Los Angeles Angels Rookie, Shohei Ohtani is…. different
Young, Japanese phenom, Shohei Ohtani has had an excellent first two weeks in his MLB Career. At the time of writing, the two-way star currently boasts a 278 (!) wRC+ with the bat and an equally ridiculous 1.72 FIP on the mound. Yes these are small sample anomalies. Ohtani obviously can’t keep this pace up over a full season, no one can – this isn’t MLB The Show. But just in this last week Ohtani homered in three consecutive games, one of which came against multiple time Cy Young Award winner, Corey Kluber, and pitched a 1 hit, 12 strike out gem against one of the better offenses in the American League. Shohei Ohtani appears to be very good. Of course there are plenty of angles from which you can approach a discussion around Ohtani but as you have already gleaned from the title there is one particular thing I wish to dig into, one particular pitch – Ohtani’s slider.
Coming into the season, Ohtani was billed as featuring a fastball, splitter, slider and curveball in that order. MLB Pipeline placed a future 65 grade on Ohtani’s slider (one and a half standard deviations above MLB average), while Fangraphs placed a 60 on the pitch. Whatever outlet you pick, consensus was that Ohtani’s slider was going to be a devastating pitch in Major League Baseball. Except… Ohtani doesn’t really throw a slider.
Now, before you blow up the comments section, give me a second to explain myself. Yes, Ohtani’s primary breaking ball is techinically a slider. It’s thrown as one and for reference it looks like one too:
Shohei Ohtani, breaking ball (from today). 😳pic.twitter.com/pTrmll2bDi
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 2, 2018
But now let me show you something else.
The little table above compares Ohtani’s Slider to the league average slider and curveball for various plate discipline metrics. Of course it’s important to note that Ohtani has only made two starts this season so these numbers have some significant stabilising to do but nonetheless they mean something. The typical slider will exhibit above average swinging strike rates, while showing lower called-strike and ground ball rates than the average curveball. Ohtani’s slider however, behaves rather differently.
The Ohtani breaking ball might walk and talk like a slider but with a hitter in the box, the pitch is functionally a curveball. The Angels rookie has yet to elicit a swing and miss on a slider thrown in the strike zone and it has generated all of it’s outs via the ground ball – both characteristics more closely aligned with the curveball. Based on the results, we might argue that instead of the FB, SPL, SL, CU mix mentioned above, Ohtani is actually working with two curveballs to pair with the fastball/splitter combo.
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For Ohtani, this means the right-hander is working with one less ‘out pitch’ than expected. Both Ohtani’s fastball and splitter have proven themselves elite so far in his brief MLB tenure but the slider may not be the dominant pitch it was billed to be. Instead, Ohtani’s slider is more of the ‘get back into counts’ variety – stealing called strikes and getting easy ground outs. From the eye test, Ohtani’s slider appears to be one of the better pitches in baseball, though so far, hitters have’t really agreed.
Now, I’m not here to try and pour water on the flame. Ohtani can still be great – he already has been great. While, right now, Ohtani’s slider isn’t exactly the pitch we thought it might be, both the fastball and splitter have been excellent (you could put an 80 on both if you were aggressive, though the latter is probably a 70). Those two pitches alone make him an above average starter.
And then there’s the fact that Ohtani is still only 23 years old. At 23, most players are still working their way through the minors. Ohtani still has plenty of time to develop – this is a pitch that can be work shopped. Ohtani has already shown an innate feel for spinning a baseball, if he wants to further develop his slider he has both the time and the athleticism to do so – that’s what makes the consensus top prospect so exciting.
Shohei Ohtani’s slider might not be what we thought it was a few months ago, that shouldn’t stop him from being one of the most exciting baseball players in history.