As dominant as Shohei Ohtani can be on the mound, his true calling may be with the bat

Yesterday, I dove into Shohei Ohtani’s skill set as a pitcher and how I view his floor (talent-wise) as a Josh Beckett-type. Today, I’ll look at Ohtani as a hitter to expose some of the things he does well in hopes of determining how his swing will translate to facing Major League pitching.

The first thing I notice about Ohtani is how physical he is for a 22-year-old. At 6’5, 220 lbs, it’s likely that Ohtani still has significant room for physical growth, which is downright scary given how hard and far he already hits the ball. But what stands out most about a hitter with his size and length is the fluidity with which he controls his body throughout the swing. Regardless as to whether it’s on the mound or with the bat, you rarely see Ohtani off balance or out of control – a rarity for a player his age and his size.

Up until a couple of days ago, the only video I had ever seen of Ohtani was of him pitching. I had heard rumors of people projecting him to be a better hitter than pitcher, which at first, sounded completely absurd given his brilliance on the mound. However, after watching him hit, I’m truly convinced that Shohei Ohtani can develop into one of the games more versatile power hitters. And when you combine that with his above average-speed, a 30 homerun, 30 stolen base-type season is certainly a realistic expectation.

When I watch Ohtani hit, the two hitters that come to mind in terms of swing similarities and body type are Cody Bellinger and Brandon Belt. Bellinger possesses extremely similar swing mechanics, while Belt and Ohtani have similar body types, both standing 6’4” and 220lbs.

As Giants (and baseball fans) well know, the Dodgers Cody Bellinger has taken the baseball world by storm. The rookie is currently 5th in all of Major League baseball with 35 homeruns despite spending the Dodgers’ first three weeks in the minor leagues.

While Bellinger isn’t the biggest or strongest guy in baseball, he possesses an extremely efficient swing that’s tailored to hit homeruns. Rather than relying on brute strength, Bellinger combines forceful lower-half momentum with upper body torque and tension to explode his barrel through the hitting zone on an uphill trajectory. While much flatter through the hitting zone, Ohtani generates power and bat speed in a much similar fashion.

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Although their starting points are different (Bellinger starts straight up with no negative movement while Ohtani has a high leg-kick), both players stride out to a very similar hitting position (as seen above). Bellinger and Ohtani are square to the pitcher with a solid, athletic foundation as illustrated by the vertical green line. Their hands are separated over the back foot, providing a short, but powerful bat-path directly into the hitting zone early.

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Upon their stride-foot heel plant (which serves as a catapult to transfer the momentum generated by the stride to the hands), we again see a perfect illustration of athleticism and balance while the ball is in flight.

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In the “barrel lag” phase of the swing, where the top of the bat is pointing directly back at the catcher, we again see just how strong of a hitting position Ohtani is in. Using Bellinger’s teammate Corey Seager (who I believe to have the most efficient-working lower half in baseball today), we see both hitters blocking off (with their front foot) all the momentum that is being generated through from the back-side. Often times, you’ll see hitters’ front foot leak open (as seen in the picture of Brandon Belt below), allowing much of the power generated in the “load” and the “stride” phases of the swing, to decrease.

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At the point of contact, Ohtani (below) is in a near-perfect hitting position.

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His back knee has fired against a stiff front side, keeping all the momentum and power in his lower half. His back elbow is connected to his side in a palm up/palm down position with a contract point out over his front foot. His eyes are down through the point of contact, and his upper half is working in a direct line over his back leg.

The main difference between the two is that while Bellinger is driving into his legs more than Ohtani, Ohtani is using his length and a firmly-grounded foundation to drive the ball.

Being able to swing the way Ohtani does for a man his size and length is extremely rare. If we circle back to Belt, who has an All-Star game to his name and has hit 17 or more homeruns in 4 of the last 5 seasons while playing half his games in the toughest park in baseball to hit homeruns, we are provided with a better example of just how special Ohtani’s swing is.

Using Belt’s swing for comparison, we may have a better understanding as to why a hitter like Belt struggles with consistency and pitch recognition whereas a hitter like Ohtani would be much more likely to excel in these areas.

In regards to pitch recognition, it’s obvious that the most critical aspect is the ability to see the ball from the pitchers’ release point all the way to the hitting zone. Once a pitch is recognized, the ability to make in-pitch swing adjustments is completely dependent on the hitters’ balance and athleticism. Without a solid foundation, the body can’t efficiently put itself in a powerful swing position to compensate the differing pitch types, speeds, and anticipated locations.

In this scenario, both Belt and Ohtani have a red circle over the head to establish sight line prior to the ball being released.

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If we move ahead to the “negative movement” or “load” phase of the swing, we see that not only had Belt’s head move significantly horizontally, it’s dipped vertically as well.

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Ohtani, on the other hand, has maintained the same vertical eye-level throughout his negative movement, with only a slight shift back, allowing his eyes to be much more efficient in terms of pitch recognition while the ball is in-flight.

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If we move ahead to the point of contact, we now see that Belt’s head has not only shifted again vertically, but it is also now out in front of his original head placement. This suggests that while the ball is in flight, Brandon Belt’s head is not only moving up and down, but also back and forth WHILE the ball is on its way to the plate. Ohtani stays within his original window, and had the pitch not been towards the bottom of the zone, his head would have stayed in roughly the exact same circle throughout the entire swing. Of all the film I’ve studied on hitters, the two who are comparable to Ohtani in terms of minimal head movement are Barry Bonds and Joe Mauer.

In addition to greatly impacting Belt’s ability to recognize pitches, his drastic movements also lead to an unathletic and unbalanced foundation to hit from – a critical component to hitting non-fastballs.

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In the leg-kick alone (above), Belt has established an uphill and open path with his front side, as evidenced by his leaked front foot (versus closed for Ohtani) and uphill hip-level (red line). Additionally, Belt’s weight has taken him out over his back foot which has overextended his hands (and therefore bat) whereas Ohtani has kept his weight on the inside part of his back knee and foot, creating proper separation from his hands and body.

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After the stride foot lands and the heel drives into the ground, we again see how much more athletic and level Ohtani is.

As complex as the photos look, the basics remain the same. If you’re eyes are moving while the ball is in flight, pitch recognition is impossible. If you’re body isn’t balanced while the ball is in flight, you can’t make in-pitch swing adjustments. Is you take a step back from the mechanics, just ask yourself who looks more balanced, athletic, and powerful?

The result of Belt’s swing in this picture, despite its inefficiencies, was a homerun early in 2017. I can only imagine that things break down even further when Belt’s swing is not going well. With Ohtani’s balance and swing mechanics, I don’t see him fighting the same inconsistencies as a hitter like Belt despite their similarities in size (and possibly even power potential). The overriding difference is that Ohtani plays to his strengths due to his consistent balance and athleticism whereas Belt’s power potential and consistency is limited due to his body and balance fighting poor mechanics.

Conservately, Otani should be able to use Belt’s ceiling as his floor, especially when you take away the AT&T Park factor. While that alone would be enough to entice every team in baseball, the fact that he possesses a Cy Young-caliber pitching arsenal will make him one of the most coveted free agents in baseball history.

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