ANAHEIM, Calif. — It’s largely forgotten by now, trampled by the overwhelming success that followed, but Shohei Ohtani‘s introduction as a major league pitcher was dreadful.
He allowed nine runs and recorded eight outs over the course of two Cactus League starts in the spring of 2018, plus another six runs in an unofficial exhibition game against a Mexican League team. But what was most concerning to Martin Maldonado, the Los Angeles Angels‘ starting catcher at the time, was his velocity. A celebrated two-way player who was hailed for throwing his fastball into the triple digits couldn’t eclipse the low 90s when he first arrived in the United States.
Maldonado, now with the Houston Astros, found comfort through Ohtani’s batting-practice rounds.
“The ball was usually jumping off his bat,” Maldonado recalled, “so I said, ‘If pitching doesn’t work, he can always just play left field or DH in the big leagues.'”
That, of course, wasn’t ultimately necessary. Ohtani adjusted to a slicker baseball and a steeper mound, escaped the dry air of Arizona and looked like a different person when the games began to count, pitching effectively for two-plus regular-season months before a damaged ulnar collateral ligament necessitated Tommy John surgery. In an instant, he seemed to make believers out of everybody.
“He got used to the league, got used to what he needs to do to get better,” Maldonado said. “But I feel like every year he’s learning and getting better and better.”
And that’s part of what’s so fascinating about Ohtani — he’s an unprecedented talent with noticeable room for improvement, particularly on the pitching side.
Consider: When the 2021 season began and Ohtani started to navigate a two-way role on a regular basis, he was coming off a four-year stretch in which he compiled only 79 2/3 innings as a pitcher (as a hitter, meanwhile, he made 1,198 plate appearances). The last time he had pitched for something that closely resembled a full season, he was a 21-year-old in Japan, still figuring out what he would become on a mound.
Since then he has added new pitches and tinkered with the shape of old ones. He has brought more life to his fastball and maximized the depth of his slider. He has learned to recover from early command issues and mastered the art of saving his best for last. From 2021 to 2022, Ohtani’s ERA dropped from 3.18 to 2.33. This year, he has been one of the toughest pitchers in the majors to hit, even while battling occasional bouts of bewildering wildness.
“He can walk basically as many people as he wants and it doesn’t matter,” fellow Angels starter Patrick Sandoval said, “because guys aren’t going to really hit anyone in.”
Ohtani leads the majors in wild pitches and hit batters, but he’s also leading the American League in strikeout percentage and has allowed the lowest opponents’ batting average in the sport. He has been navigating through a 43-inning stretch in which he has been charged with 24 earned runs, and yet he’s 5-2 with a 3.30 ERA, as usual part of the Cy Young discussion.
Below, the three biggest reasons for Ohtani’s pitching success.
He has an extra gear
Sometimes Ohtani just gets angry.
A prominent example occurred on April 27, against the hapless Oakland Athletics. Ohtani had allowed only two runs in 31 innings to begin the season when the fourth inning began on this Thursday afternoon at Angel Stadium. Then came a nightmarish six-batter stretch: hit by pitch, wild pitch, walk, home run, hit by pitch, wild pitch, home run, double. Ohtani, practically unhittable leading up to that point, had quickly blown a five-run lead against the worst team in the sport.
He harnessed his frustration against those who followed, suffocating the next four hitters with a mix of devastating sweepers and triple-digit fastballs. Ohtani went on to retire nine of the next 11 batters, earning the win and coming only a few feet short of hitting for the cycle.
“He wants to be perfect,” Angels manager Phil Nevin said. “He wants to be great, and he is, so when those innings happen, it frustrates him.”
Ohtani’s stuff is always overwhelming, but he seems to leave a little in reserve for when the moments demand it. His average four-seam-fastball velocity with nobody on or a runner on first base is 97 mph — and it jumps to 98.5 mph with runners in scoring position, a sizable bump that has helped him go from averaging 5.67 innings per start in 2021 to 5.93 from 2022 to 2023.
In the late innings, with the finish line in sight, he becomes even more effective. Opposing hitters have a .912 OPS when they see Ohtani a second time, the fourth-highest mark in the majors in that situation. The third time through the order, though, that OPS drops down to .460, a whopping 270 points lower than the league average — at a time when it seems as if the entire industry is scared to leave pitchers in that long.
