'Crazy. Unbelievable. Different:' Shohei Ohtani's Immense Tools Stand Alone
Shohei Ohtani has broken the limits of what was thought possible in the major leagues.
Through Aug. 22, Ohtani led the majors with 40 home runs and ranked third with a 1.003 OPS. He also had a 2.79 ERA in 18 starts and averaged 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings, eighth in the majors.
Ohtani’s two-way excellence is without precedent in the last 100 years. The Angels’ all-star is the first player to make multiple pitching starts in a season while leading the majors in home runs since Babe Ruth in 1919. He is the only player in major league history to hit 30 home runs and strike out more than 50 batters in a season, something not even Ruth accomplished.
He’s done it all while going 19-for-27 on stolen bases and even playing the outfield on occasion.
There are many factors driving Ohtani’s excellence, but his tools are foremost among them. A five-tool position player who also has four plus pitches, Ohtani’s combination of tools are unparalleled in MLB history.
Here is a breakdown of all of Ohtani’s tools on the 20-80 scouting scale, assembled in conjunction with major league scouts and front office officials. The total product is a player unlike any seen in major league history, with the performance this year to match it.
“I know he’s gotten a lot of run this year, but this is incredible,” said one longtime scout with more than 50 years in the game. “I’ve never seen this.”
Ohtani’s power is his calling card, but his pure hitting ability earns plaudits as well. He has hit around .270 most of this season, nearly 30 points higher than league average, and he has the bat speed, hand-eye coordination and feel for the barrel to consistently impact the ball even when he’s not hitting home runs. He leads all MLB hitters with a 13.4% barrel rate per plate appearance and ranks third with a 55.8% hard-hit rate.
Like all successful hitters, Ohtani has shown the ability to make adjustments. He famously swapped out his leg kick for a toe tap after struggling during 2018 spring training. This season, scouts across baseball have noted Ohtani is rotating better.
“I think that what he did at Driveline over the winter really transformed him as a hitter,” one veteran scout said. “He’s pulling the ball more. He’s airing it out more. He’s pulling the ball in the air like he never has before. One of the things I can’t get out of my mind is him hitting a 93 mph fastball up and in and pulling it out of the park. There aren’t very many lefthanded hitters who can do that to begin with, but for him to do that, there is no way he could have done that before.”
Ohtani has sharply reduced the platoon split from earlier in his career and been effective against both lefties (.945 OPS) as well as righties (1.016 OPS) this season. He has reduced his chase rate to the lowest of his career in a full season and increased his walk rate to the highest of his career in a full season.
The improvements have made him a consensus plus hitter in the eyes of scouts and front office officials. In the opinion of Angels manager Joe Maddon, who was a scout early in his career, Ohtani’s performance would justify an even higher grade if Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon, who have missed most of the season with injuries, were in the lineup around him.
"If he has the appropriate team around him and he gets pitched to,” Maddon said, “the numbers are always going to be extraordinarily high."
American League managers unanimously voted for Ohtani for best power in Baseball America's Best Tools balloting. He leads the majors in home runs, is tied for the most home runs of at least 450 feet and ranks in the top percentile of MLB in maximum exit velocity. His average home run has traveled 417 feet, tied for second-longest among players with at least 20 homers.
“He can hit line-to-line, stupid power,” Trout said. “It’s such an easy swing, but it’s violent. I’ve never seen anybody take such an easy swing and the ball just jumps. You see (Mark) Trumbo. You see (Aaron) Judge. You see (Giancarlo) Stanton. Trumbo is up there, but Shohei is just different.”
Ohtani’s towering home runs to right field are mesmerizing, but his opposite-field power sets him apart. Nearly one-third of his home runs have landed between the left-field foul pole and straightaway center field this season. They include home runs that traveled 422, 427, 436 and 440 feet.
“It’s explosive foul pole to foul pole,” a rival scout said. “When we start breaking down power bats, we start talking about pull-lift guys. And when you’re starting to talk about him, you’re talking about lift (to) all-fields, any pitch. It’s crazy.”
Ohtani’s speed is arguably the most freakish part of his game. He won fastest baserunner in Best Tools balloting and was ranked top three on two-thirds of ballots cast by AL managers.
A powerfully built 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Ohtani’s average run time of 4.09 seconds from home to first base is tied for fourth fastest in the majors, as measured by MLB Statcast.
The player he is tied with, Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies, is 5-foot-8, 165 pounds. The three players faster than him—Twins outfielder Byron Buxton, Marlins outfielder Magneuris Sierra and Yankees outfielder Tim Locastro—are all at least two inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter.
