GIF Breakdown: Shohei Ohtani’s Spring Training Debut

Today brought me back to 2014, the first year of Pitcher List, known then as Pitcher GIFs.

It was the day Masahiro Tanaka made his first appearance in a Yankee uniform, tossing two shutout innings, three strikeouts, with only two baserunners and propelling his preseason hype.

I was as excited as any to see the Japanese import pitch on American soil, providing a GIF of each pitch he threw and giving our first ever post-game GIF Breakdown.

With Shohei Ohtani getting his first chance in the spotlight today, I had no choice but to do the same. Before his first pitch,= here is what we knew:

  • Fastball can touch 100
  • He comes paired with a fantastic splitter that will miss a ton of bats
  • Slider/Curveball combination as well that he throws with confidence

That was the word on the street before today, and here is what I saw in his 1.1 innings of work with a terrible camera angle from spring training:

First at-bat vs. Jonathan Villar

What you’re about to see is a common occurrence for an MLB pitcher debut. The goal for many in their first appearance – spring training especially – is to locate with fastballs early. Ohtani failed to do that, missing poorly with his first two pitches to Jonathan Villar:

Then after reaching 3-1 with another pair of heaters, he served up this meatball that Villar laced to center:

Maybe it should have been caught, but the ball was tatted. Look, this is spring training, where Ohtani’s 93-95mph with a touch of 97mph is most likely a little lighter than what we’ll see through the year. Double or out, this is what happens when a batter knows you’re trying to throw a fastball for a strike and has a sense of timing and getting an eye for the ball after four straight heaters. It’s not something to expect moving forward, but I can’t say I’m shocked this was the outcome.

Second at-bat vs. Nate Orf

Welcome to the big leagues Ohtani, as you finally get to face Nate Orf.

Ohtani started the at-bat with a fastball right down the middle for strike one, putting him in position to work his splitter into the mix. Thing is, the first two he threw weren’t all too good, leading to a 2-2 count:

Keep in mind, I could be wrong a bit in my pitch classification today. It’s an atrocious camera angle (should I expect better from the Angels?) and I’m obviously not as familiar with Ohtani’s repertoire like I am other starters, nor do I have PitchF/x to be diligent. I’m going on instinct here, and let me know if you think I got one wrong.

Back to it. This is spring training where pitchers are fine-tuning and willing to make questionable pitch calls for the sake of improving for the regular season. I’d imagine a splitter wouldn’t normally be thrown after missing with his previous one, but Ohtani wanted to get it right and it paid off for his first strikeout for the Angels:

That’s a very good pitch. It’s coming in relatively hard (upper 80s I’d imagine) and is dropping a ton when compared to the four-seamers thrown already. What separates it from the other two is how it wasn’t bounced, but still ending well below the zone (Note, he did gradually improve with each one). The best splitters are the ones that look like a strike the longest, and this was headed for the zone during about 95% of the pitch’s trajectory. I’m looking forward to making more GIFs of this pitch through the year.

Third at-bat vs. Ji-Man Choi

Well, this was a terrible at-bat, walking Ji-Man Choi on five pitches and four fastballs that weren’t close (was the sole strike even a strike?). Here’s a quick cut of all four heaters that missed the zone:

Maybe it’s a thing against left-handers that will be ironed out in spring training. Just keep that front shoulder closed for longer and life will be good. Not much more to say here. Ohtani was bad.

Fourth at-bat vs. Manny Piña

This was a long one against Manny Piña but it showcased some excellent offerings from Ohtani that would suggest he was getting into a rhythm…at least with his fastball. This could have ended plenty sooner if he hadn’t spiked a pair of what I’m assuming were splitters, or if Piña hadn’t fouled off a well executed very good 2-2 split, but Ohtani did a great job of nailing the inside corner with his fastball twice. The latter resulted in a pop-out behind home plate for the second out:

Alright, so if this fastball command sticks, we see more of the Orf splitter, we can see how this will work well. Now all we need are his slider & curveball to get involved for the hype to build.

Fifth at-bat vs. Brett Phillips

After getting ahead 0-0 of Brett Phillips with a fastball that was supposed to be outside, but hit the inside edge and fouled into catcher Martin Maldonado, Ohtani went into the well to finally show us a proper breaking ball:

It was a nice 69mph deuce that turned Phillips’ legs into jelly for an easy 0-2 count. This isn’t the best curveball I’ve seen, but it’s a great addition to the repertoire. If Ohtani is pumping 95+ with a splitter that falls off the table in the mid-80s and a slider closer to 80, this pitch will surprise a ton of batters gearing up for harder stuff. Don’t expect it often behind in the count, but I can plenty of 0-1 and two strike curveballs coming this year.

