Shohei Ohtani Would Be a Nightmare Matchup for Shohei Ohtani
The one pitcher the Los Angeles Angels' power-hitting rookie sensation might struggle against the most is himself.
Photos by EPA-EFE/Mike Nelson
Shohei Ohtani and literally Babe Ruth. Three-hundred plate appearances and 10 starts into his Major League Baseball career and George Herman Ruth, the Sultan of Swat himself, is the only point of reference for what the Los Angeles Angels' right-handed pitcher—and left-handed batter—has done so far.
Ohtani came over from Japanese professional baseball amidst a cacophony of hype, only to have the 24-year-old nearly exceed it in the season's opening months. He can smash home runs to the deepest part of any park as a hitter and throw 100 miles per hour as a pitcher. The Angels all but won the won the lottery—again.
Until, of course, injuries kept Ohtani off the mound for much of the season. Tommy John surgery is now likely to repair a tear in his elbow, which would spell the end of the "two-way" aspect of this "two-way phenomenon" until 2020.
His time off the mound adjusted the media feeding frenzy around Ohtani from "generational two-way freak of nature" buzz to "rookie DH with serious pop." As news of his arm injury broke, Ohtani continued posting preposterous numbers in his rookie campaign, smacking 20 home runs and damn near putting up a .300/.375/.600 slash line with a few weeks left in his first MLB season. So, Manny Machado but with more power, or Jose Ramirez but with a lower walk rate.
Productive as Ohtani's been, he's still learning on the job. Like most big leaguers, he's vulnerable to pitchers with good changeups and the ability to bury sliders under his hands, especially when paired with elite velocity. It especially leaves him vulnerable to one pitcher, specifically: Shohei Ohtani.
Based on his (limited) track record, Ohtani the pitcher represents the perfect weapon to retire Ohtani the hitter. That duality is what made the total package so alluring for every team in baseball in the first place. With at least a full year until we see him face big league hitters again, now is the time for a thought experiment: How would Ohtani the pitcher attack Ohtani the hitter?
The Book on Ohtani (the hitter)
To say Ohtani is unique is an understatement, but the way he approaches every plate appearance certainly stands out. Few hitters in the game today, if any, boast his brand of prodigious power to the middle of the field. No hitter, by a shocking margin, can claim better numbers when hitting the ball to center field.
The Angels' DH relies on his pitch recognition and preternatural reflexes to wait, driving fastballs the opposite way while using the big part of the field to corral breaking balls. He rarely pulls the ball with authority, instead waiting back to do his damage (though he had no problem turning on a 97-mph fastball from Luis Severino earlier in the season.)
Ohtani happily rides high fastballs out to center field, or he will stay back even longer and deposit it into the cheap seats in left, his opposite field.
What we don't often see the Angels slugger do, something very common among just about every other power hitter in baseball, is pull the ball with authority. His second dinger in the below clip is a no-doubter to right center, as he still uses the middle of the field on a ball he could easily attempt to pull down the line.
The one hole in the big 6'4" lefty's game is strikeouts. Ohtani's strikeout rate is nearly 30 percent, making him one of the 30 or so more whiff-prone hitters in the game. Good sliders are his main nemesis, with those thrown inside, under his hands and toward his back foot, giving him the most trouble.
The below heat map (from the catcher's perspective) shows his tendency to swing and miss at sliders from right-handed pitchers.
The Book on Ohtani (the pitcher)
In a nutshell, Ohtani brings the heat, with a fastball that touches triple digits, giving him one of the highest average velocities among starters this year. He complements that high octane (but straight) fastball with a sweeping slider and his mind-bending splitter, which dives down and away from left-handed batters, generating terrible swings by the hatful.
Ohtani also offers a much slower "show me" curveball, a pitch he can use to steal a strike or two from hitters geared up for his big time velocity. Below is his pitch usage against left-handed hitters this season, via Brooks Baseball.
In just ten starts this season, at least three of which were hampered by injuries, Ohtani managed a 3.31 ERA, striking out 30 percent of the hitters he faced by fanning 63 batters in 51.2 innings. He allowed six homers in those ten starts, just one coming off the bat of a left-handed hitter.
At his best, Ohtani generates swinging strikes with his splitter, his "putaway pitch" when ahead in the count, especially the first time through the order. He then works off that pitch, using his slider and, later in games, his fastball spotted down and away for called strikes against hitters expecting that splitter to dive under the strike zone.
To envision just how this magical encounter might go, let us look to recent history. A decent Ohtani hitter proxy exists in the form of Matt Olson, first baseman for the Oakland A's. While Olson isn't quite the same calibre hitter as Ohtani (who is?!), he looks the part and puts up numbers similar to those the Angels' star rookie boasts this year.
