Angels' Shohei Ohtani throwing harder, rising to 'another level'
By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Lost amid an unspectacular offensive start to Shohei Ohtani’s MVP follow-up season is a startling truth: He has been pitching better than ever of late.
His 2.82 ERA this year would be his MLB career-best, and his 1.50 ERA over his past five starts constitutes his best stretch of that span to date. The Angels have not capitalized on his starts, but he has worked sufficiently deep into games to rest their bullpen, and his success is surely contributing to the team’s surprising start.
Not that the 27-year-old admits he is attempting anything different.
"I didn’t really change much," Ohtani recently told reporters of his pitching. "But maybe my arm’s just getting used to all the stress."
Last season, he set a career-high for plate appearances and innings pitched, and he is on pace to soundly shatter both marks again in 2022.
Now, Ohtani’s hitting has, overall, been just fine, even better than fine — 27% better than league average entering Tuesday. He has donned the ceremonious cowboy hat for launching a homer. He has reached the milestone of 100 homers, far faster than most. He has hit tape-measure blasts. And he has entertained teammates with his slump-busting antics, from performing mid-game CPR on his bat to performatively rubbing the famously positive club color analyst, Mark Gubicza, so as to acquire some of his energy.
But it’s his pitching that’s at its peak right now. Ohtani’s average velocity in his most recent start was his hardest in an MLB game to date. He recently flirted with a perfect game. He has upped his strikeouts and limited his walks. Scouts say it's the latter achievement that has them most encouraged. Ohtani has maintained competent command in each of his seven starts this season, unlike in years past.
He has not yet issued more than two walks in a 2022 game. Entering this season, he had done so in nine of the 25 starts since returning from October 2018 Tommy John surgery. Wildness had been his most frequent undoing. It was also his undoing in his one bad inning this season: a two-walk, four-run second inning April 14 in Texas.
Ohtani arrived at this season’s shortened spring training vowing to aim higher, and the Angels’ leaders vouched that it was possible. Manager Joe Maddon spent many mornings arguing that improvement was within easy reach. General manager Perry Minasian confidently proclaimed that Ohtani "had another level" to attain.
This might be another level. Among starters, his 97.2-mph average fastball this season ranks behind only Cincinnati’s Hunter Greene, the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole and the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara. Ohtani's 98.6-mph average fastball last time out, against Texas, would be tied for the best in baseball this season, even among relievers.
To some extent, that’s what Ohtani offers: a reliever approach to pitching, for five times as long as a typical relief outing. Like a reliever might, he has been throwing his fastball and a slider nearly three-quarters of the time, his highest rate yet. Then he’ll mix in occasional splitters, curveballs and cutters.
Asked for a comparison to what he has seen from Ohtani this season, Angels catcher Chad Wallach could only muster up a closer he once caught: the Phillies’ Corey Knebel, the owner of an electric fastball that’s elite in both velocity and spin. The same is true for Ohtani.
"You know how good his stuff is, but you don’t realize how it moves, how sharp and hard everything is, until you actually catch it," said Wallach, who was called into duty to catch Ohtani this month when the Angels’ top two catchers were placed on the COVID-19 list. "His slider feels harder than it actually is because it spins so hard and breaks so hard. You hear hitters say that the fastball gets on you, but as a catcher, it’s rare you actually experience that. You don’t see that too often. But, with him, it felt like it got on me."
Ohtani’s 2022 season is starting to resemble that description, too: sneakily successful. He started OK as a pitcher and poorly as a hitter. Seven weeks in, great and good would be more appropriate descriptors. For him, this season is not about spurts. It’s about longevity, as the Angels have staked their postseason hopes on his ability to stay on the field. They are not as deep as their peers.
Twenty-four men have already appeared on the mound for the 26-17 Angels this season, dwarfing the 17 who have suited up for the 27-16 Astros. They are shuffling through whomever they can find to fill the necessary innings. Save for Noah Syndergaard, none of those men has Ohtani’s potential.
He looks to be fulfilling it.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for three seasons for The Athletic and, before that, the Angels and Dodgers for five seasons for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times. More previously, he covered his alma mater, USC, for ESPNLosAngeles.com. The son of Brazilian immigrants, he grew up in the Southern California suburbs. His first book, "How to Beat a Broken Game," came out this spring. Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.