Now 0-2, Ohtani tried a splitter, but bounced it once again, making it an easy take from Phillips. Then he surprised me with what appeared to be a two-seamer traveling back over the plate to freeze Phillips and earn his second strikeout:

It looked a bit slower than his four-seamer, almost like it was a changeup even (maybe this was actually his splitter? I hate this camera angle so much.), but I’m going with a two-seamer that Ohtani put a little extra pressure on with his index finger to pull off velocity and add a touch more ride. I wonder if this is going to be a consistent approach this year – Maldonado was set up outside, after all – but it certainly worked here as Phillips had no reason to anticipate it.

One inning down, and I’m not totally sold. I can sense there’s a lot left to show off via his slider and the wonky command does seem temporary, but I was hoping to see a man ready from day one. That’s silly, I know. It’s just what I wanted, alright?

Sixth at-bat vs. Keon Broxton

Ohtani opened his second frame with a terrible fastball that got away from him up-and-in that silenced any applause for his fastball command:

That’s a terrible pitch. Not only does it show that he’s out of the rhythm he had begun forming in the previous inning, but it telegraphs to Broxton that he’s going to be focusing on not doing that again for the next few pitches. In other words, Broxton is now going to sit four-seamer until he has a two-strike count or is shown something else.

After grooving a heater down the middle that Broxton just missed and fouled back, Ohtani threw nearly the same pitch again right down Broadway and Broxton gave it a ride over the left-field wall:

Again, spring training and debuts will give batters an advantage of sitting on heat when ahead in the count, but there’s a sense that Ohtani’s four-seamer is much more hittable than most. I can’t put any stock in that from this spring training debut, that would be foolish. It will be something I’ll be looking at moving forward, though. It’s possible we’ll see him often get beat on fastball mistakes, more than we’d think given his elite velocity. It’s something to think about.

Seventh at-bat vs. Nick Franklin

In his final two pitches, Ohtani seemed to feature a pair of two-seamers that both ran back over the plate and they were okay. They could be four-seamers, it’s hard to tell, but both were supposed to end in and both leaked out over the plate:

Yes, it got the out in left-field, but I want to see a little more polish on his fastball. Franklin seemed to be looking away and made decent contact. Ohtani will need to locate this better in future outings.

Conclusion

I feel weird calling this section “conclusion” because I can’t make any proper assessments after just thirty pitches from Ohtani in his first game of spring training. That’s just wrong. What I can say is that I expect a touch more velocity than his 93-95 in future outings, and with better command than we saw today. Going deeper than 1.1 frames will also give him a chance to settle in and feature a more robust pitch mix. I do wonder how much weight will be put in Ohtani’s command through the season as his fastball wasn’t all too impressive in this performance. His splitter will be a huge part of getting batters of his four-seamer, and while each one he threw was located out of the zone, I wasn’t thrilled to see so many spiked and unconvincing to batters. We barely saw his breaking pitches, with just one curveball landing in for a surprise 0-1 strike. He may have thrown a slider today – it definitely wasn’t a good one if he did – and from what I understand, it’s a major part of Ohtani’s game, once again making this “conclusion” a bit silly.

In short, this was a small taste of Ohtani today. It wasn’t the massively impressive outing that we’ve had in the past, but there’s obviously a lot more to offer than we saw in thirty pitches.

Nick Pollack

Founder of PitcherList.com. Rotographs and Washington Post contributor and has worked with CBS Sports, Grantland, and SB Nation. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum.

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Comments


theKraken

Great idea, Nick! I didn’t watch the start but I got something even better in this breakdown. It’s too bad Ohtani didn’t cooperate – that is about as much of a buzzkill debut as you could ever hope for. He looked flat out rusty, which might be a product of 4 appearances last year and an off-season of rest as opposed to throwing. Nice work!

Chris Lambert

I think a lot of Otani’s struggles come from the latter portion of his mechanics. Everything looks good up until the foot plant. But it seems there’s a lot of variance after that. Sometimes he strides out far enough so that his timing with his hip rotation and upper body rotation is good (like the curveball to Phillips). Other times he plants too soon so his upper body drags behind his hips. Or he does some weird thing that I can’t even properly describe with the Keon Braxton pitch. It’s like his upper body lost all of its fast twitch ability.

Then he’s all over the place with his glove side. Which I’m a big proponent of the glove being a pitcher’s rudder. If you don’t control it, you’re going to go all over the place. If you keep it steady, everything goes how it should.

I expect these are things he’ll smooth out.

theKraken

Injured? Hard to imagine that he lacks repeatable mechanics at this point in his career. I agree that he is all over the place. He certainly doesn’t look comfortable.

Mark

Hey Nick, just so you know, I’m not seeing any GIFs in Chrome. I also tried Firefox and I’m not seeing them either.

Do you know of any fix to this issue? Love the site!

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