Olson hits the ball hard at a similar rate to Ohtani (often) and uses the opposite field regularly. Unlike Ohtani, Olson is human. In this early-season matchup between the two, Ohtani's heat was on display, showing how his elite velocity lets him get to places other pitchers cannot.
There aren't many pitchers who throw this hard with the same type of splitter/slider mix. Masahiro Tanaka is another expert user of the splitter, but his velocity is a far cry from that of his countryman.
Justin Verlander is an imperfect but useful comparison for our purposes. Verlander doesn't use his changeup as a weapon the way Ohtani does, but the velocity and volume of head-to-head battles serves our specific, insane needs.
In an early-season matchup, Verlander struck out Ohtani three times, pounding the zone with fastballs until getting the strikeout with a well-placed curve down-and-in in the first plate appearance. Later in the game, his attack shifts, and two high fastballs register two more Ks for the Astros legend.
It's also worth noting that while Verlander has struck Ohtani out five times in 12 plate appearances, the Angels slugger has tagged the future Hall of Famer for two doubles and a home run already in his short career.
The At-Bat - First Pitch
As a pitcher facing left-handed batters, Ohtani loves to start hitters with his fastball, throwing it 50 percent of the time as his first pitch. Against a powerful lefty like himself, Ohtani will continually use his fastball to get above the hands while preventing the batter from extending his arms to access his power.
On the other hand, Ohtani as a hitter isn't afraid to let loose against first-pitch fastballs, and he's shown himself to handle high-end velocity with no problem. Given that Ohtani the batter is less willing to swing at curveballs earlier in the count, a first-pitch curve from Ohtani to Ohtani feels like the best option.
In for the Kill
If the first pitch is a strike, the next pitch is going to be a splitter. There will be no secret and no pretense, as Ohtani's splitter is the perfect weapon to wield in this moment. And wield it he does.
As a batter, other pitchers look to punish Ohtani's aggression with changeups in this situation, as well. It's the perfect storm and represents a massive advantage for the pitcher in our imaginary internal struggle.
If the pitch misses and Ohtani the batter can hold back his swing, the 1-1 count swings the advantage back in favour of his bat, as the pitch he sees (and throws!) is again likely to be a fastball. While Ohtani's splitter gives his pitching persona the advantage over the hitter within, his very straight fastball favours Ohtani the hitter, so any 1-1 heater needs to be well-located or you're running the risk of that baseball being sent into orbit. Preferably on the inside half of the plate, but not so far inside that the batter uses his lightning-quick hands to drive the ball to right field.
As the at-bat progresses, the more likely Ohtani the pitcher is to go back to his splitter, tipping the scales in favour of the hurler. He still has his slider to work in as well, putting Ohtani the hitter on the defensive.
Even with two strikes, against a big power hitter in our magical scenario, his fastball is in danger of being hit out of the park. A hanging slider is sure to be punished if left over the plate. If his splitter stays flat, it's also going for a ride.
The Payoff Pitch
Were we lucky enough to inhabit a metaphysical plane where Shohei Ohtani could be both pitcher and hitter in one single at-bat, and that at-bat results in a full count, we could experience the heat death of the universe. Or a home run if the pitcher threw a fastball over the plate.
Hitter Ohtani has decent numbers when the count runs full, with a double, home run and 14 walks in the 44 plate appearances that ended with a full-count pitch. As a pitcher, the opposite. Pitcher Ohtani really struggled in a tiny sample of full count at-bats, walking the yard and giving up two of his six home runs. Perhaps situations like that work against his wide-ranging pitch arsenal.
With the count 3-2, I'd advise Ohtani the pitcher to slip a slider past Ohtani the hitter, but one that's kept in the zone to avoid the walk. The chance to freeze up a hitter, as in his final start of 2018, is a risk worth taking.
All of this is to suggest that we are talking about a singular player with a skill set too good to be true. In his first year, with all the hurdles he had to face this season, he has wildly exceeded every expectation. At the plate, he's a phenom and the likely rookie of the year in the American League. So prolific has his hitting (and baserunning) been, the extent of his elbow injury has thrown his future as a pitcher into some doubt.
Even without the pitching aspect, Ohtani is a true wonder whose best days are only ahead of him, and we're all better for it. While our dream scenario is mere fantasy, baseball fans from Japan to California and all across the globe eagerly await Ohtani's return to the mound, where his full potential will be on display once again.
He could end up one of the best players in all of baseball, but for right now he'll have to settle for a once-in-a-century talent and this twisted version of "would you rather?"
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.