“You’re looking at old school Deion Sanders. You’re talking about Bo Jackson, and in today’s game you can go back to what A-Rod was, (Barry) Bonds, the truly unique power-speed combinations over the years,” one longtime AL executive said. “That body type of being so big and strong and still being able to motor down the line at unbelievable speeds . . . This guy is just a different skill set. He’s a freak.”
In addition to his pure speed, Ohtani has above-average baserunning instincts and has been more aggressive on the basepaths this season. His 19 steals and 27 attempts are both both career highs, and scouts have noted an increased aggressiveness in Ohtani going from first to third and second to home this year.
“What you’re seeing with that is a guy who just feels free to be himself on the baseball field,” Maddon said. “He’s always been capable of this. I think he’s felt a little bit restricted in the past. Now he’s not restricted.”
Ohtani’s combination of power and speed made him a unanimous pick for most exciting player in Best Tools ballots cast by American League managers this season.
Strictly in terms of fielding his position of pitcher, Ohtani is one of the best. His athleticism allows him to get off the mound quickly, he snares comebackers with lightning-fast reactions and he makes accurate throws from different arm angles or awkward body positions.
“He does a great job holding runners, he bounces off the mound well, he throws to the bases well, he catches line drives,” Maddon said. “It’s come along really well. He covers well, he’ll field stuff that’s moving slowly and make the good throw. He does it all.”
Ohtani has added defensive intrigue by making his first career MLB outfield appearances this season. The Angels have occasionally played Ohtani in both right and left field to keep his bat in the lineup after pulling him as a pitcher. Though he hasn’t been challenged in the outfield—he's played a total of 8.1 innings and hasn't had an official chance—his speed, body control and physicality leave little doubt he’d be at least a plus defensive outfielder if he played there regularly.
“I have no question that he could go out in a short period of time and be a really good corner outfielder. Or center fielder for that matter,” one rival evaluator said. “He’s graceful, his head doesn’t move when he runs, he glides. He’s something else. He’s like this gazelle. He’s unbelievable.”
Ohtani has not had a chance to air out a throw from the outfield since arriving in MLB in 2018. Maddon said he has specifically asked Ohtani not to, either before or during games, to avoid the possibility of injury.
The last time Ohtani got to show off his arm from the outfield was in Japan. He played 56 games in the outfield for the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2013, the most games in the field in his career, and had seven outfield assists.
“What he had, when he let it go, was a plus,” said one longtime evaluator who scouted Ohtani in Japan as well as MLB. “He never truly let it go. I would love to see what he could do with just letting it go. Just the easy whip and whatnot, there’s nothing that tells me (his arm) can’t be a 65.”
It’s been eight years since Ohtani aired out a throw from the outfield in a live game, and throwing from 60 feet, 6 inches is very different than doing so from 200-300 feet or more. Still, few doubt Ohtani could still reach back for plus arm strength from the outfield if given the chance—and maybe more.
“I think he would probably shock us all because he’s shocked us all with everything else,” the scout said. “If you tried to argue it couldn’t be a 70 or 80, I don’t think you’d have a good argument. If he was taught a couple things on just (the) crow hop and staying behind the ball and whatnot, who knows what that arm would do? It would just be insane.”
Shohei Ohtani Is Baseball America's 2021 MLB Player Of The Year
The Angels’ two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani redefined what is possible in MLB with an unprecedented season.
Ohtani’s fastball is eye-popping on a radar gun. It averages 95.5 mph, touches 101 and blows hitters away up in the zone when executed. But while his fastball has plus-plus velocity, it has just average life and spin rates, and batters fare decently against it.
Opponents hit .260 with a .409 slugging percentage in at-bats ending with an Ohtani four-seam fastball this season through Aug. 22. He got swings and misses on just 10.1% of all fastballs he threw, a middle-of-the-pack rate.
Most evaluators, seeing plus-plus velocity and average life, split the difference and call Ohtani’s fastball a plus pitch. Others have it as merely above-average.
One point in Ohtani’s favor is that while batters don’t swing and miss at his fastball particularly often, they also don’t drive it for extra bases as often as they do other pitchers’ fastballs. His .409 slugging percentage allowed on four-seam fastballs was 43 points lower than the MLB average of .452.
Ohtani’s fastball may not be a remarkable pitch in a vacuum, but how it sets up his splitter is critical.
