By now, anyone who’s aware of Shohei Ohtani is also aware that he has the ability to strike out the side in one inning and lead off the next by putting a ball into orbit.
What remains unknown is how he’ll handle little things that can make a big difference.
This won’t remain the case for much longer. With the Los Angeles Angels set to open their spring exhibition schedule on Friday, February 23, against the Oakland Athletics, Ohtani is this close to tasting his first game action in Major League Baseball.
It’s only practice, sure, but that doesn’t make it any easier to downplay the hype.
It took just five seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball for Ohtani to carve out a legend as Japan’s very own Babe Ruth. He put up a 2.52 ERA on the mound and, after a slow start, came around at the plate with a .981 OPS and 30 homers in 2016 and 2017.
Since he’s still only 23 years old, it’s within reason that MLB.com and Baseball America consider Ohtani to be a prospect. And an elite one, at that. He ranks No. 1 for the former and No. 2 for the latter. With a 100 mph four-seam fastball and a filthy forkball and slider at his disposal, they’re mainly enamored with Ohtani‘s arm. But they don’t underestimate his bat, which packs dangerous power.
All Ohtani has to do now is adapt his two-way talent to MLB. For that, here are two kinda-sorta-very important objectives for him this spring.
On the Mound: Beat Hitters with His Fastball
Reading about what Ohtani can do with a baseball is one thing. Actually seeing what he can do is equal parts more instructive and more fun.
So, here he is punching out 11 Korean hitters in November 2015 at the WBSC Premier12 tournament:
You can skip to the 0:25 mark to see the right-hander snap off a sick slider and then to the 0:28 mark to see an especially devastating forkball.
Otherwise, this highlight mostly serves as a showcase for his fastball. Data gathered by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello confirms that it’s as fast as it looks. It peaked at 101.9 mph in 2016 and averaged 97.5 mph in 2017. Both figures qualify him as one of the velocity titans of the world.
However, velocity alone won’t light Ohtani‘s way in MLB.
High-velocity fastballs are more prevalent here than in Japan, yet they are also losing their capacity for overwhelming hitters. As the percentage of 95-plus mph fastballs has increased, so too has the weighted on-base average—or wOBA, which is basically an ideal version of OPS—against them:
|Year||95+ FB%||wOBA vs. 95+ FB|
Per Baseball Savant.
To boot, there’s something else that could spell trouble for Ohtani.
“His fastball is hittable,” Stefen Romero, a former major league outfielder who faced Ohtani in Japan, told Kyle Glaser of Baseball America. “I feel like it’s hittable to American players because it’s straight—there’s not a lot of movement. It’s hard, but it is straight.”
Ohtani‘s heater does look straight in the video above. It’s also characterized as such by spin rate. It averaged 2,301 revolutions per minute in 2017, according to Petriello. That would have placed only a tad higher than the MLB average of 2,255 rpm for four-seamers.
Even at high velocity, more spin helps translate to more frequent swings and misses. In 2017, here’s how the swing-and-miss rates against 95-plus four-seam fastballs varied by spin rate:
|Spin Rate (RPM)||Whiff/Swing%|
Per Baseball Savant.
None of this is meant to imply that Ohtani‘s fastball will be useless against major league hitters. If anything, the fact that it’s comparable in spin and speed to Luis Severino’s fastball portends just the opposite. He can also downplay its straightness with good command and crafty sequencing.
But for the time being, it’s up to Ohtani to prove that his fastball can be good for more than just lighting up radar guns. The more whiffs and outs he collects with it this spring, the easier the Angels will be able to rest.
At the Plate: Turn on Inside Fastballs
Now then, let’s see what the video has to say about Ohtani‘s power.
This will suffice:
That’s a loud noise followed by a long distance and a good deal of jubilation. Elite power has that sort of effect, and there’s universal consensus that Ohtani‘s power is indeed elite.
As is usually the case with sluggers, the downside is that Ohtani swings and misses a lot. He struck out in 27 percent of his NPB plate appearances. That figure isn’t likely to get better in MLB, where he may not hit as often and will have to contend with pitchers who, collectively, are setting new strikeout records annually.
Of course, the Angels won’t care if Ohtani is striking out a ton so long as he’s hitting for power when he is making contact. On that front, inside fastballs might prove to be his bugaboo.
“Japanese guys tend to stay away from him; I think it’s a lot of respect, and they don’t want to throw a fastball in and break his arm or hit him in the elbow,” Dennis Sarfate, a former MLB reliever, told Glaser.
“He just has unbelievable pop to the opposite field, center field, [but] it didn’t seem like he pulled too many balls unless they were off-speed,” added Brent Morel, a former MLB third baseman. “I think he’ll get pounded in like any young hitter going to the big leagues. He’ll have to make the adjustment.”
Ohtani was hit by only four pitches in 1,170 NPB plate appearances. That’s a rate of 0.3 percent, about a third of the 0.9 percent rate that fellow left-handed batters got hit in MLB last year.
Elsewhere, a rudimentary analysis of all 48 of his NPB homers revealed that he pulled only 15 to right field. The other 33 went to center field or to the left of center field.
Put these things together, and you get a general picture of a hitter who felt comfortable enough in the box to let the ball travel before unleashing his power. Knowing that, the scouting report is likely to advise opposing pitchers to crowd him inside until he shows he’s capable of turning on the ball.
There’s no time like the present for him to get started on that. If he’s seen hooking inside fastballs over the right field fence this spring, the Angels will know he’s on the right track.
Regardless, it must be said that a poor spring on Ohtani‘s part would hardly be the end of the world. Spring training isn’t that telling of a proving ground. And besides, the Angels have six years to mold him into an MLB superstar before he reaches free agency.
Given that much time, a talent of this caliber is bound to figure it out eventually.
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