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Projecting Shohei Ohtani as a hitter

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You already know about the triple-digit fastball, but what does the Japanese sensation bring on the other side of the plate?

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kickin’ it
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Back in September, I took a look at what Shohei Ohtani offers in his pitching arsenal and how that might translate to MLB. Ohtani’s triple-digit fastball has garnered the lion’s share of attention when discussing the Japanese superstar, which makes sense, given the paucity of available high-end arms on the pitching market. Discussions of him as a hitter have mostly been limited to footage of him walloping dingers with his lovely lefty swing, including this watershed moment:

And now I’m imagining Cruz and Ohtani having batting practice competitions to see who can send baseballs into more ridiculous locations (fifty points if you can park it on the observation deck at the Needle) and then Edgar hops in and sorry sorry we have business to attend to here.

(Before we start: disclaimer disclaimer disclaimer I am not a hitting expert, please don’t come after me Hitting Twitter, I am trying to stick here to broad concepts I’ve seen discussed in very simple terms non-players like me can understand, please don’t set Tewksbary on me. If you’re interested in super-technical explanations those are out there, but it seems like a lot of them conflict with each other, and also use words I don’t understand, so I tried to keep things mostly simple here.)

Ohtani has said the batter whose stance he studies the most is Bryce Harper, and it’s easy to see a lot of Harper in Ohtani’s swing, especially in his setup, or load:

Both Ohtani and Harper begin with their hands up, elbows parallel to their ears, hips parallel to home plate, and have a similar leg kick. Ohtani’s stride is longer, perhaps owing to his longer legs—both Harper and Ohtani are listed at 6’3”, but Ohtani’s height seems to be more in his legs. The illusion of Ohtani being taller than Harper (if, in fact, he isn’t—reports on Ohtani’s height vary, and I’ve seen him listed up to 6’5” some places) is further compounded by the amount of bend in their knees. Harper stays lower in his stance throughout than Ohtani and lets his back foot come up higher on his follow-through, while Ohtani stays on his back foot longer, driving hard through it before dragging it behind him. Both fire their hips a second before the hands come through the zone, creating torque from the hips and letting the hands follow. Harper is a little better at generating the perfect Ted Williams slight upswing, as he keeps his hands closer to his body than Ohtani. There’s been some speculation that Ohtani’s swing might be too “long” for MLB, and he’ll be carved up by pitchers at the level. But even if he does struggle and has to adjust his hand positioning, Ohtani’s strong mechanics should see him through a momentary slump.

Ohtani’s swing is extremely balanced; while in the load position, his hands are directly over his back foot. As he shifts forward, his hips and torso move in concert with his lower body; even as his front leg kicks up, his hip stay parallel to the ground, creating balance. This balance means Ohtani is able to control the transfer of his weight forward, keeping his front foot parallel to the plate; when you hear about hitters “staying closed” vs. “leaking open,” that’s what this means. (If you want to see an example of what “leaking open” looks like by a left-handed batter, look at either Brandon Belt or Joey Gallo; for the exact inverse, look at Corey Seager, who stays so closed he’s practically pigeon-toed.) He locks the front leg in right at the point of contact, creating a stable base for his swing without robbing his momentum by locking in too early. This balance allows Ohtani to look that ball all the way in, only dropping his head at the last moment, which aids in pitch recognition and is probably part of the reason Ohtani is exceptionally good at handling off-speed pitches for such a young player.

This balance is probably also the reason why a power swing like Harper’s or Bellinger’s gets labeled “violent,” while Ohtani’s—despite producing a prodigious amount of power in Japan—is seen as “sweet.” While Ohtani may look to Harper for instruction, his clean, textbook mechanics put me more in mind of another lefty, a little closer to home:

No, not that one. Although look at that beautiful closed front foot!

It’s funny, I don’t remember anyone ever complaining that Junior’s swing was too long. Ohtani’s finish is closer to Harper’s; both end with an extreme turn, showing their numbers to home plate, whereas Junior ends more open to the pitcher, breaking his bottom hand off the bat on the follow-through, but there are other similarities here: the closed front foot, the high elbow, the squaring to the pitcher, the hips firing a nanosecond before the hands. Harper has spoken about his admiration for Griffey’s swing, so it makes sense that by the commutative property, Ohtani’s swing has some Griffey in it. Hopefully that’s something the Mariners will be able to highlight when making their pitch to Ohtani.

Ohtani might struggle as a batter when he makes the transition to MLB. What he’s trying to do has never been done before in modern baseball, and the spotlight will be intense, especially if he goes to the Yankees, as so many predict. He may not have as many opportunities to play offense as he did in Japan, where pitchers pitch every sixth day, and may struggle initially with establishing a rhythm. Ohtani may throw triple digits, but he hasn’t been on the receiving end of his own arsenal, and will have to adjust to MLB’s power pitchers. Furthermore, MLB pitchers are mercenaries trained to attack any hole in a hitter’s swing. We’ve seen young power hitters like Judge and Bellinger dazzle with moonshot home runs, and we’ve seen them carved up by pitchers who are able to exploit the weaknesses in their swings. Ohtani might not have Judge or Bellinger’s prodigious power in an MLB setting (although he might), but he has experience with off-speed pitches that neither Judge nor Bellinger (who has less than 100 Triple-A plate appearances) had before making their debut in the majors.

With his strong mechanics, willingness to learn, and natural talent, there are a variety of ways Ohtani could shape himself into an MLB hitter. Maybe he’ll be a high-strikeout power hitter like Judge or Bellinger (his K% was about 27% in Japan; he averaged .500 in slugging). Maybe he’ll hit for average with doubles power. Maybe he’ll be an OBP machine (his BB% was about 10% in Japan, and he’s been clocked around 3.8 home-to-first, which is Kiermaier/Altuve/Gordon territory). Looking at his line over the past two seasons, in which he batted in the elite .300/.400/.500 club, it’s hard not to dream on what Ohtani could do under the tutelage of another .300/.400/.500 hitter.

Ohtani’s hitting is usually dismissed as secondary to his skill on the mound, but he has all the tools to be great in the batter’s box as well, with the right instruction and environment. Seattle and its Hall of Fame-worthy hitting coach could provide exactly the place.