Shohei Ohtani had a weird night in Baltimore on Monday, at times spectacular and at times unsettling. As a hitter, he went 4-for-5 with a huge three-run homer and three runs scored in the Angels’ 9-5 win. As a pitcher, he matched a career high by serving up three homers and allowing five runs in seven innings, continuing a string of shaky outings. One can’t blame the guy for having some mixed emotions.
Ohtani the pitcher was not at his best, yielding a two-run homer to Adam Frazier in the second inning, erasing a 1-0 lead. He walked Jorge Mateo to lead off the second inning, then allowed a two-run homer to Anthony Santander, costing him a 3-2 lead. By the time he got around to giving up his third homer of the night, he at least had a 9-4 lead and the bases empty in the fifth inning when Cedric Mullins took him over the wall; he would retire seven of the eight batters he faced after that to end his night on the mound.
That 9-4 lead owed plenty to Ohtani’s own swing of the bat. With the score still 4-4 in the fourth after back-to-back one-out singles by Taylor Ward and Mike Trout, the slugger annihilated a hanging curveball from Grayson Rodriguez:
That’s 114.9 mph off the bat, with a projected distance of 456 feet, either off the Boog’s BBQ sign or the gate to Eutaw Street just below it. It was Ohtani’s longest home run since a 462-footer last June 25 off the Mariners’ Logan Gilbert. Elsewhere, he walked and singled against Rodriguez, tripled off Logan Gillaspie, grounded out against Bryan Baker, and singled against Mike Baumann. He fell a double short of becoming the first starting pitcher to hit for the cycle but did become the first pitcher to reach base five times in a game since the Yankees’ Mel Stottlemyre went 5-for-5 against the Senators on September 26, 1964. When informed of that distinction, however, he was still focused on his rough night on the mound. Via MLB.com:
“I’m sure all those records come because the sample size is so small,” he said through an interpreter. “So I don’t really look too deeply into it. But today I had a bad beginning of the game, giving up those runs. So that was the thought about the game today.”
Including an 0-for-4 on Wednesday night, Ohtani the hitter is batting .288/.361/.528 for a 140 wRC+, in between his 2021 and ’22 marks (151 and 142, respectively). Ohtani the pitcher has a 3.23 ERA and a 4.23 FIP; the latter is the highest mark of his career if you exclude his 1.2-inning post-Tommy John surgery mess in 2020, and both figures are off last year’s marks (2.33 ERA and 2.40 FIP).
This year’s numbers are certainly respectable, but only because Ohtani was so stingy to start the season:
Shohei Ohtani’s Split Season, Part I
Through April 21
Since April 27
At the most basic level, the only thing Ohtani has done better over his last four starts than his first five is avoid walks. He’s given up a lot more loud contact:
Shohei Ohtani’s Split Season, Part II
Through April 21
Since April 27
The home runs particularly stand out, as last year Ohtani had the AL’s fifth-lowest rate among qualifiers, allowing just 0.76 per nine. Where he had previously given up homers in three straight starts three times (one in 2018, one in ’21, and one last year), the stretch since April 27 marks the first time that he’s ever given up homers in four straight; he’s served up eight in those 25 innings, which, yikes.
Prior to Monday night, he had given up three homers in a start only twice before. The first of those times also came against the Orioles at Camden Yards, on August 25, 2021, when Mullins, Santander, and DJ Stewart took him deep, while the second was on June 2 of last year at Yankee Stadium, when Matt Carpenter, Gleyber Torres, and Aaron Judge showed him the Bronx.
So, what’s behind this spate of homers? What stands out most is that five of the eight he’s allowed have come via his sweeper, the version of the slider that has become his go-to pitch (the other three have been spread between his cutter, sinker, and four-seamer). By comparison, batters hit just six of his sweepers for homers last year, and four in 2021.
Here it’s worth noting that only this year did Statcast begin including sweepers in its pitch classifications, doing so retroactively for breaking balls whose movement is more in the horizontal plane — often with more than a foot of break — than the vertical one, generally slower and with more break than the conventional slider. Statcast classifies a very wide range of Ohtani’s pitches as sweepers; for 2023 alone, their velocity is as low as 73.6 mph and as high as 88.2, with their spin rates ranging from 1,472 rpm (that one is probably an error, as it and only two others are below 2,238 rpm) and 2,862 rpm. His release point and movement vary as well, with the former ranging from 5.18 feet to 6.04 feet, and the horizontal movement ranging from eight to 25 inches glove side.
