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How Shohei Ohtani evolved into an ace after a disastrous start at Yankee Stadium

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About 11 months ago, Shohei Ohtani rode into Yankee Stadium as the biggest, best story in baseball. He was fulfilling or exceeding the wildest expectations for his two-way stardom and rampaging toward an MVP season. On June 30, in the finale of the series, he would be the starting pitcher — a modern-day Babe Ruth taking the mound not in the House that Ruth Built, but in its successor.

His outing lasted less than an inning, and marked the low point of a stratospheric season.

Ohtani issued walks to the first three hitters and singles to the next two before finally securing a strikeout and a groundout. He got to 0-2 on Clint Frazier before plunking him. Then his control evaporated again and he walked Brett Gardner on four pitches. Joe Maddon came to get him as a stunned crowd flecked with Ohtani jerseys considered, in hushed tones, whether they even wanted to see the rest of the game.

When the inning was finally over, his line read: 2/3 IP, 2 H, 7 ER, 4 BB, 1 HBP, 1 K. It was the worst start of his major-league career. At the time, it catapulted his ERA from 2.58 to 3.60.

That disastrous evening — for Ohtani, the Angels actually wound up staging a furious comeback and winning in a cosmically backward turn of events — didn’t derail his MVP campaign. But it does appear to have spurred major changes that have made him a better pitcher. When he takes the mound in Yankee Stadium again on Thursday afternoon, he will be a more realistic contender to compete for MLB’s other major award, the Cy Young.

Shohei Ohtani didn't make it out of the first inning in his start against the Yankees on June 30, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Shohei Ohtani didn't make it out of the first inning in his start against the New York Yankees on June 30, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

A new version of Ohtani

When he arrived in the big leagues, we knew Ohtani threw a fastball in the upper 90s and a devastating splitter. We also quickly learned his slider was a weapon. But the eye-popping pitches were prone to wildness. He quickly fell into the archetype of a starter with such good stuff it was hard to control. These are your 11 strikeouts in 5 innings types. They can be fun to watch. They can be infuriating to watch. And either way, they rack up pitch counts so quickly that they often have to exit before really factoring in the outcome.

Ohtani's 2021 start at Yankee Stadium was the worst-case scenario version of that.

As the demoralized crowd waited for a very tall relief pitcher named Aaron Slegers to warm up in Ohtani’s wake, the high entertainment stakes of every Ohtani pitching game were put in sharp relief. The best thing about Shohei Ohtani is everything, and the worst thing is when one piece of his all-encompassing game falters and shuts it all down.

Now, I can’t say for sure whether any of the MLB officials who eventually proposed and enacted the “Shohei Ohtani rule” — which allows two-way players to continue hitting after exiting the game as a pitcher — were on hand that night, but it sure seems likely, right? If Ohtani stumbles in a start now, it’s still not ideal, but he can remain in the game on the hitting side of things.

Some might find it an overly tailored bending of the rules, but for entertainment factor, it’s an elegant solution.

Ohtani, though, didn’t wait for MLB to solve it. Through that deflating two-out performance, he had averaged a hair over 4 2/3 innings per start. Since then? He’s going 6 innings per start.

Unsurprisingly, he has done it by cutting way, way back on walks. In his first 24 American starts, he walked 13.4% of the batters he faced. In the 19 starts since last year’s New York debacle, he has walked only 4.2% of them.

It’s a complete reversal of his place on the leaderboards — and one that has buoyed his overall performance, too. The wilder Ohtani was certainly exciting, and the results were serviceable: His 3.97 ERA was 8% better than league average, by park-adjusted metrics. But the new, strike-throwing Ohtani can reasonably be called an ace, one the Angels desperately need. He has a 3.06 ERA since that Yankee Stadium start, which is 25-percent better than league average.

And the changes seem to stem from a tweak made immediately following that game.

Ohtani goes further by pitching slower

That Ohtani fastball remains extremely fast, averaging 97 mph this season. But it has never been his most reliable pitch.

Conventional wisdom would say the fastball is the easiest pitch to command, the one a pitcher should lean on when he really needs to throw a strike, in counts that favor the hitter. Like most conventional wisdom, this just doesn’t seem to apply to Ohtani.

Between the horror start and his next game — a 7-inning, 2-run win over the Boston Red Sox — Ohtani inserted his cutter into the repertoire in a big way.

Shohei Ohtani's 2021 pitch mix by game. The cutter re-entered the picture more consistently after his tough start in New York. (Courtesy Baseball Savant)
Shohei Ohtani's 2021 pitch mix by game. The cutter re-entered the picture more consistently after his tough start in New York. (Courtesy Baseball Savant)

It’s probably easiest to think of it as a fallback option. The pitch goes a little slower, and because of its darting movement, may feel a little more comfortable to whip into the heart of the plate. For the rest of the 2021 season, he leaned into that pitch as a lifeline when his fastball command wasn’t working, or generally when he needed a strike.

The 2022 season has seen him take a slightly different tact, but the four-seamer is still taking a diminished role. Instead, he’s following a widespread MLB trend and just hurling his slider more, even in hitter’s counts.

In that Yankees start and prior, Ohtani was throwing his four-seamer in 68.6% of hitter’s counts. Since that start, he has thrown it in only 42.4% of hitter’s counts. The fastball is still the most common pitch, but he’s also using the slider a whopping 32.7% of the time (a greater share than it has in his overall mix), and the cutter about 19% of the time.

When hitters think they can key in on the fastball and do damage, he will deploy the cutter and throw them off just enough. Other times, he will just keep pumping sliders. Opposing hitters are batting just .149 with a .234 slugging percentage against it in 2022.

So they’re going to see it more. And for more innings. And they will lament it alone, as everyone else cheers the newfound durability of the Shohei Ohtani experience.

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