I imagine we’ll be accused of writing clickbait. I imagine many websites will face the same accusation. And, sure, there’s probably plenty of bad Shohei Ohtani coverage out there. But, already, this is something special. Readers have possessed a voracious enthusiasm for consuming Ohtani articles. Writers have possessed a voracious enthusiasm for composing Ohtani articles. This is something that none of us have ever seen, and, if anything, Shohei Ohtani has exceeded the hype. Of course it’s still embarrassingly early. But, this is the best thing going. There is so much for us to see, and so much for us to learn.
There’s an argument that early analysis misses the point. That Ohtani is easy to appreciate, and perhaps best appreciated, with the eyes. He hits harder than almost anyone. He pitches harder than almost anyone. He’s playing his first-ever meaningful MLB games, and he’s arguably the greatest baseball talent Japan has ever had to offer. To this point, he’s been absolutely dominant on both sides, which is something long considered impossible. Ohtani shouldn’t be able to be this good. Players aren’t supposed to actually meet the runaway hype. Was Ohtani hyped…too…little? If you want to just let his beginning wash over you, I completely understand. In many ways this is bigger than regular baseball.
But I have a job to do. My job is to generate written baseball content, which can hopefully teach you something. If you’re interested, let me teach you something about Shohei Ohtani, the hitter. Everyone in baseball ends up with a scouting report. Ohtani, I guess, will have two of them. But, hitter Ohtani? Pitchers have already tipped their plan.
Of Ohtani’s three home runs, I’m guessing the consensus favorite is the one he hit against Corey Kluber. Less because of the pitch and swing, and more just because of the opponent. Kluber is great! Ohtani got him. Here is the home run, again. I’m sure you’ve seen it a million times.
1-and-1 pitch, up and over the plate. Clearly, a pitch Ohtani found drivable. Here’s the pitch right before.
And here’s the target for where the first pitch was supposed to be, before Kluber missed his spot.
Ohtani faced Kluber the first time in the third inning. Here’s the target for the first pitch.
Here’s a pitch from a little later.
Like many good pitchers, Kluber was trying to work Ohtani side to side. But there was a special emphasis on going in, and that’s something other pitchers have done, as well. Even though Shohei Ohtani has hardly played, and even though Ohtani will develop over time, he’s been attacked extremely inside. More, I can say, than any other hitter. Have you ever wondered how many games it might take in the regular season before a hitter has a scouting report slapped on him? In Ohtani’s case, the answer is apparently zero.
From Baseball Savant, here is Ohtani’s very early pitch-location heat map.
For the sake of comparison, here’s the heat map for lefty Eddie Rosario, who has been approached in a more or less average way in the early going.
Ohtani has seen a lot of hard pitches, and he’s seen a lot of inside pitches. The very highest rate of inside pitches, at that. Here are the hitters with the highest early inside-pitch rate, defined as the rate of pitches over or beyond the inner half.
Ohtani’s at No. 1, and he’s there easily. This is nothing new for, say, Yasiel Puig. For him, this has already basically stabilized. For a different way to measure the same thing, I looked at average horizontal pitch location, flipped to put lefties and righties on the same side. The units here are feet, away from the center of the strike zone. The higher and more positive the number, the more inside the average pitch.
The average pitch to Ohtani so far has been inside by 5.4 inches. Puig is in second, with an average location inside by 3.1 inches. As you can tell from how quickly the numbers begin to approach 0, most batters are pitched away, on average. For the league, the average location is outside by roughly 2 inches. That means, compared to the average, Ohtani has been worked more inside by nearly two-thirds of a foot. Obviously, we’re barely talking about any real amount of playing time, here, but from the beginning, Ohtani has been pitched as if he can’t do much with pitches on his hands.
This is not necessarily surprising. And to Ohtani’s credit, this, for example, was good contact, even if it just led to an out.
But the home run against Kluber was on a pitch well over the plate. So was another of the home runs. Ohtani did take Josh Tomlin deep on an inside pitch, but that was a slow, looping curveball, which isn’t exactly the same thing. The idea would appear to be that Ohtani is vulnerable to inside heat. And if you get him thinking about being jammed, that could open up something away.
Again, this isn’t a shock. For an Effectively Wild podcast some time ago, Ben Lindbergh and I spoke with Dennis Sarfate, who went to Japan and blossomed into one of the best relievers in the world. Sarfate was high on Ohtani’s bat, but did say he felt like he should be pitched inside. He highlighted that as the one weakness. And furthermore, it’s worth remembering that Ohtani isn’t just another talented rookie. Some teams invested years in scouting him, and that scouting knowledge wasn’t deleted or thrown away when Ohtani signed with the Angels. Teams have had reports on Ohtani for a while. And on Ohtani’s side, he asked teams about those reports during the posting process. He wanted to know what they thought about him. I don’t know why teams wouldn’t have been sincere. Teams would’ve said he can be pitched in, and Ohtani would’ve taken that to heart. Or something like that.
One thing that’s clear is that, reports be damned, Ohtani has been amazing. It’s not like he’s been pitched inside and as a consequence he’s batting .050. He’s homered in three straight games. Ohtani’s results don’t look like those of a guy who’s been figured out. I should also say that Ohtani would be far from the only hitter to be vulnerable to inside heat. Plenty of guys don’t like inside heat. It’s precisely how Tyler Chatwood overwhelmed Joey Votto the other week. That all being said, this is something to watch. As the hitting sample grows in size, we’ll get a fuller understanding of Ohtani’s various strengths and weaknesses. He’s already been pitched in a very particular way, and in the long run, it might even work. Just as it used to be too early to say Ohtani was a disappointment, it’s still too early to say he’s a total success. There is an unbelievable amount of baseball still on the schedule.
I can’t close without saying one more thing. Shohei Ohtani has already made his first adjustment. It took zero regular-season games for a scouting report to get around. It also took zero regular-season games for Ohtani to change his hitting style. A screenshot from early spring training:
And, from later spring training:
Ohtani already got rid of his leg kick, replacing it with more of a toe-tap. His swing is still the same swing, and he might still be long to get the barrel through the zone, but this might make Ohtani a split-second quicker to respond and get around to something inside. Ohtani might’ve already responded to the scouting report. Even in spring training, lessons were being learned, and strategies were being responded to.
Every step of the way, Shohei Ohtani is certain to fascinate. We already see him near the top of some hitting leaderboards. We already see him near the top of some pitching leaderboards. And we already see him being pitched to in a specific, extreme kind of way. Just another leaderboard for him to sit atop. I am just so happy we’re here. I am just so happy we all get to see this.
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.