If the Nippon Ham Fighters do indeed post Shohei Ohtani at the end of this season—and all indications are that they will—he will instantly become the most intriguing prospect to come to baseball in years, partly because of his willingness to turn down hundreds of millions of dollars, and partly because of his unique skillset, as the most MLB-ready two-way prospect we’ve seen. But what does Ohtani bring to the team that’s lucky enough to land him? He’s been described as “the Japanese Babe Ruth,” but that description is both shallow and misleading (for starters, the lithe Ohtani is a good two inches taller and twenty pounds lighter than the Babe in his prime). Ohtani’s skillset demands two separate, in-depth scouting reports. We’ll start with pitching, since that’s the position where he is most highly prized as a prospect, especially considering the dearth of available top-level pitching in MLB this upcoming season.
Ohtani’s plus-velocity fastball is the thing that will turn the most heads, as it’s been clocked up to 165 km/h, or about 102.5 mph. He can throw his fastball to both sides of the plate for strikes, and it features some nasty late rising action. While the triple-digit offerings garner the most swoons, Ohtani is a little more accurate when he’s working in the high 90s, especially as he continues to rehab from an ankle injury that kept him out of the WBC and a hamstring injury that caused him to miss time this season. He’s scraped the triple digits a few times in his first trips back to the mound, but without his trademark command. This pitch was clocked at 156 km/h, or about 97 mph. It’s a challenge to catch up to that speed, but what makes this pitch really tricky is its late “rising” action:
This, more so than the triple-digit offering, is what Ohtani has been throwing for a putaway pitch on his fastball, high in the zone and inducing lots of swinging strikes. But this isn’t necessarily even his deadliest weapon; his slider has knockout potential too.
Ohtani’s slider garners some of the ugliest swing-and-misses you’ll ever see. It’s a straight-up unfair pitch that has devastating late movement away from right-handed batters:
But wait, it can also make left-handed batters look foolish:
Like his fastball, Ohtani can generate a sickening amount of spin on his slider, giving it a ton of glove-side movement. Pairing the pitch—which hangs out in the 81-85 mph range—against his triple-digit fastball results in the NSFW results seen above. The slider has swing-and-miss stuff potential, obviously, but Ohtani’s control of it is a work in progress.
Previous scouting reports say Ohtani used his splitter as his main secondary pitch, but in the games I’ve watched since his return to the mound, he seems to have replaced the splitter with the slider as his go-to out pitch. His splitter sits a tick higher than the slider, in the 86-88 range, and dives down out of the zone late:
Shohei Otani splitter/forkball grip, release and travel. This is from Premier 12 last fall, striking out Dae-Ho Lee pic.twitter.com/8cRy9YEaPo— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) October 16, 2016
That image is two years old, so proceed with caution. Here’s a more recent look at the pitch, although without a closeup on his release; the broadcast called this a forkball, but I think the two terms are being used interchangeably. Regardless, this pitch also fills the role—in movement and velocity—of a changeup for Ohtani.
Ohtani also offers a curveball that runs between 75-78 mph and shows tight 11-5 action. He can even drop the pitch down into the high 60s at times to really mess with batters. He doesn’t throw it a lot—I don’t have an image of it—and the few I saw in his last two outings were poorly located, well off the plate. Apparently it’s a pitch he’s struggled with in the past, and it looks to be currently on the back shelf as he continues to refine his other offerings as he works back from injury.
Ohtani works relatively quickly, getting the sign from his catcher and delivering the pitch. He’s a good athlete (duh) who can field his position well, gracefully charging off the mound to snare bunts and gliding over to cover first. Because his arsenal is so deep and his command is (generally) good, he’s able to keep hitters off-balance as he changes eye levels and works to both sides of the plate. Ohtani on the mound is calm, collected, and assured; even when working in high-leverage situations, you will not see him sweat. He is also able to keep a sense of humor when things aren’t going his way:
This was the second or third borderline call Ohtani hadn’t gotten; look how quickly he goes from being shocked to just amused. Like so many of MLB’s brightest young stars—Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor, or Bryce Harper, who is Ohtani’s favorite position player—baseball is a game to Ohtani, and one he has fun playing.
Mechanics/Potential Red Flags:
Ohtani has drawn praise for his clean, repeatable mechanics. He is able to pair the balance of a traditional Japanese pitcher with the explosive leg drive of a power pitcher; the best of both worlds. Ohtani’s windup and leg kick look like the prototypical Japanese pitcher as he balances on his back leg, drawing his front knee parallel to his chest, gathering and centering his weight. He then explodes forward, driving his front foot in line to the plate while generating a ton of torque from his hip rotation.
Shohei Otani, Mechanics (side view/slow) pic.twitter.com/K7SW9X8vWg— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 27, 2017
That torque is partly why Ohtani’s arm action is described as “easy,” even when he’s grazing triple digits. His shoulder rotates in concert with the hips to create even more torque, as Ohtani recruits every part of his body to generate his eye-popping velocity.
Because his effectiveness and ability to throw hard late into games depends on his body working as a unit, the main concern with Ohtani is his injury history. He’s grappled with lower-body injuries throughout his career, and the team that acquires him would be well-served to tailor a conditioning program to him that addresses that, as well as using him in a DH capacity rather than running him out in the outfield on his non-pitching days. Ohtani’s command is merely average, and has looked worse this year as he battles back from injury. I see some funkiness in his plant leg here:
That torque in the knee is not ideal; it actually reminds me of Max Povse, another gangly hurler who has battled lower-body issues. It’s most evident when he’s throwing the kind of high cheese you see above (160 km/h = about 99.5 mph). Those who wish to deflate the Ohtani bubble (why?) point out that even as he’s garnering these ugly whiffs, very often he’s missing his spot; that’s probably most egregiously obvious in the second slider gif above. As Ohtani rehabs from missing a significant portion of the season, it’s understandable that he will struggle with command. There is probably development work to do with him to improve his command, as well; he’s already progressed quite a way in that department from when he was an 18-year-old making his first starts for the Fighters.
Injury concerns aside, Ohtani is a top-level talent who will make an immediate impact for the club lucky enough to land him. Even if Ohtani gives up hitting and is solely a pitcher in MLB, he still has the potential to be a generational talent. Please, Mariners, please find a way to get him.