The Good and Bad of Shohei Ohtani’s Pitching Debut

I’m writing this about 24 hours after Shohei Ohtani pitched in his first ever major-league game. Certain things, I probably don’t even need to tell you. Maybe you made a point of watching the game live. Maybe you made a point of watching some of the highlights. Maybe you made a point of reading about Ohtani in other places today. Whatever the case, I imagine many of you know what happened. Ohtani lasted six innings, and the Angels beat the A’s. The outing was good, without being spotless.

Ohtani’s game has been written about dozens of times. Every one of his starts is going to be written about dozens of times. We can’t really worry about that, though. FanGraphs needs its own Ohtani coverage. Which is why I’m here to talk about his pitching debut. We can’t yet say much of anything about Ohtani’s bat. We don’t have the information. And, truth be told, we can’t yet say much of anything about Ohtani’s arm. In time, his numbers will reflect his ability. For now, we can only observe and extrapolate. And looking over Ohtani’s six frames, there was a whole lot of good, and some things that were less good. The Angels, I assume, are generally pleased.

The less information you have about a pitcher, the more you have to try to evaluate by process. Over an entire multi-year career, the numbers are the numbers. They don’t tell many lies. Over smaller samples, you’ll want to pay more attention to the peripherals. And when you’re looking at one single game? Single games aren’t always very indicative of anything. All of the samples are small. The opposition isn’t necessarily representative of the league. When you’re dealing with single games, you have to make some educated guesses. Pitchers might get away with all their mistakes. Pitchers might alternately get punished despite throwing quality pitches. Understanding the caveats here, I’ll try to say as much about Ohtani as I can.

The most obvious place to begin: Shohei Ohtani’s fastball. There were 39 of them in all, and they averaged just about 98 miles per hour. A few times, Ohtani got into the triple digits. The last fastball he threw clocked in at 98.

That’s big velocity, in the sixth inning of a game in which Ohtani might’ve understandably begun with too much adrenaline. The velocity seemed to come easily to him, and while we sort of already knew Ohtani could pump the gas, now we have cold, hard proof. As you know, this is one of those things that stabilizes almost instantly. Fastball velocity is almost all signal, and minimal noise. We know, already, that Ohtani has a very high velocity ceiling. By speed, he’s right there with Luis Severino and Noah Syndergaard, at the top of the starting-pitcher leaderboard. Maybe, I don’t know, Ohtani will wear down. But by velocity alone, he’s extraordinary.

Even despite the speed, there were still just the 39 heaters, out of 92 pitches. That’s a rate of about 42%. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. The positive interpretation is that Ohtani didn’t need to rely too heavily on his fastball, because he likes his other stuff. That’s very true. He threw plenty of sliders, and plenty of splitters. A more negative interpretation is that Ohtani’s fastball has big velocity, but it still might not be a swing-and-miss pitch. It comes with a roughly average spin rate, and it doesn’t profile as one of the classic rising four-seamers. When Ohtani was ahead, he threw just 24% fastballs. When he was behind, he threw 71% fastballs. You don’t need a certain movement profile to miss bats with a fastball, and obviously the arm strength here is something to envy. It’s just that not all 98s are created the same. Ohtani will probably get his strikeouts from his other pitches.

Ohtani did occasionally flash a curveball. He threw three of them, all on the first pitch. The weapon that really stood out was his splitter. I understand there were also one or two changeups, but I don’t know how to separate those. All the movements are similar. Ohtani’s splitter hung close to 90 miles per hour. It missed a whole lot of bats.

No pitch is perfect, but it’s clear to see that Ohtani was mostly successful keeping his splitter down in or beyond the zone.

You see four of those pitches elevated, but that’s just four out of 24, which is nothing. Every so often, a splitter stays up. The same thing happens with changeups. Pitchers very rarely mean to do it, but you just try to execute as often as possible. Based on his first start, Ohtani is very able to execute his splitter. I came away less impressed by his slider.

To be clear: I don’t think it’s a bad slider. And it has a ton of horizontal movement. Ohtani’s slider was in the lower 80s, and based on the movement profile, it’s reminiscent of breaking balls thrown by Corey Kluber, Yu Darvish, and Marcus Stroman. These are good comps, and Ohtani’s breaking ball can sweep across the whole plate. But, well, the Matt Chapman three-run homer? That was a slider that Chapman pounded.

I don’t hate that slider. It was supposed to be lower, but it was still mostly low and away. Most of the time, that pitch doesn’t get hit out of the yard. Chapman is more of an inside hitter, anyway. I think this next clip is more representative. Here’s an 0-and-2 slider to Khris Davis.

Swing, miss, strikeout. What more could you ask for? But the pitch was not executed well at all. Martin Maldonado wanted the pitch down and away, out of the zone. The slider backed up, staying up and in. If you look at Ohtani after the strikeout, you see a brief little head shake, and while that could conceivably be about anything, I’m guessing Ohtani realized he got a little lucky. He knew out of his hand that wasn’t the slider he wanted to throw, but that was, mostly, the slider he was throwing.

There are so many elevated sliders in there. Several of them went for called strikes. A few more missed bats. And maybe Ohtani meant to elevate his slider some number of times. But, typically, it’s a pitch you want down, to the glove side. That’s where Maldonado was generally setting up. The pitchers with comparable breaking balls have located said breaking balls down and to the glove side. Ohtani’s movement was there on Sunday, but he seemed to struggle with his slider. He didn’t get hurt too badly for it, but that’s what can happen in a one-game sample. Weird things can happen to any pitch you throw.

Mostly, Ohtani was encouraging. He threw 68% of his pitches for strikes. That’s great. When batters swung, they made contact just 62% of the time. That’s also great. Kimbrelian. There’s no denying that Ohtani showed elite-level velocity, and that should give him a greater margin of error. Because of how hard Ohtani throws, he doesn’t always have to be so precise. That probably helps explain why his slider didn’t end up with worse results. The slider, though, could stand to be a lot better. The splitter already looks outstanding, but if Ohtani is mostly going to go away from his fastball when he’s ahead in the count, he’ll need the slider to be there, too. Could just be an adjustment thing. Could’ve just been a day when Ohtani didn’t have everything. Let’s file this away as something to watch. As is, Ohtani looks good. With a better slider, then, sure enough, you’ve got ace material.

There is so much more Ohtani to watch. Over time, we’ll see how he adjusts to a six-man rotation, and to repeating opponents. His big-league career is only just beginning. One start in, I’d say he was basically as advertised. Given the hype, that’s actually a remarkable feat.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

I’m crossing my fingers his start lines up with an interleague game in an NL park.