Shohei Ohtani is amazing. In 49 1/3 innings on the mound this year, the 24-year-old rookie owns a 3.10 ERA and a 30.5% strikeout rate, a number that, among starters with at least 40 innings pitched, ranks ninth in baseball. In addition, the two-way star has been his team’s second-best hitter, putting together a .268/.348/.523 line and a 138 wRC+ (where 100 is average) that puts his bat in the same company as players like Jose Altuve, Giancarlo Stanton, and Bryce Harper.
Suffice it to say that Ohtani has found a way to meet and surpass the immense expectations that followed him to Major League Baseball. Due to an elbow issue, however, Ohtani has not pitched since June and has thus only been able to hit since being cleared to do so in early July. Therefore, because he is hitting almost every day, Ohtani is accumulating more plate appearances than he otherwise might have been expected to before the season started.
This extended look at Ohtani’s bat means that opponents have had plenty of time to identify his weaknesses and adjust accordingly, but it also means that Ohtani has had ample opportunity to counter his opponents’ moves.
When Ohtani first made his move to MLB, the early scouting reports out of Japan said to pound him with fastballs on the inside part of the plate, and that’s exactly what MLB pitchers did. Through the end of April, nearly half of the pitches that Ohtani saw were on the inner third of the plate or off of it, more than any other left-handed hitter. The problem for Ohtani’s opponents was that it didn’t work.
Near the end of a Spring Training that saw him collect just four hits across 32 at-bats, Ohtani scrapped the leg kick from his game and replaced it with a simpler toe-tap timing mechanism that allowed him to more easily catch up to the hard, inside pitches that he was so often faced with. At the end of the season’s first month, Ohtani had a blistering .341/.383/.682 (185 wRC+) line.
By pounding Ohtani with inside pitches, opposing teams thought they were exploiting his biggest weakness, but, with one seemingly minor tweak, he had turned his biggest weakness into his biggest strength, and the opposition was playing into it; he hit .364 and slugged .773 on the pitches that were supposed to give him the most trouble in his first month.
But then, opposing pitchers adapted their approach against Ohtani. To them, it may seem that Ohtani over-adjusted to the inside pitch. Selling out solely for that pitch has left him vulnerable to pitches on the outside part of the plate and off of it. He has still crushed middle-away pitches to the tune of a .360 batting average and an astronomical .880 slugging percentage, but he has struggled greatly with pitches on the outside corners.
At the end of April, only 14.5% of the pitches that Ohtani had seen were low and away. Since then, that number has nearly doubled, to 27.3%. On such pitches, Ohtani is batting a mere .214 with one extra-base hit and 19 strikeouts. He does not see nearly as many up-and-away pitches (15.7%), but he is hitting just .125 with zero extra-base hits and nine strikeouts against them. Moreover, only about a third of the pitches Ohtani has seen since the start of May have been inside.
Ohtani also adjusted, however.
Above is a plot of the strike zone that shows Ohtani’s swing rate broken down by the location of the pitch. The strike zone is divided into nine areas, and you’ll notice that Ohtani’s lowest swing rate in the zone is in the up-and-away corner and that his swing rate against pitches located on the low-and-away corner is tied for his second-lowest. Ohtani knows that he struggles with those pitches, so, instead of altering his swing to account for these deficiencies and potentially lessening his ability to hit other pitches, he simply opts not to swing at them.
On the other hand, he attacks every other pitch in the zone with a high frequency because he crushes them. When he makes contact with either an up-and-away strike or a low-and-away strike, he owns a .185 weighted on-base average. When he hits any other pitch in the zone, that number is .421.
This selectivity is why Ohtani’s numbers have not been severely affected by opposing pitchers’ adjustments and also why he consistently squares the ball up. Ohtani’s 10.2% soft-contact rate is the fifth-lowest in the majors (minimum 240 plate appearances). Furthermore, among players who have put at least 120 balls in play, he has barreled the ball at the 12th-highest rate (9.3% of plate appearances) while accumulating the 16th-best average exit velocity (92.3 mph).
He is also less likely to chase an outside pitch that is off the plate than one that is inside and off the plate. This paired with the fact that Ohtani is seeing many more outside pitches than he was is why his plate discipline numbers have improved considerably since his first month.
