage rate seems reasonable for him – I’d like to see him complement it with his new sinker. Ohtani’s four-seamer has always been a good pitch despite average movement, but swapping it out for a sinker with huge run will give him something new: a pitch he can throw to get back into at-bats when he falls behind with the slider, as well as one that pairs well with that very slider.

That doesn’t mean he’s likely to abandon his four-seam fastball anytime soon. Sinkers lose potency in pitchers’ counts; they’re good at limiting damage on contact, not missing bats. Keeping a fastball in reserve that can get swinging strikes in advantageous counts is just good planning. The same goes for his splitter; it’s at its best when he throws it with two strikes, because batters are much more aggressive about defending the zone then. Using his pitches in advantageous counts should make all of them sing.

Keeping so many pitches at your disposal isn’t easy. Most pitchers can’t just snap their fingers and develop a new sinker, and they certainly can’t mothball the two pitches that they used most in the past (four-seamer and splitter, for Ohtani) and lean on two new friends instead, only to pull out the old pitches when they’re most needed. But this is Shohei Ohtani we’re talking about. Normal rules don’t apply to him. I can’t wait to see what he has planned for us next year on the mound – and what changes he’ll make to his approach at the plate while he’s at it.

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

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1 month ago

Next year he’s going to experiment with throwing left handed

1 month ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Dang, good call. I was kinda hoping he’d figure out how to throw with his feet.

Dee P. Gordon
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

Teach him how to pitch while somehow also playing first base.

Peter Bonney
1 month ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Spoiler: he already does throw left-handed and always has, he has just been toying with NPB and MLB by throwing right-handed.

Kered Retej
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter Bonney

“Because I know something you don’t know…I am not left-handed!”

1 month ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Amphibious pitching!