Shohei Ohtani’s 2021 season may not only be the greatest MVP campaign in baseball history but also one of the most unique displays of athleticism in all of sports. Ohtani proved for the first time in his career that he could play a full season as both a hitter and a pitcher. While playing one position is hard enough in the major leagues, the ability to produce at an elite level as a two-way player hasn’t been seen since the days of Babe Ruth. Somehow, Ohtani followed this up with an even better 2022 campaign. Despite ultimately losing the MVP award to Aaron Judge, Ohtani finished the season with a career-high 9.6 WAR.
After another historic season, baseball media and the legend of “Sho-Time” have created misconceptions about the star two-way player.
Shohei Ohtani: The Pitcher
Part of the brilliance of Ohtani’s 2021 season was his equally elite performance as both a hitter and a pitcher. As a hitter, Ohtani slugged 46 home runs and ended the season with a 4.9 WAR. Ohtani displayed nearly identical production from the mound, pitching to a 3.18 ERA and a 4.1 WAR. The biggest misconception about Ohtani’s 2022 season, however, is that he once again produced equally on both sides of the field. In reality, Ohtani’s production as a pitcher nearly doubled his hitting production.
The 2022 season saw Ohtani jump from the ace of a ragtag Los Angeles Angels rotation to one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. His 6.1 WAR from the mound was 3rd among all pitchers, beating out veterans like Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Carlos Rodon.
This jump in value is mostly the result of a change in pitch mix. Ohtani’s slider usage exploded, jumping from 22% in 2021 to 39.1% in 2022. This adjustment, however, was not the result of a completely retooled pitch. Ohtani saw little improvement on his slider K% and even a decrease in total movement from his 2021 numbers. However, the raw value on this slider made it comfortable for Ohtani to throw it in nearly every count.
Shohei’s slider registered a -28 total run value in 2022, making it the second most valuable pitch in all of MLB. Of all pitches thrown in MLB, only three recorded an RV/100 of -2.7: Dylan Cease’s slider, Sandy Alcantara’s changeup, and Shohei Ohtani’s slider. The downside of throwing a pitch more frequently is a hitter is better able to adjust to that pitch. But Ohtani’s slider increased in Whiff% despite throwing it more frequently, indicating that hitters were completely overmatched despite having seen it multiple times.
Baseball fans love seeing a ball race to the plate at 100 miles an hour. Ohtani’s ability to pump the zone with a high 90’s fastball only added to his “unicorn” talent. In reality, Ohtani’s 4-seam fastball is a mediocre pitch. While velocity is an important factor in fastball effectiveness, active spin is an equally important.
Active spin refers to how efficiently a ball spins. Fastballs with high active spin, like Justin Verlander’s, almost have the appearance of rising as they reach the plate. Ohtani’s active spin on his fastball in 2022 was a lukewarm 76%. As a result of a subpar active spin, Ohtani’s fastball dropped -1.7 inches more than the MLB average. 4-seam fastballs that drop tend to get hit harder, which is exactly what hitters did against Ohtani’s fastball. In 2022, hitters had a .408 xSLG and a near .300 batting average when facing off against Shohei’s 4-seamer. The low vertical movement on the pitch makes it even more vulnerable. Ironically, throwing this pitch less actually made it more valuable. In 2022, Ohtani recorded a career-high fastball run value of -3 with a -.4 RV/100. The pitch also saw significant improvement in HardHit%, K%, and SLG from his 2021 campaign.
Not only did Ohtani change his pitch usage, he also added an entirely new pitch to his arsenal. Baseball media created the story of Shohei Ohtani: The Machine, who instantly learned a sinker after facing off against sinkerballer Clay Holmes.
In reality, Ohtani was tinkering with a sinker in pitching starts before that encounter. The rationale for adding this pitch makes a lot of sense. Ohtani ranked in the 81st percentile in fastball velocity, yet his 4-seamer and cutter were too mediocre to take advantage of this speed. The addition of a sinker not only makes use of Ohtani’s arm strength but can also pair well with his slider.
Shohei Ohtani: The Hitter
In 2022, Ohtani had a career-high number of hits and doubles with a significantly better strikeout rate than the year prior. And yet Ohtani’s WAR went down 1.5 from 2021 to 2022. The reason for this isn’t the result of player regression but rather an entirely different hitting approach.
The biggest difference between Ohtani’s hitting in 2021 and 2022 is the rate at which he made contact. Ohtani went up in Contact%, Zone Contact%, and Outside Zone Contact% from his 2021 season. This increase in contact trickled down to his other statistics, explaining both his hit total and lower strikeout rate. It also led to a batting average increase from .257 in 2021 to .273 in 2022. While a higher batting average looks promising, it came at the cost of Ohtani’s power.
Ohtani’s 2021 Isolated Power of .335 dwarfs his 2022 number of .246. With nearly equal totals in doubles and triples, this difference in power boils down to the long ball. Ohtani hit twelve more homers in 2021 than his 2022 season. This increase in home runs comes in part because of Ohtani’s swing itself. In 2021, Shohei had a career-high launch angle of 16.8 degrees, demonstrating an increased effort to lift the baseball.
Despite lower production numbers, this decrease in power isn’t necessarily a grim sign it might even be leading the young star onto the right path. Ohtani’s biggest struggle throughout his career has been the strikeout, ranking in the bottom 7% of the league in 2021. Ohtani’s focus on contact in 2022 helped address this problem, significantly improving his K%. On the other hand, making more contact also led to fewer walks. If Ohtani can balance this newfound contact with his already elite walk numbers, he could become a legitimate power, on-base, and speed threat.
Shoehei Ohtani: The Superstar
Shohei Ohtani is one of the most unique athletes in all of sports. His alien abilities make him must-watch TV whenever he steps on the rubber or digs into the batter’s box. But in this greatness, we often make false assumptions. Ohtani was not a perfectly productive two-way player in 2022, nor was he an elite power hitter. Ohtani does not throw an amazing fastball or learn pitches like a machine.
Ohtani’s 2022 season may have been full of misconceptions, but it also saw moments of progress for the superstar. We can expect to see Ohtani continue to develop his sinker, maybe even throwing that more than his 4-seam fastball next season. We can also expect to see his contact trends continue, perhaps even expanding with the removal of the shift.
With Arte Moreno returning as the owner of the Angels, Ohtani’s future is up in the air. Either “Sho-Time” will lead the Angels to a drought-ending playoff run or leave the team with a nice prospect package at the trade deadline.
Shohei Ohtani, Babe Ruth, Aaron Judge, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Carlos Rodon, Dylan Cease, Sandy Alcantara, Clay Holmes
Ryan Shaw is a current student at the University of California, Irvine majoring in Film and Media Studies. He has been a baseball and Los Angeles Angels fan for as long as he can remember. In his free time, Ryan pitches for his college club baseball team and enjoys a good movie.