Through April, Ohtani’s chase rate was at 42.4%, a well above-average rate. Since then, he has chased only 29.3% of pitches that are outside of the zone, a number that is around the league average. Subsequently, his walk rate is up over five percentage points in that span and now sits at a solid 10.5% on the season.
For a more clear visualization of Ohtani’s adjustments, we can take a close look back at a few of his plate appearances. This first one is from May and against the Yankees’ Luis Severino, who Ohtani took deep on an inside fastball in April.
With that home run undoubtedly on his mind, Severino started Ohtani with a slider away that Ohtani watched go by for ball one.
Severino then went with a changeup on the low-and-away corner for a called strike.
On a 1-1 count, Severino tried to go back to the slider away, but he missed down and in the middle of the plate. Ohtani was, again, not tempted.
Severino’s 2-1 pitch was–you guessed it–aimed at the low-and-away corner. This time it was a fastball, and–you guessed it–Ohtani didn’t swing.
The fifth pitch of the plate appearance was another low-and-away fastball that caught the zone for a… called strike.
With the count full, Severino again attempted to drop in a back-door slider on the low-and-away corner, but he missed inside, and Ohtani headed to first, having earned a walk without offering at any of the six pitches he saw.
This plate appearance against Severino was not an isolated event, either. It’s just how opposing pitchers attack Ohtani now, because it is just about the only way they can. Take this one against the Padres’ Craig Stammen from just last week, which also resulted in a free pass, for example:
Stammen’s second pitch, a slider, was the only one intended to be on the inside part of the plate. The third pitch was the only one Ohtani swung at (he missed), and it was in a part of the zone that he hits .313 in. Plate appearances like these two exhibit opposing pitchers’ altered attack plan against Ohtani and help explain Ohtani’s aforementioned improvement in plate discipline.
Lastly, here’s a May plate appearance against the Rays’ Blake Snell, a lefty, that demonstrates Ohtani’s advanced pitch recognition as well as any of his plate appearances:
Snell’s first four pitches were away. Two were strikes, but both were in areas of the zone that Ohtani struggles with. He didn’t swing at either. Catcher Wilson Ramos then set up for a low-and-away fastball, but Snell missed up and inside, and Ohtani fouled it off, his first swing of the at-bat. Snell’s sixth pitch was an outside fastball that missed and ran the count full. On a 3-2 count, Snell missed his low-and-away target again, and Ohtani swung for the second time, lining a double to the left-center field gap.
It was the ideal at-bat for Ohtani. His opponent tried to attack his biggest weakness, but Ohtani didn’t bite on any of the pitches that ended up where Snell wanted them to. He did, however, offer at both of the pitches that he could handle, and he smacked an extra-base hit to the outfield.
It was a perfect demonstration of what makes Ohtani so good. He knows which pitches he can hit and which he can’t, which forces the opposing pitcher to be nearly perfect. If they aren’t, as Snell learned, Ohtani will take advantage.
Lefties like Snell have caused Ohtani problems, though. He often finds himself on the bench against southpaws and when he does crack the lineup against one, he does not generally find much success.
While Ohtani has run up a .304/.378/.627 (172 wRC+) line against right-handed pitching, he is hitting just .169/.269/.237 (47 wRC+) versus lefties. Against righties, Ohtani is like MVP candidate Jose Ramirez. Against lefties, he is closer to the feeble Alcides Escobar, baseball’s worst qualified hitter this season.
The difference, as seen below, appears to be a result of lefties exploiting his weaknesses better. Here, the at-bat against Snell, in which the lefty thrower missed his spot multiple times, looks like an outlier.
According to these two heatmaps, left-handed pitchers have been more definitively emphasizing the low-and-away corner that Ohtani struggles so much with, while righties have been more erratic. Some disparity in performance is to be expected, but, because left-handed pitchers have not allowed him to mask his weaknesses as easily as right-handed pitchers, Ohtani has been a near non-factor against lefties and thus, more or less, relegated to a platoon role.
Every pitcher thought they had Ohtani figured out before he even appeared in a major-league game. But they didn’t. Then, a month into his rookie season, they adjusted and, again, thought they had him figured out. But they didn’t. Now, left-handed pitchers think they have him figured out. And they do. But Ohtani has already countered more than one of his opponents’ moves, so, as he gains more exposure to left-handed pitching, he will almost assuredly find a way to become a threat against southpaws. Because, after all, Shohei Ohtani is amazing.
Featured image via MLB.com.