Hernández: Ohtani’s evolution as pitcher continues to improve

Who was that on the hill?

He looked like Shohei Ohtani.

He smiled like Shohei Ohtani.

He just didn’t pitch like Shohei Ohtani.

In another MVP season in which Ohtani was the only player in history to qualify for both earned run average and batting crowns, the extent of his talent was reflected in both his transformation as a pitcher and his unprecedented workload reflected.

Now four years away from reconstructive elbow surgery, his transition from pitcher to pitcher was complete.

Ohtani was the starting pitcher for the Angels in their season finale on Wednesday, a 3-2 loss to the Oakland Athletics.

The Japanese right-hander, serving with a blistered middle finger, had a perfect game for four innings. He went five innings and was charged with a run, a walk and a hit. He hit six.

The most striking statistic: According to Major League Baseball’s PITCHf/x tracking system, of his 69 pitches, only four were four-seam fastballs.

Ohtani also threw just four fourseamers in his start before that, during which he carried a no-hitter against the Athletics into the eighth inning at Angel Stadium.

Last year he threw the field more than 44% of the time. This season, after the All-Star break, Ohtani dramatically reduced the use of his square as he prioritized movement and position.

Ohtani can hit 101mph with the pitch but has practically given it up, using his slider as his main weapon and adding an extra power sinker mid-season.

During the season, his four-sailer accounted for only 28% of his pitches. His slider became his most popular offer at nearly 39%.

Ohtani finished the season with a 15-9 record and a 2.33 ERA while batting at .273 with 34 home runs and 95 runs hit.

In his last 16 starts, he recorded a 1.94 ERA.

“I pitched this year while trying a lot of things,” Ohtani said in Japanese. “Next year and beyond, if I can solve more and more problems, I think I can leave better numbers behind.”

In spring training, Ohtani said he thinks his MVP season last year would set a foundation for future performances. He sounded confident that he would improve – the question was by how much?

His development as a pitcher this year suggests he remains on an upward trend. Once again the question is how much better he can get. If there’s a limit to what he can do, he hasn’t found it yet.

“He keeps getting better, that’s the thing,” said catcher Max Stassi. “As a former MVP, the bar is high, the expectations are high and he lives up to them and looks to surpass them even more in the year to come.”

Angels' Shohei Ohtani watches his singles against the Oakland Athletics.

Angels’ Shohei Ohtani watches his singles against the Oakland Athletics during the first inning Wednesday in Oakland.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez / Associated Press)

He is ready to learn, Angels officials said, that no player makes better use of the data and technological tools the team has at their disposal.

But equally, if not more importantly, is his ability to learn.

Ohtani was viewed in the industry as a more advanced hitter than a pitcher, his exploits a by-product of his physical ability rather than his technical mastery. His control was considered second-rate by Japanese standards.

So much for that.

Mike Trout spoke with a Little Leaguer’s enthusiasm when discussing Ohtani’s pitching sharpness.

“It’s so much fun watching outfield and being a part of it, seeing the pitches he’s throwing,” Trout said. “It seems like he’s working on new pitches every day. He walks in laughing, ‘Oh I’ve got a top, a little slider that’s going up and down today.’ It’s unfair.”

In a mid-August start against the Seattle Mariners, Ohtani unveiled a sinker he had never thrown before.

As time passed, he threw the pitch more and more, and why wouldn’t he? The pitch could reach 101 miles per hour, and he could handle it better than his four-sail.

Ohtani finished the season with 219 strikeouts in 166 innings.

He spoke cautiously when discussing his future, refusing to speculate on whether he would stay with the Angels beyond the next year. Ohtani will be eligible to be a free agent by the end of next season.

His only comments about the future related to how he intended to improve, particularly as a batsman.

Recalling that he increased his average to .273 from last year’s .257 while reducing his strikeout rate to 24.2% from 29.6%, Ohtani said he came into this season to hit nearly .300 .

He believes the approach cost him home runs. He finished at 34, a dozen fewer than last season.

“What stood out a bit was the balls dying right in front of the fence,” he said.

He noticed that especially when he hit the opposite field.

But he said: “I think if I can grow just a little bit more, both [the home runs and average] will rise.”

Ohtani is human and has a blanket like everyone else. But his isn’t in sight yet, and if he’s committed to homers more next season, he should homers more next season. Compared to what he did on the hill this year that would only be a small improvement.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/angels/story/2022-10-05/angels-shohei-ohtani-pitching-mvp-mlb Hernández: Ohtani’s evolution as pitcher continues to improve

Emma Bowman

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