Shohei Ohtani is an anomaly. You probably don’t need me to tell you that if you’re reading this so I won’t drone on and on about how he’s two great players in one body. Instead, I’ll tell you about how he’s more like three great players in one body. Ohtani has undergone a stunning transformation as a pitcher since coming to MLB. It’s the kind of overhaul that some pitchers simply don’t have the aptitude for. He’s added new pitches, modified existing ones, and integrated some spin manipulation. He’s tried nearly every trick in the ever-expanding book. Let’s take a trip through recent history and look at how he’s changed over the years.
Remember the spectacle of Ohtani’s rookie season? All the hype he had and it somehow managed to undersell his talents. Ohtani worked his way to a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts before being shut down from pitching with an arm injury that would eventually need Tommy John surgery to correct. He got to that number with a (relatively) simple pitch mix. He led with a 4-seam fastball thrown hard at 96.7 MPH but with unexceptional movement (16” IVB, -6.3 HB.) That movement coupled with his somewhat generic release point led to it getting hit harder and more often than you’d expect. That wasn’t the pitch people should have been fawning over.
Instead, that attention should have gone to his utterly devastating splitter. The only way to describe its effect on hitters would be decimation. They whiffed more than half the time. Would you care to guess how many positive results came out of 96 swings taken at it? Just two. Two hits. It was untouchable. Next up, he threw a sweeper. Think of it as the original version of the one he throws now. 81.5 mph, 2” IVB, and 15.1” HB. A good pitch, but there was more coming. Lastly, he occasionally flipped in a slow curve. Typically used to try to catch a hitter off balance, the movement of this kind of curve usually doesn’t matter too much as long as there’s not a serious lack of it. He was hardly in that boat, twirling it to the tune of -15.1” IVB and 11.1 HB. That creates a gorgeous rainbow of a curveball that can work in moderation despite the lack of velocity.
That was who he was as a rookie. His identity as a pitcher. A hard-throwing starter with a splitter that crushes souls, and two breaking balls that were both solid if not mind-blowing. This is a great arsenal – not quite a frontline starter’s toolset but easily above average. Before we get to the ace he’s become today, we briefly have to touch on the dark times.
2019 and 2020
2019 was a totally lost year on the mound for Ohtani. The aforementioned Tommy John surgery took its mandatory year to recover from for pitchers. While he played a partial season as a hitter and did quite well, that’s not the half of him we’re talking about. 2020 was somehow worse. His famous velocity was gone. He was throwing with everything he had and mostly not even managing to hit the speeds he used to sit at. Some of them were dipping below 90. It was a far cry from the phenom who set the NPB record* for the fastest pitch ever thrown at 102.5 mph. All of the worries and doubts that he could do it all and be the trailblazer we hoped he could be seemed to be validated when he was shut down from pitching with a flexor strain. This was another concerning arm injury, especially coming in the recent wake of his elbow surgery.
Now, three years removed from this nightmare, we know how this story has progressed. We know he recovered and turned into who he is today. There’s a temptation to just throw this year where he played hurt away; however, there were two substantial changes made during this time that still exist in the way he pitches today. His fastball spin efficiency cratered. While his spin rates were largely the same, the movement on his fastball was different. We don’t have exact spin activity numbers from before 2020, but I can estimate that he was around ~90% in 2018**. In 2020 that dropped to 76%. What was once very average fastball movement dropped to 14.4” IVB, and -2.6 HB. This is somewhat unique but not quite an outlier. Secondly, his mechanics changed a bit. He gained, and has retained, some extension on his release, especially on his non-fastball pitches which had previously not been released in sync with his fastball’s extension.
So what is a struggling pitcher to do? Missing his velocity and frustrated with his performance, he knows his potential and talent are still there. He just needs help to unlock it. Recognizing this, he goes to Driveline. If you’re not familiar, Driveline Baseball is an independent baseball development program that has become synonymous with sudden improvements in performance from players. Given a player with Ohtani’s talents and work ethic to spin gold with, it should come as no surprise that they helped to mold Ohtani into a dominant ace.
As is the case with many of Driveline’s clients, Ohtani’s velocity saw a significant uptick. Some of this may have been related to him getting further removed from his injury woes, but he’s said his mindset changed during this process. He changed his workout regimen and diet, bulking up an extra 15 lbs of muscle. He went after every aspect of his craft with a data-driven approach and the results have been plain to see. His average fastball bumped back up to 95.6 mph. As was mentioned earlier, his spin efficiency was still low, but the missing movement didn’t result in a particularly big change in results on the pitch. It was still good, but perhaps its success was due to the addition of his new secret weapon. Ohtani debuted a cutter in 2021. An 87 MPH offering with 4.0” IVB and 3.5” HB. This pitch was a good, but imperfect, addition to his arsenal as it created a bridge between his fastball and sweeper.
The main drawback to sweepers is that they don’t fit in every arsenal. Sometimes they stick out too much and are recognizable to hitters, leading to fewer chases and whiffs. This was an issue for Ohtani, as the movement and velocity separation between his old sweeper and fastball was less than ideal in 2018. His whiff rate on the pitch went down at first, though this may have been due to an improved scouting report on him as well as his aggression with the pitch in the zone. It also may have been because the pitch was too close vertically and velocity-wise to the new cutter. That’s why I specifically called it an imperfect addition. At their extremes, the pitches started to blend together which, despite my calling it a bridge pitch, is actually a bad thing. It’s a thin line to walk between too distinct and too similar. This was far from the end of the changes he’d make, however. While 2021 was the year he broke baseball and won MVP, 2022 was the year he ascended into truly one of the best pitchers in baseball.