Some graphics via the Baseball Savant Illustrator:
I’m not going to quibble about whether some of these should be classified as traditional sliders, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that within the classifications there’s some ambiguity, along with the aforementioned variability. Here’s what his annual averages look like:
Shohei Ohtani’s Sweeper Specifications
% Vs Avg
% vs Avg
V Drop and H Break in inches.
While again remembering that we’re talking about wide ranges, the average Ohtani sweeper this year has been slower than last but is getting more spin and considerably more horizontal movement.
In 2021, Ohtani threw his four-seamer 44% of the time and the sweeper 21.9% of the time, while last year the heater dropped to 27.3% and the sweeper rose to 37.4%; this year, the mix is 44.9% sweeper, 26.2% four-seamer. With that change, he’s nearly abandoned his split-fingered fastball, which had been incredibly effective:
By and large, Ohtani’s results with the sweeper have been excellent. Last year, batters hit a meager .165 and slugged .274 against the 251 such pitches that concluded a plate appearance, and whiffed on 38.1% of the ones they swung at. At 25 runs prevented, it was the majors’ second-most valuable pitch behind only Dylan Cease’s slider (36 runs prevented). This year, batters have hit just .138 against the pitch, but they’ve slugged .356; with four doubles and three singles to go with those five homers, it’s almost an all-or-nothing proposition, and often (36.4% of their swings) batters are just whiffing. At five runs prevented, it’s in a virtual tie for second (with Penn Murfee) behind Justin Lawrence’s six prevented — still an effective pitch, but not quite as exceptional.
Three of the five Ohtani sweepers on which batters have homered — the last three, in fact, one by the Astros’ Martín Maldonado on May 9 and then the Frazier and Santander ones on Monday — have been on sweepers that wound up in the middle of the strike zone.
That’s as many as Ohtani allowed on middle-middle sweepers in 2021 and ’22 combined. He’s leaving more sweepers in the middle this year (11.7%) than last (10%):
He’s paying the price for that, which shouldn’t be too surprising — except that last year, he largely got away with doing so:
Shohei Ohtani Sweepers in Gameday Zone 5
With the caveat that these are all small samples, the SLG-xSLG gap on this year’s results does stand out, but it’s also worth remembering that xSLG only accounts for launch angle and velocity, not pitch location, and a pitch located right down Broadway is more likely to get thumped harder. The major league-wide xSLG for all sweepers in Zone 5 this year is .619, while the actual SLG is .731, a gap of 112 points. Last year, the gap was 125 points via .573 xSLG and .698 SLG.
Having noted the wide range of velocities in Ohtani’s sweepers, I’ll add that the middle-middle ones conform to the general year-to-year trend; each average for the subset above (82.3 mph for 2021, 85.3 for ’22, 83.5 for ’23) is within 0.3 mph of his annual average, and the spin rates are pretty close as well. And faster isn’t necessarily better; the Maldonado and Frazier homers both came on sweepers in the 85-86 mph range, as did one of his previous three.
In the end, I don’ think this is tremendously complicated, even if I’ve shown you a bunch of tables and graphs. Ohtani’s sweeper is a great pitch, perhaps the best of its kind in the game, but lately he’s made a few mistakes with it, and he hasn’t gotten away with them. It’s not that he’s over-reliant on the pitch, I don’t think — he threw just 26.5% sweepers against the Orioles on Monday, where he threw 53.6% sweepers on May 3 against the Cardinals, when he struck out 13 while allowing four runs in five innings — it’s just that he’s not executing it as well. Check out what the Stuff+ model, where his sweeper is classified as a slider (though the usage rates conform quite closely to the Statcast percentages above), thinks of the pitch’s traits and locations:
Shohei Ohtani Stuff+
Ohtani has incredible stuff — his overall score of 129 is second only to Spencer Strider’s 130 this year — but the model sees his location this year as subpar, both for the sweeper and in general. That meshes with his uncharacteristically high home run rate and FIP. I suspect that he’ll iron it out, but for now, he’s in a slump on the mound.