Sometimes, artists change their name midcareer: Prince, Cat Stevens, Mos Def—the list goes on. A couple of weeks ago, Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani had his name changed to “Shohei Ohtani, and I know spring training stats don’t matter, but—”
No player entered the 2018 season under greater pressure than the 23-year-old Ohtani. Not because of any financial outlay the Angels made to acquire him—thanks to exploitative rules governing the pay of young players, both in terms of salary and signing bonuses, the Angels are paying him like a backup catcher. But because Ohtani represents a combination of potential and polish baseball hasn’t seen from an unattached player since at least Bryce Harper’s draft year—and perhaps not since Alex Rodriguez was a free agent in the winter of 2000-01.
Ohtani is supposed to be a transcendent star because he combines upper-90s heat with physics-bending secondary stuff in a lithe, 6-foot-4 frame. He is about the same age as a polished power arm out of an American college would be when he hit the big leagues for the first time: upon throwing his first big league pitch against Oakland on Sunday, Ohtani was 10 days younger than Max Scherzer (drafted 11th overall out of Missouri in 2006) was when he threw his. But unlike Scherzer or most other highly-touted college pitchers, Ohtani is supposed to be a transcendent star because he has a track record of being precisely that in the second-best league in the world.
And also because unlike almost any American pitcher, Ohtani is also a big league–quality hitter: In five NPB seasons, Ohtani not only posted a 2.52 ERA with a 10.3 K/9 ratio in 85 career pitching appearances, he hit .286/.358/.500 as well. (He singled once in five at-bats in his Opening Day start at DH.) Ohtani was the Pacific League MVP in 2016, in his age-21 season. Between his physical gifts, his NPB numbers, his unique two-way potential, and Americans’ leering fascination with anything foreign, Ohtani operates under a microscope.
So while some rookie pitchers could get away with an anonymous nine earned runs in 2 2/3 spring training innings, Ohtani couldn’t. No matter how low the stakes, no matter how small the sample, there was some creeping doubt that Ohtani just couldn’t hack it over here. We were promised spectacular, after all.
But when Ohtani took the mound for an MLB regular-season game, spectacular is what he delivered.
Ohtani’s first meaningful pitch, a 96 mph fastball to A’s shortstop Marcus Semien, wasn’t much more encouraging. There was a time when 96 on its own was enough to beat big league hitters, but it’s come and gone, particularly when that 96 is straight and middle in; if Semien were more aggressive, he could have put Ohtani’s first pitch into the seats.
The next pitch registered as a slider, but what I said when I saw it was “What the fffffuck was that?” At 82 miles an hour, it was probably more elevated than ideal for a breaking ball, but it moved right-to-left like something out of trick shot billiards. Shortly thereafter, Ohtani busted out his splitter, which isn’t a loopy-divey Brandon Webb–type forkball. Instead, it’s like a runaway tram car on a line from Ohtani’s hand to a spot somewhere between catcher Martín Maldonado’s feet.
That wild-ass sideways slider Semien saw in the first bore little resemblance to the arsenal of sliders Ohtani unveiled as the game wore on. His next time up, three of the first four pitches Semien saw were vertical 12-to-6 breaking pitches around 80 mph that, even though they traversed the entire strike zone vertically at curveball speed, registered as sliders on MLB Gameday. Semien’s third time up he whiffed on an 89 mph sinker that actually did have a little bit of up-and-down movement. Semien is a decent big league hitter: He has a 96 career wRC+, which is average-ish, plus a 27-homer season in 2016. But the number of ways Ohtani made Semien look foolish in this game beggars belief—at some point this stops being baseball and turns into bullying.
In addition to the varied sliders that flummoxed Semien in his first two at-bats, Ohtani ripped off mid-80s breaking pitches with more vertical break—and the one blemish on his box score, a three-run home run by Matt Chapman in the second inning, was off one of those that caught too much of the plate
In six innings, Ohtani embodied all the pitching clichés. He changed speeds, from mid-70s curves to low-80s sliders to sinkers at 89 or 90 to a fastball that hit triple digits a couple of times. He commanded to both sides of the plate: Ohtani played keep-away from righties with his slider away, and came in on their hands with upper-90s heat with arm-side run. One of the four baserunners he allowed was Stephen Piscotty, who saw a 100 mph 1-2 heater on the very low inside corner of the zone—prime location for a hitter to turn on a ball and yank it into the seats to his pull side. Piscotty’s single was an opposite-field slice—a nice piece of hitting, but a defensive piece of hitting against a pitch in a location where normal fastballs get pulled for extra bases. Against lefties, Ohtani faded the four-seamer on the outer half, or would bring the same pitch inside under their hands.
Ohtani’s debut, spectacular though it was, wasn’t perfect. Having three of his four baserunners score exaggerates his second-inning struggles, but he did make a mistake to Chapman. A few other pitches missed up, or got too much of the zone, and as the game wore on, his fastball began to sit around 94-97, rather than the 98-100 of the early innings.
But by and large Ohtani got away with missing his spots because even his mistake pitches moved so much. And whatever the results, this is what Ohtani was supposed to look like.