This was a borderline Cy Young Award-caliber season from Ohtani. However, he had the misfortune of doing it the same year as some other incredible pitching performances. This was the second straight season where he was holding hitters near the Mendoza Line. To go with it he lowered both his walk rate and the quality of the batted balls. He got there through some surprisingly uncomplicated decision-making. He looked at the previous season to see what worked and decided he would do more of that.
Like it was for many other pitchers, this was the year of the sweeper for Ohtani. He started throwing it harder, a full three ticks on average, up to 85.3 MPH. It also gained a bit of rise, up to 5” IVB. Rising sweepers are such a unique and devastating pitch. They’re capable of missing bats and inducing weak contact. Generally, the more power they have, the better. Ohtani started throwing his sweeper 37.4% of the time, replacing the fastball as his primary pitch. He also started throwing the cutter harder, which mostly eliminated that blending problem he had the previous season. This further helped his sweeper to become the dominant pitch it is now.
Like the cutter and sweeper, the fastball also found some extra velo, up to 97.3 mph on average. No, seriously, he was throwing even harder than he did as a rookie. This despite that number also reflects the fact that Ohtani is one of the foremost users of the “saving bullets” tactic we’ve seen pitchers start to use more in 2023. The basic concept is that you don’t throw as hard as you can with every single pitch. Rather, you conserve your energy for big moments and high-leverage situations where you need to be at your very best. One of the hardest-throwing starters in the league… and he wasn’t even pushing for it. Speaking of the fastball, somewhere along the way he developed a new one. This particular pitch might be one of the most ridiculous things Ohtani has done in his career.
2022 PitchingNinja Award for In-Season Pitch Design. 🏆
Winner: Shohei Ohtani & his 100mph Sinker pic.twitter.com/NX35wQNTSZ
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) December 6, 2022
While I can’t confirm that this was the actual reason Ohtani started throwing a sinker, it’s really funny so I’d like to believe that it is. After years of only ever throwing a 4-seam fastball, Ohtani suddenly debuted a double-plus sinker out of thin air. A 97.2 mph turbo runner with 6.7” IVB, and -16.2” HB, from a release height of 5.85 ft. That is an outstanding shape that he frankly had no business pulling out of his hat considering his original strengths as a pitcher.
It makes a bit more sense when you consider his spin activity drop after 2018. It’s possible that his mechanical change also affected how he released the ball. Despite the common practice of pitchers throwing two kinds of fastballs, it’s pretty rare for a pitcher to have both of them be good in a vacuum. While Ohtani’s 4-seam doesn’t have traditionally elite traits anymore, it’s still highly effective. It’s hard to get a great read on it from its average movement though, as that also includes the times that he cuts it because, of course, that’s also something he can do.
One last thing to touch on from this season– Ohtani started occasionally working in a slider that was distinct from his sweeper. It was tilted down the axis quite a bit while maintaining otherwise similar spin activity, giving the pitch tremendous depth for a mid-80s breaking ball. He only threw it 67 times and he’s used it just once so far in 2023 but it’s worth noting that he does have another breaking ball in his back pocket.
We’ve reached the present day. Looking at where we were five years ago, there are flashes of what he would eventually become; however, the current iteration is excellent in a way we couldn’t have predicted. Endlessly tinkering, even after his best season as a pitcher he made a few more changes.
He changed his mechanics a bit– lowering his arm slot slightly causing a lower and wider release point on average. The more notable thing to come from that is that his release points across the pitch types are closer together than they used to be. Hitters are so observant that what seems like a microscopic difference to us watching from home can be a way for them to be able to tell what pitch is coming. This has changed his stuff a bit as well. His sweeper is no longer one of those super unique rising ones, instead chasing extra horizontal break at the cost of a bit of that rise and velocity. The results of this change are still a bit too new to judge for certain, but it’s playing slightly less elite than it was last year. It’s still an excellent pitch, it’s just giving up contact that is a bit worse than it was previously.
|Ohtani’s Sweeper (2022)||Ohtani’s Sweeper (2023)|
|Movement Metrics||85.3 MPH, 5” IVB, 14” HB||83.5 MPH, 2.6” IVB, 17.3” HB|
Perhaps the strangest thing to come from all of the developments he’s made is that he’s put the splitter on the back burner. Yeah, that 80-grade pitch that was nigh unhittable is only thrown 6.3% of the time now. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Perhaps he blames it for his injuries? Splitters do have a reputation for causing injuries whether it’s warranted or not. Furthermore, it’s possible that he doesn’t trust his command with it. What might be crazier is that he doesn’t even need the pitch anymore. It’s still excellent but his other pitches have developed enough that it doesn’t matter that he barely throws it now. His fastball misses more bats now than it ever did before. He has a monstrous sweeper that breaks nearly a foot and a half on its curving path to the plate. A cutter that he can land back door against lefties for called strikes or utilize to set up the sweeper. A sinker that would be the best fastball in a lot of pitchers’ arsenals that he only uses to tie up righties. He still has that big curve he tosses in on occasion. He has the kitchen sink approach despite also having two clear favorite pitches. It’s an embarrassment of riches having five unique pitches that could be categorized as plus. Not bad for a guy who came into the league only throwing four pitches total.
What Comes Next?
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what’s left for him to try. He could see about getting the rise back into his sweeper but I’m not sure there’s much point, it’s still an elite pitch. He doesn’t need to do anything to his fastball, it’s playing better than it ever has despite its odd movement profile. All that’s left is to try to get better command of his pitches. That’s largely his only weakness as a pitcher. He walks hitters and misses his spots more than you’d hope at times. It rarely makes a difference though as his stuff is so dominant. So what does he do next? Looking at his track record, I have no doubt he’ll find some new way to surprise us yet again.
*This was the record at the time, it has since been broken by Thyago Vieira
**This is based on how the baseballs have moved on pitches in recent years. It was slightly different in 2018 compared to now, so this estimate may be slightly high