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The Angels’ No-Risk, Unknown-Reward Gamble on Shohei Ohtani

By: Stats Perform

Analyzing Ohtani’s career in Japan on the mound and in the batter’s box using STATS’ advanced TVL data and video

Shohei Ohtani’s story elicits natural intrigue among Major League Baseball obsessives who have grown comfortable with a version of the game known for pitchers performing terribly at the plate. Those with a gift to make hitters look foolish appear so themselves a majority of the time when stepping in the batter’s box.

It’s why Ohtani’s credentials seem almost fabricated. A 23-year-old Japanese ballplayer who throws a 100 mph fastball right-handed and bashes 400-foot homers left-handed while batting cleanup in the same game he’s the starting pitcher? C’mon.

Embellished seems more appropriate, though. That made-for-Hollywood scouting report doesn’t include stretches of control problems on the mound, a roughly 30 percent career strikeout rate at the dish and a recent injury history that could hinder an immediate rise to MLB stardom.

But the Los Angeles Angels are buying the script with the happy ending prior to the tear-down edits – and rightfully so. Paying roughly $24 million – when counting the $20 million posting fee to the Nippon Ham Fighters, $2.5 million signing bonus to Ohtani and his $545,000 salary over the next two years – for what amounts to a prospect with seemingly no ceiling is a no-brainer. And that’s without mentioning Ohtani will still be under the Angels’ control when he becomes arbitration-eligible prior to his third MLB season.

It’s a no-risk, unknown-reward gamble the Angels had to take despite knowing about Ohtani’s right ankle surgery Oct. 12 and his sprained right ulnar collateral ligament – the one operated on during Tommy John surgery. The latter injury doesn’t appear to be all that serious, but even so, Ohtani’s potential both on the mound and at the plate warrant setting aside any immediate concerns.

The fact still is that Ohtani is a uniquely gifted player. That’s even more evident when jumping into the analytics and having a look at video from his five seasons in Japan. It’s the kind of video analysis available in STATS Video Solution, which we’ve used to make sense of other relevant offseason storylines along with TVL data.

STATS TVL data tracks pitch type (T), velocity (V) and location (L) for both pitchers and the hitters facing them. It records the data into categories such as usage percentage of a specific pitch, strike percentage of those pitches and opponents’ swing rate, among others. Here’s a look at Ohtani’s pitch selection and corresponding numbers:

Ohtani’s basic pitching numbers are dominant from 2014-16. He went 36-13 with a 2.25 ERA in 66 starts and one relief appearance, 549 strikeouts and a .196 batting average against. He made only five starts last season while battling the ankle injury, but in his last Oct. 4 he tossed a 124-pitch, two-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts – a masterpiece during which he also went 1 for 4 in the No. 4 slot in the batting order.

A couple things jump out in the above TVL stats. Ohtani threw his splitter out of the strike zone 69.1 percent of the time, yet he still had a 63.4 percent strike rate on the pitch. That’s because the deceptive movement helped fool hitters into a 57 percent swing rate on a pitch that far more often than not landed out of the strike zone.

Ohtani ended an at-bat 404 times with a split-finger in his career in Japan, and 51.2 percent of those at-bats resulted in a strikeout. Opponents had a .161 average in those situations with only 13 extra-base hits.

His slider is nearly as devastating. Ohtani ended an at-bat 353 times with that pitch, recording a strikeout on 49.3 percent. Opponents had a .144 average when seeing a slider for their last pitch with only 12 extra-base hits.

A pitch with that movement away from the right-handed hitter in that location is virtually unhittable and nearly impossible to lay off – and Ohtani knew exactly where it was going. But there’s also the case of him walking 19 in 25 1/3 innings this past season and the control issues that have plagued him at times throughout his career. Ohtani has walked 200 over 85 appearances and issued at least three free passes in 35 of his 82 starts.

TVL data tracked that of the six pitches he’s thrown in his career – including very limited use of a cut fastball and changeup – he threw five out of the strike zone at a rate of 54.8 percent or greater. His fastball was the outlier, traveling out of the zone 46.3 percent of the time.

Ohtani is still young, and mistakes like that have caused him to show some frustration on the mound. And he knows a bit about taking advantage of pitching miscues.

The 2016 season was Ohtani’s best overall, winning league MVP honors posting a 1.88 ERA in 20 starts on mound while hitting .322 with 22 homers in 90 games at the plate. He followed that up with a .332 average and eight homers in 61 games in his injury-shortened 2017 campaign.

The following graphic shows how Ohtani fared in his last pitch of each at-bat in his career in Japan and the type of pitch he faced.

It’s fair to say if Ohtani faced himself, he wouldn’t be able to hit his own splitter very well. It’s also a wonder how Ohtani ever sees a fastball in the zone given that remarkable .353 average with four more homers than every other pitch combined despite finishing 219 fewer at-bats against it.

Ohtani’s stance is nearly statuesque with just some minimal movement of the bat prior to the pitch. His arms remain up, and at 6-foot-4 he’s able to drive through the ball even when extending out over the plate.

Ohtani can be just as dangerous with that power swing when facing an inside curve. Watch as he turns on the pitch with a quick bat and sails one off the right-field fair pole.

Yes, the power that helped make Ohtani a known name across the world and had multiple teams vying for his commitment exists, although there’s no real way to quantify the numbers in relation to MLB. Hideki Matsui joined the Yankees in 2003 as a three-time Japanese home run champion who hit 50 in one year, then only hit the 30-homer mark once in 10 MLB seasons.

Ohtani does hit for average as well, despite his power stroke and high strikeout rate, by often hitting the gaps. That also doesn’t mean he’ll be Ichiro, who carried his style of hitting line drives and keeping the ball on the ground directly over from Japan to help him win the AL MVP in his first MLB season.

What Ohtani possesses is enough pop in that left-handed bat and a solid eye – he walked 78 times over his last 151 games – to warrant a regular spot in the Angels’ lineup. Manager Mike Scioscia has said he plans to use Ohtani as a DH in a lineup that includes Mike Trout, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, sometimes Albert Pujols and the newly acquired Ian Kinsler. It’s just a matter of where Scioscia wants to slot him and how often.

That timing will depend on Ohtani’s pitching duties, and it appears the Angels will move to a six-man rotation to accommodate him. It’s custom for Japanese hurlers to pitch once every seven days compared to MLB norm of once in five. That’s another reason why quantifying Ohtani’s numbers in Japan remains difficult.

Pitchers making the jump in recent years haven’t fared nearly as well as they did in Japan. Think Boston’s gamble in 2007 on Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was out of MLB by 2014 and was released from a Japanese team last month. Masahiro Tanaka has been better with the Yankees since coming over in 2014, but he had a 4.74 ERA in 30 starts this past season.

Although the Red Sox and Yankees spent a great deal of cash to bring them over, neither had the amount of hype that’s following Ohtani to Los Angeles. And he’ll be watched and scrutinized by curious onlookers wondering if he’ll live up to it.