Shohei Ohtani entered his Major League debut on Sunday with about as big of a spotlight as any rookie could possibly have, thanks both to years of comparisons to literally Babe Ruth and to a relatively unimpressive Spring Training that raised questions about his readiness to succeed in the big leagues at all.
After six innings in a 7-4 win over the A's in Oakland on Sunday, at least one of those questions has been answered. Ohtani looked strong, occasionally dominant and with few things he'll need to work on. But most importantly, he looked like a talented Major League starting pitcher. Now that we have his first game in the books, what exactly did we see?
What we mean by that is, now we know a little more about Ohtani's pitches, his velocity, his control -- his scouting report, if you will. While a line of six innings, three earned runs, with six strikeouts and one walk is nice, there's a lot of ways to get there. Felix Hernandez and Jimmy Nelson had games with that line last year, but so did Nick Martinez and Ben Lively. The line alone doesn't tell you enough.
One game isn't enough to say "we know what Ohtani is and will be." It's enough to say that we know a little more about him than we did in his pitching debut. Here's what we learned:
Fastball velocity: 97.8 mph (Elite, 99th percentile)
Ohtani threw 39 four-seam fastballs on Sunday, averaging 97.8 mph and maxing out at 99.6 mph. If that all sounds very good, that's because it is, very much so. Last year, 268 starting pitchers threw 100 fastballs (four-seam, two-seam or sinker), and just one of them had a higher average velocity: Noah Syndergaard. Again, 39 fastballs isn't a huge sample size, but when we analyzed data from Japan, we found Ohtani's average fastball was 97.5 mph in 2017, so this lines up with expectations very well.
A dozen of Ohtani's pitches came in at 98.5 mph or higher, which we're using as a cutoff so we can round up to 99, and now we get somewhere interesting. Only six starters hit 99 mph a dozen or more times in all of 2017. Ohtani just did that in six innings. It's not hyperbole to say that he's got velocity unlike nearly any non-Syndergaard starting pitcher.
Even in a world where velocity is everywhere, 99 will still get you places. Just ask Matt Olson:
Fastball spin: 2,218 rpm (Average, 48th percentile)
This aligns well with both the scouting reports on Ohtani and what we found in the Japanese data: His fastball was hard, but relatively straight. Last year, 226 pitchers threw 100 four-seamers, and the 2,218 rpm we saw from Ohtani on Sunday would have ranked 119th, or basically right in the middle.
What that means is there's not a ton of movement, in the sense that high spin generally correlates well with the "rising fastball" effect (along with swinging strikes and fly balls), while low spin correlates well with sink (along with grounders). When you're throwing 99, a lack of movement might not matter so much, but Ohtani did get only five swinging strikes on this pitch. In fact, much like Carlos Carrasco, a hard fastball might be best used setting up a good secondary pitch, which brings us to ...
Splitter effectiveness: 41.6 percent swinging strikes (Deadly, 99th percentile)
... Ohtani's split-finger fastball, which was outstanding. He threw 24 of them, and he induced 10 swinging strikes, a rate of 41.6 percent. That's not just strong, it's fantastic. In 2017, there were 263 games where a starting pitcher threw at least 10 split-finger fastballs. Want to know where 41.6 percent swinging strikes would end up? Sure you do.
Third. Even including a handful more of 2018 games with 10 splitters, only twice since the start of last year has a starter had a higher swinging strike rate than Ohtani did.
Just look at what it did to Matt Chapman, who had just been set up with two fastballs to get the first two strikes.
This goes to what velocity can do; Ohtani's average splitter was 89.3 mph on Sunday, and no starting pitcher in baseball threw his as hard in 2017. The splitter is "yikes with that arm speed," said former Major League slugger Jonny Gomes, who faced Ohtani in Japan. We concur.
Now realize what can happen when Ohtani is able to put those two pitches together in sequence, as our friends at Cut4 did. We highlighted the fastball above in the Olson clip, when you actually see fastball-fastball-splitter back-to-back-to-back, you see just how unhittable this all can be.
Slider: 34.6 percent called strikes (Excellent, 96th percentile)
Ohtani threw his curve just three times, so we didn't learn much about it, but we did see both the promise of his slider and what happens when he doesn't locate it, as he was unable to do against Chapman:
Although Ohtani did get three swinging strikes with the slider, what was more interesting was that he got nine called strikes, as Oakland hitters didn't seem to know what to do with it. Nine called strikes out of 26 pitches is a rate of 34.6 percent, and yes, that would have ranked extremely high in 2017.
How high? Last year, there were 505 games in which a starter threw at least 25 sliders and got at least five called strikes on it. Ohtani's 34.6 percent would have ranked 18th, or in the 96th percentile. We don't know what the curve could or might be, but we do know Ohtani has three pitches that showed well above average in one area or another Sunday.
Strike percentage: 68.5 percent (Outstanding, 63 of 92)
Last year, the top three teams in strike percentage -- which includes pitches in the zone and swings outside the zone -- were the Dodgers, Indians and Red Sox. The bottom three teams were the Orioles, Marlins and White Sox. Right away, you know it's something you want to be good at.
Ohtani walked only one, so clearly his control was sharp. But thanks to all the out-of-zone swings -- 13, nine of which were misses -- even when he wasn't in the zone, he was throwing pitches that hitters wanted to go after, even when they shouldn't have.
The 68.5 percent number, by itself, doesn't stand out. Chris Sale had a game where he hit 78 percent last year; Max Scherzer topped 70 percent eight times. But Scherzer also didn't reach 70 percent (in a game with at least 100 pitches) 14 times; even for the greats, it's not easy.
This is a number that will go up and down as Ohtani progresses through his season, yet we point it out here after a single game for one reason. On Sunday, he had a 68.5 percent strike percentage. Last year, the Major League leader was Clayton Kershaw ... who had a 68.6 percent strike percentage. It's just one start, but it's a good start.
There's going to be ups and downs for Ohtani, of course. Every pitcher in baseball gets lit up now and then. But he answered questions on day one, and then some. Based on the splitter and slider, Ohtani reminds somewhat of Tanaka, except the Yankees star throws 92-93 mph, not 99.
"Personally, I feel like I've gotten off to a good start," Ohtani said after the game.
We agree. Consider the concerns from Spring Training, at least on the mound, put to rest.