Examining Shohei Ohtani’s Struggles in 2020

Ohtani's return as a two-way player was derailed in more ways than one.

Coming into the 2020 season, one of the biggest storylines to watch for around the league was the triumphant return of Shohei Ohtani as a two-way player. The Angels star was finally ready to step back onto the mound after being relegated to just hitting in 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and the excitement around baseball to see Ohtani showcase his once-in-a-lifetime talents once again was at an all-time high.

As you can probably tell by the title of this story, though, things did not go according to plan at all. On the pitching side of things, Ohtani’s 2020 was not ideal, to put it lightly. His time on the mound lasted just five outs across two starts, as he fought through bad command issues (he walked eight of the 16 total batters he faced while giving up seven earned runs) before being shut down again due to a forearm strain in his pitching arm.

 

Familiar Situation, Unfamiliar Results

 

This injury left Ohtani in a place that he has become unfortunately accustomed to: being available solely as a designated hitter for the third year in a row. Unlike the previous two seasons, however, his time at the plate went off the rails as well, as his hitting numbers took a concerning nosedive in 2020.

Ohtani’s ugly .190/.291/.366 triple slash fell far short of the .286/.351/.532 mark that he averaged for his career before this season, and by wRC+, he went from 21 percent better than the league-average hitter in 2019 to 18 percent worse in 2020. His struggles were a season-long affair, ultimately culminating with him being benched for a six-game stretch in mid-September in favor of the red-hot Jared Walsh and the ever-present Albert Pujols.

Ohtani’s ability as a hitter was the one thing he had been able to reliably fall back on prior to this season, so seeing this dramatic of a shift in his performance was peculiar, to say the least. It was not unwarranted when you take a deeper look at his season, though, mainly due to the fact that the characteristics that made him such a great hitter to start his career suddenly started to move in a less favorable direction. For example, take a look at his quality of contact metrics by year:

 

Ohtani Quality of Contact Metrics, 2018-2020

 

Ohtani’s ability to hit the ball hard was his calling card as a hitter in his first two seasons, with his average exit velocity and hard-hit numbers ranking among the league’s best in both years. 2020 was a different story though, as these same figures saw a pretty significant step back from where they typically had been. These figures weren’t bad by any means (they all still ranked in the 55th percentile of hitters or better), and guys such as Jose Ramirez have had great success with quality of contact numbers similar or worse to the ones that Ohtani posted this season, but the amount that they fell off is still not ideal in the grand scheme of things.

How hard he hit the ball wasn’t the only uncharacteristic shift in Ohtani’s profile, though, as where he hit it looked noticeably different as well:

 

Ohtani Spray Chart, 2019 vs 2020

 

In 2018 and 2019, one of Ohtani’s biggest strengths at the plate was his ability to hit the ball hard all over the park. He ranked near the top of the league in the percentage of balls hit to the middle and opposite fields in both years, and his ability to make solid contact in those directions made him more shift-proof than most other hitters in the left-handed slugger archetype that he falls into.

This past season, though, Ohtani became much more pull-happy, hitting the ball to the right side 10 percent more than he did the year prior. On the surface, this change actually looks like a good one for someone like Ohtani, as pulling the ball more is oftentimes conducive to better power numbers. Where this got problematic for him, however, is in the fact that the contact he was making to the pull side wasn’t good contact, which can be seen in the same quality of contact metrics from earlier.

 

Ohtani Exit Velocity Spray Chart (mph), 2019 vs 2020

 

It is here where you can start to see the root of Ohtani’s struggles in 2020 pretty clearly. The fact that he started pulling the ball more isn’t a bad thing on its own, but doing so while also seeing a rather significant decrease in exit velocity on balls hit in that direction is a recipe for disaster. Opposing teams helped further exacerbate Ohtani’s issues once they caught on to these trends as well, as they took advantage of his newfound deficiencies by shifting against him a career-high 51.4 percent of the time, up drastically from the 34.2 percent mark against him in 2019.

 

Mechanical Failure

 

All of these numbers help to generally show the underlying factors behind Ohtani’s regression at the plate, but what they don’t explain is why his overall profile started to shift in this direction in the first place. These regressions seem rather spontaneous, after all, when you consider the almost 800 plate appearances of borderline-elite production that Ohtani recorded before 2020. It is entirely possible that his struggles were another byproduct of the small sample size weirdness caused by the pandemic-shortened season, but according to Ohtani himself in an interview with Japan’s Kyodo News back in November, there was something else at play that helped lead to his tough season at the plate.

 

“My mechanics were off. It felt like the best I could do was simply get a hit. I was happy to get one, but even when I did, there were few times when everything clicked. Home runs rarely feel like flukes, but that’s how they felt. Something felt wrong.”

 

According to the man himself, it was a mechanical issue at the heart of everything. This would certainly help to give an explanation as to why Ohtani’s 2020 season looked so different from any other one in his career thus far, and luckily for us, it’s not too hard to find what he might be referring to. Take this at-bat against Justus Sheffield in late August as an example:

 

 

When you watch all five of these pitches, the mechanical issue that Ohtani is referring to becomes pretty clear. His feet and hips start to open up toward the first-base line well before the pitch reaches the plate every time, resulting in a few ugly takes and some even uglier swings. By pulling his lower half off like this, the base of Ohtani’s swing was weakened to a great degree. Without his legs underneath him, he oftentimes defaulted to swinging primarily with his arms, which compromised his natural ability to drive the ball with force.

This can explain Ohtani’s drop in average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage very well, as without a strong foundation to his swing that he could consistently work with, he wasn’t getting into a position to make good, hard contact nearly as much as he did his first two seasons. The change in Ohtani’s spray chart also likely resulted from this mechanical issue, as lunging out over the plate to cover the outer half like he was doing often results in rolling over on balls and making weak contact to the pull side.

Compare those swings to this one a couple of weeks later, which Ohtani said came in one of the only plate appearances that he felt satisfied with all season in the interview from before, and you’ll see a stark difference between where Ohtani was for much of the season and where he needed to be.

 

 

This is a textbook example of a good Ohtani swing. His lower half stays quiet throughout the whole process, which provides him with a strong base to work with. From there, he is able to freely use his tremendous raw strength and bat speed to easily catch up to Adrian Morejon‘s 96 miles per hour fastball and drive it out to one of the deepest parts of Petco Park. When Ohtani is going right, most of his swings resemble this one, but these types of swings were far too scarce for him to have any level of consistent success last year.

 

Future Outlook

 

Due to the strange nature of the 2020 season, I’m more inclined to believe that the version of Ohtani that we saw at the plate is not the one that we will see in 2021 and beyond. He likely would’ve had ample time to find the mechanical issue that was plaguing him and deal with it accordingly had it been a normal season, but because there were so few games and the Angels were still not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention deep into September, he never got the regular playing time needed to make these adjustments down the stretch.

This issue is one that needs to be corrected before the season rolls around, though, or else he will likely face the same problems as he did in 2020. This shouldn’t be overwhelmingly difficult for Ohtani, however, given the fact that he shown the ability to make changes on the fly numerous times in his short career. In addition to this, he finally has had an offseason free of rehab from a major surgery, which should give him the opportunity to get his swing back to where it was in 2018 and 2019.

Things can only go up for Ohtani from here, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him re-establish himself as a superstar in the league in 2021 if he is able to make the necessary adjustments.

Photo Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)

Cole Bailey

Cole is a member of the Going Deep team at Pitcher List and a recent graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State. He is also a big fan of the Los Angeles Angels, and you can find him talking about them most of the time on Twitter @cgb123

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