Former major leaguers in Japan noted that Ohtani’s fastball was straight and hittable, but his splitter was a devastating pitch that looked like a fastball out of his hand before suddenly dropping and getting wild swings and misses over the top.
That has remained true in MLB. In the three seasons that Ohtani has pitched, batters have hit a combined 10-for-152 (.066) with 97 strikeouts in at-bats ending with his splitter.
“What he has is huge separation,” one scout said. “The split looks like a fastball. They come out of the same window.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say Ohtani’s splitter is the most unhittable pitch in baseball. No other pitch, thrown by any other pitcher, has been thrown more than 300 times since 2018 and has a lower opponent average than Ohtani’s splitter. That makes it the very definition of a put-away pitch.
“It just falls off the table when he throws a good one,” Blue Jays second baseman Marcus Semien said. “It’s a pitch you definitely want to get up in the zone. But he’s also got a four-seamer at 100 (mph) up in the zone, too, so that usually causes problems for hitters.”
Ohtani’s slider isn’t overly powerful at 81-82 mph, but its shape and movement make it another vicious weapon in his arsenal.
Batters have struggled against Ohtani’s slider since his rookie season. This year through Aug. 22, opponents hit just .182 in at-bats ending with his slider and swung and missed more than 16% of the time he threw it.
“It looks just like a fastball coming out of his hand,” one scout said. “When he gets on the side of it a little bit and even kind of reveals his cards with that pitch, it’s got this late little tilt to it that guys don’t pick up. It’s a fascinating pitch.”
Notably, improvements to Ohtani’s delivery have made his slider a sharper pitch with increased horizontal movement this season to make it a consensus plus-plus offering.
“He did some arm path things and I think his timing is better, which is why his slider is better,” another scout said. “That’s usually where it shows up.”
With three plus or better pitches at his disposal, Ohtani’s stuff was already potent. Then he added a cutter this year to give him a fourth plus pitch.
Though he doesn’t throw his cutter often—only about 13% of the time, according to Baseball Savant—it’s effective at drawing soft contact. Sitting in the upper 80s with short, late movement, Ohtani’s cutter has held batters to a .200 average this season. He mostly throws it early in counts to get quick outs.
“The cutter he added is from a lack of fastball life,” one scout said. “He can throw that in fastball counts and miss barrels.”
Righthanded batters in particular struggle against Ohtani’s cutter. They’ve hit ground balls or popups against it more than half the time he’s thrown it and are batting just .160 overall against it.
“It’s a late dart and it’s small,” another scout said. “I love cutters that are small because that’s the true cutter. What you’re trying to ultimately do is stay off the barrel and get on the thumbs with a true cutter. And obviously, that’s what this pitch does.”
Ohtani’s mid-70s curveball is not a significant part of his arsenal. He throws it less than 4% of the time and mostly uses it as a change-of-pace offering to steal a strike against lefthanded hitters.
Largely because he throws it so infrequently, his command of his curveball is inconsistent. He’ll hang some over the plate and throw others too far out of the strike zone to be competitive pitches, but other times he’ll land one for a strike on the edges of the zone or get batters lunging out front for weak contact.
As such, grades on his curveball vary widely, with different scouts grading it anywhere from a below-average pitch to an average one.
"It’s a show pitch, but the reason I like it is he knows when to use it,” one rival evaluator said. “Steal a strike, throw it against a lefthanded hitter. He knows when to use it.”
Above all else, the biggest difference in Ohtani this season is his control.
Ohtani walked eight of the 16 batters he faced in 2020 following his return from Tommy John surgery and got off to an inauspicious start this year with 19 walks in his first 18.2 innings.
But as he’s gotten more time on the mound after missing the 2019 season recovering from surgery and pitching just 1.2 innings in 2020, his strike-throwing has improved to the point evaluators now universally grant him above-average control.
After his wild beginning to the 2021 season, Ohtani has walked just 2.1 batters per nine innings in his last 15 starts.
“That’s the biggest differentiator this year, why he’s been so successful,” Maddon said. “The control is three grades better. Last year he had no idea. Last year he was often times throwing a breaking ball just to throw a strike. He was really very limited with his fastball. This year he’ll go through stretches where he doesn’t walk people. Being able to throw the fastball for strikes now has led the other pitches to be chased even more. That’s what he’s done.”
Along with health, control was in many ways the last piece of the puzzle for Ohtani. Now that he's corralled it, it's allowed him to be a true-two way star the likes of which haven't been seen in over 100 years.
“It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” one veteran scout said. “I didn’t think it was going to work, but he’s pulling it off.”