Despite pitching in only 1 game this season due to injury, 22-year-old Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani will have teams lining up for his services whenever he decides to make the transition from the Pacific League to Major League Baseball. Ohtani is fresh off an MVP season where he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA as a pitcher, and hit .322 with 22 homeruns and 67 RBI’s as a designated hitter. Due to his comprehensive skill set, Ohtani has been widely regarded as the world’s best baseball prospect and has already been labeled as “the next Babe Ruth.”
While comparing a 22-year old who’s never pitched in the Big Leagues to the most dominant all-around player of all-time is far-fetched (and unfair), Ohtani excels in the two areas that currently dominate Major League Baseball – strikeouts (for pitchers) and homeruns (for hitters). I’ve often been asked 1) if I think Ohtani is capable of doing both when he comes to the Major Leagues, and 2) if not, whether his future is as a hitter or pitcher.
As the anticipation surrounding Ohtani has grown, more video of him has surfaced, allowing me to make realistic observations about his skill set and projectability. After having watched him both as a pitcher and hitter, I can say definitively that we are dealing with a once-in-a-generation type talent.
Today, I’ll breakdown Ohtani as a pitcher, while tomorrow, I’ll post my analysis of him as a hitter.
On the mound, Ohtani is most known for his power-arm. In 2016, Ohtani set a Japanese record the for hardest pitch ever recorded at 163 km/hr, translating to roughly 102.5mph. Ohtani himself believes that with a couple years of development, he’ll be able to hit 106mph.
But what truly sets him apart is his ability to command multiple pitches with pinpoint accuracy and devastating movement. According to one scout familiar with Ohtani, “I don’t think there are guys out there stuff-wise that match up with him, period. Guys that can consistently sit where he sits and flash two 70[-grade] off-speed pitches and a split and a changeup. Just to mess around with you, he’ll drop in a curveball every once in a while that he can throw for a strike. There’s feel, there’s power stuff. You just don’t see that type of ability. There might be guys with better command, but it’s really hard to say that there would be a guy with better stuff and the physicality this guy has to maintain it.”
Dave DeFreitas, who scouted Ohtani in Japan while working for the Indians and Yankees, described him on 2080 Baseball as a “Top-of-the-rotation guy with smooth, easy mechanics; has a chance for plus command of three plus pitches. Double-plus athlete that is still growing into his body and developing coordination. Has the makeup to go with the advanced skill set. Aggressive, will challenge; pounds the zone and locates to all quadrants with plus ability to put hitters away. Comfortable in high-profile position; big-game mentality, competitor; throttles up/back; shows the ability to win without his best stuff.”
As far as his repertoire goes DeFreitas states that Otani “throws a major league-ready splitter that looks like his dominant fastball out of his hand and comes at the batter on the same plane before bottoming out as it nears the plate at 86-91 mph. There’s also an 11-5 curveball he snaps off at 75-79 mph against both left- and right-handed hitters, which produces some of the ugliest swings you’ll see. And he throws a tight slider at 85-88 mph that he uses sparingly, which makes it all the more surprising. Otani has reportedly worked on a change-up as well after learning a grip from former MLB closer Trevor Hoffman during a trip to Arizona for Fighters spring training last year.”
When I watch Ohtani pitch, one name that instantly comes to mind is Josh Beckett. From body-type to mechanics, to repertoire, to mentality, and arm speed, everything I see out of Ohtani screams Beckett.
If we watch the two of them together, in sequence, we get a better view of how similar they are.
From the onset, both Beckett and Ohtani are very upright with a high glove set.
Both also have a similar leg-lift with the main difference being a slight internal turn with Ohtani’s lead-foot.
From there, it’s an extremely similar back leg drop-and-drive from both Beckett and Ohtani, to go along with the same arm action (path) and glove separation. Beckett remains slightly more closed with his front side, a byproduct of Ohtani’s body compensating for the slight internal rotation (to get square) on his leg-lift.
When the arm starts to come forward, the body alignment of both Beckett and Ohtani are nearly identical. Both are perfectly balanced and square to their target with the only significant difference being Beckett tucking his glove, potentially allowing for a more compact delivery.
Upon release, we see our first noticeable difference as Beckett possess a lower ¾ release (at that stage in his career) versus Ohtani being more over-the-top.
This got me thinking back to early in Beckett’s career when he possessed a north/south breaking ball similar to Ohtani’s. Sure enough, when I reviewed the film, we again see a strong similarity in release points between Beckett in 2003 and Ohtani, which would further explain the similarities in breaking-ball movement.
On the follow through, we again see a nearly-identical finish, with the only exception again, being Beckett’s ability to stay tighter with his glove. As scary as it is to say, Ohtani’s glove placement before and after release suggest a slight inefficiency in failing to fully drive through with his glove-side.
While the photos at each phase of the pitching motion show distinct similarities, perhaps the most significant similarity between the two is their arm-speed or “whip”. Generally speaking, guys who throw as hard as Beckett or Ohtani, have to utilize every ounce of strength and momentum to do so, creating a “max-effort” pitching style. Beckett and Ohtani, on the other hand, combine flawless mechanics with a naturally quick arm to produce their velocity. Doing so limits the amount of stress and strain on the elbow and shoulder, giving us a good idea of how someone like Beckett (or Nolan Ryan) threw so hard, for so long.
Given Ohtani’s sound mechanics and massive frame (6’4”, 225 lbs), there’s no reason to believe that he can’t produce a career similar to, if not better, than Beckett. That, in itself, would be more than enough for MLB teams to grovel over. However, as I’ll dive into tomorrow, this is just half of the story as Ohtani’s swing shows just as much potential, if not more, than his pitching motion.