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Shohei Ohtani’s Splitter Is What Makes Him Truly Great

Just a little more than a week into his major league career, Los Angeles Angels phenom Shohei Ohtani has been so impressive as both a pitcher and hitter that it’s difficult to decide which aspect of his play stands out most. At the plate, he belted home runs in three consecutive games, crushing one pitch Friday for the seventh-longest homer of the young 2018 season. As a pitcher, he carried a perfect game into the seventh inning of his start Sunday, finishing the game with 12 strikeouts — tied for the most of any starter in a game so far this year.

Ohtani has probably already done enough on both sides of the ball to confirm that he’s the real deal. (So much for those shaky spring training stats, huh?) According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first MLB player since the dead-ball era1 to get two wins as a pitcher and hit three home runs in his team’s first 10 games of a season — meaning few baseball fans were alive the last time a two-way player did what Ohtani has done. If we had to pick one part of his game to bank on most, though, there is reason to believe that Ohtani’s pitching will outpace his hitting as his rookie year goes on.

If you read the scouting reports written before Ohtani’s debut, pitching was always supposed to be his strongest suit. And all he’s done on the mound since is compile some truly eye-catching stats: So far this year, Ohtani has the fourth-highest strikeout percentage and the 17th-lowest walk percentage among qualified pitchers, and he ranks fourth in strikeout-to-walk percentage differential — one of the strongest predictors of how well a pitcher will perform going forward. Perhaps most tellingly of all, he’s also currently first in swinging strike rate, a very important measure of sheer pitching dominance, and he ranks third in average fastball velocity. Granted, those numbers have come in the microscopic sample of 13 innings (over two starts against the Oakland A’s, one of the worst teams in baseball). But they validate the story of a pitcher billed as having ace-level stuff when he first pondered coming over from Japan.

Ohtani’s split-finger fastball in particular might be the nastiest pitch in baseball so far this season. (The splitter, which is thrown with the index and middle fingers spread wide over the seams, isn’t a true fastball in the same sense as the four-seamer; it’s more like a change-up that looks like a fastball to hitters before abruptly dropping at the last second.) Based on data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, he has thrown the splitter 58 times, and it’s already generated 13 strikeouts; only Houston’s Lance McCullers (curveball) and Arizona’s Patrick Corbin (slider) have gotten more K’s on a single pitch than Ohtani has gotten with his splitter so far. According to MLB.com, opposing batters have come up empty on 26 of 37 swings (70.3 percent) against Ohtani’s splitter, good for the best swing-and-miss rate of any starting pitcher on any single pitch type in 2018.2 And at a minimum of 50 total pitches in a season, the 6.4 runs added per 100 pitches by Ohtani’s splitter makes it the third-most effective pitch in FanGraphs’ entire database (which goes back to 2002):

Shohei’s splitter is in rare territory

Most runs added per 100 pitches in a season for a single pitch, 2002-18

Rk Player Year Team Pitch Type Pitches Runs/100
1 D. Price ’18 Red Sox Cutter 59 +6.88
2 T. Lincecum ’08 Giants Slider 63 6.50
3 S. Ohtani ’18 Angels Split-finger 58 6.41
4 M. Prior ’03 Cubs Change-up 105 6.38
5 M. Mulder ’03 Athletics Split-finger 233 6.38
6 T. Ohka ’05 Nats/Brewers Split-finger 93 6.17
7 A. Wood ’18 Dodgers Change-up 52 6.06
8 S. Manaea ’18 Athletics Fastball 116 5.75
9 J. Fernandez ’13 Marlins Slider 331 5.39
10 L. Severino ’18 Yankees Slider 81 5.15
11 C. Carpenter ’04 Cardinals Cutter 86 5.06
12 M. Mulder ’04 Athletics Split-finger 316 5.01
13 C. Kluber ’17 Indians Curveball 807 4.68
14 T. Lincecum ’09 Giants Change-up 743 4.62
15 M. Redman ’06 Royals Cutter 74 4.54
16 S. Gray ’18 Yankees Curveball 62 4.38
17 J. Santana ’04 Twins Change-up 722 4.38
18 T. Hudson ’03 Athletics Split-finger 514 4.31
19 M. Batista ’03 D-Backs Split-finger 270 4.30
20 M. Mulder ’02 Athletics Split-finger 114 4.22

Excluding pitch/pitcher combinations with fewer than 50 pitches in a season

Source: FanGraphs

All of this obviously comes with the usual small-sample caveats and then some. (It’s barely been one week!) As “the book” comes in on Ohtani and his uber-out pitch, it’s unlikely that he’ll continue to befuddle hitters quite so much with the splitter. One of the things that makes baseball’s core pitcher-batter duel so great is that it’s a constantly evolving chess match of adjustments and counteradjustments. Right now, though, Ohtani is winning that battle on the mound.

Of course, his success as a hitter can’t be overlooked. But there are at least a few signs that Ohtani might cool down from his early 1.310 on-base plus slugging start at the plate. According to Baseball-Reference.com, his batting average on balls in play — a sign of how lucky a hitter has been — is .364, well above what’s considered sustainable. Of further concern: He’s striking out four times for every walk, swinging at the first pitch far too frequently (1.5 times as often as the average batter) and getting himself into a good hitter’s count3 about half as often as the average batter. A full 50 percent of his fly balls have left the yard, which is also an extremely unsustainable rate. As MLB pitchers see him more often, Ohtani will probably go through more growing pains as a hitter than he will as a pitcher.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the sheer excitement of what he’s already accomplished. According to research from MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, the maximum outputs from Ohtani’s Statcast data — gathered by radar and cameras that track every move made on the field — show that Ohtani possesses an arm that can throw harder than 87 percent of pitchers, a bat that can launch balls faster than 89 percent of hitters and legs that run faster than 84 percent of base runners. As unreal as the hype was around Ohtani before he ever played an MLB game, somehow the beginning of his career has exceeded it. We can only wait with anticipation for what comes next.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. So since about 1920.

  2. With a minimum of 20 swings against that pitch.

  3. Defined as either a 3-0, 2-0 or 3-1 count.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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