As a hitter, Ohtani’s OPS against opposing pitchers a third time: 1.255.
He throws so many pitches
The PitchCom device Ohtani wears just above his left elbow has nine buttons dedicated to communicating specific pitches to his catcher.
Ohtani essentially throws 11, which means two of them require a combination.
Ohtani was a four-pitch pitcher when he debuted in the major leagues, relying primarily on his four-seam fastball, slider and splitter while occasionally mixing in a curveball. He has since added a cutter and a sinker, but that’s only part of it. He throws at least two different types of sliders, one of which is famously classified as a sweeper. And he frequently varies the velocity and manipulates the shape on most of his pitches. Ohtani has thrown 27 cutters 92 mph and above this season and 26 others that traveled less than 88 mph. The vertical break on his curveball has varied by about 20 inches. Those are just a couple of examples. He threw a pitch 68.1 mph on April 21 and another one 101.2 mph on April 27.
“He’s constantly able to tinker with his pitches and see a pitch and be like, ‘Oh I want to throw that,'” Sandoval said. “He takes a bullpen session and he’s already got the pitch. Pretty crazy.”
Ohtani’s devastating splitter had been a clear third pitch every year until now, when the sinker and cutter have jumped ahead of it. The sweeper is Ohtani’s clear preference on two-strike counts, but he has gone to the fastball about 28% of the time and the splitter 16% of the time. The cutter and sinker have made more than a handful of appearances, as well. It’s simply too much for hitters to account for, especially when so many of those pitches can be thrown in various shapes.
“I think you just got to look into a zone and swing,” A’s infielder/outfielder Tony Kemp said. “You kind of just want to get him in an area that you’re looking, and if it starts in a certain spot, then you got to go. It’s tough to barrel up, but it’s one of those things where you have to trust your process and trust what you’re doing at the plate and not second-guess yourself.”
He has mastered the sweeper
There’s some debate as to the origins of Ohtani’s sweeper, a slider iteration with more horizontal break that has become all the rage in the sport. Some of those within the Angels clubhouse believe Ohtani saw that pitch as a hitter at some point over these past couple of years, studied the metrics of it and wound up copying it (like he did the sinker thrown to him by New York Yankees closer Clay Holmes on Aug. 31 of last year).
Ohtani, extremely coy about the specifics of his pitches, has a different version of events.
“I’ve actually always been throwing it, ever since my days in Japan,” he said through his interpreter. “I had a smaller slider and a bigger slider and I guess these days they just call it the sweeper. No one really taught me; I taught myself.”
Whatever the genesis, Ohtani’s sweeper — the pitch he famously used to strike out teammate Mike Trout and end the World Baseball Classic — stands as the primary reason for his growing dominance as a pitcher.
Ohtani’s sweeper was the fifth-most valuable pitch in the majors from 2021 to 2022, according to Sports Info Solutions. This year, it has navigated an interesting path. Opposing hitters batted .063/.182/.083 against the sweeper during Ohtani’s first five starts, managing just three hits and striking out 18 times in 48 at-bats. Over his next four starts, from April 27 to May 15, hitters suddenly began to slug .692 against it, unleashing five home runs — one fewer than he allowed on that pitch in all of 2022 — in just 39 at-bats.
After serving up two of those homers on May 15 in Baltimore — another seven-inning start, another win and another day in which he almost hit for the cycle — Ohtani acknowledged he needed to make some adjustments. In his next three starts — a stretch in which he held the Minnesota Twins and the Miami Marlins to two earned runs in 12 innings, then allowed five runs in six innings against the Astros — opposing hitters went 6-for-26 off Ohtani’s sweeper, though one of them left for another home run.
Ohtani’s sweeper is currently averaging 17 inches of horizontal break, 3 inches greater than last year and about the width of home plate. He throws it frequently in the mid-to-upper 80s, an uncommonly high velocity for that pitch, and he has used it to record 49 of his 96 strikeouts this season.
“Sometimes it comes out straight out of his hand and it’s hard to see,” Angels catcher Chad Wallach said. “You see some of the swings some guys have on it — it’s probably a foot and a half, two feet off the plate. And that’s because it comes out dead straight and it looks like a fastball, and then it’s just gone.”