Shohei Ohtani made his first MLB start in nearly two years on Sunday, as his Los Angeles Angels visited the Oakland A’s at the Coliseum. The star young right-hander missed all of 2019 after Tommy John surgery, but now he’s healthy and ready to go.
In Ohtani’s favor was the fact that last time he started against the A’s, in April 2018, he tossed seven shutout, one-hit innings with 12 strikeouts. This time around, it didn’t go as well.
Oakland sent six batters to the plate against Ohtani in the 1st inning, and all six of them reached base, with five ultimately scoring. After just 30 pitches, and without recording a single out, Ohtani’s long-awaited 2020 debut was finished.
What happened?? Let’s have a closer look at his rough day.
First thing’s first: Ohtani’s velocity is not currently up to where we last saw it before his surgery. In 2018 he averaged 96.7 mph on his fastball, with a ludicrous high of 101.1. He hit triple-digits seven times in just over 50 innings, plus a dozen more at 99.5+ that could be rounded up, and 10% of his fastballs went 99.0+ mph.
On Sunday, he averaged 92.9 and topped at 94.7. This simply wasn’t the same Ohtani we saw as a rookie. Velo isn’t everything, but this was an enormous enough drop to remove him from the category of power pitcher entirely. Add in his complete inability to control the heater (lukewarmer?), and that spells trouble, with one of his top weapons gone and no way to set up his secondaries.
First batter: Marcus Semien
You could see the effects right away. He threw Semien a couple fastball for strikes, but they were 93 mph instead of 100. That made it easier for Semien to line one back up the middle for a sharp single.
Second batter: Ramon Laureano
Ohtani began to get himself into trouble here, but it wasn’t yet apparent how bad it was going to be. He walked Laureano, but it took seven pitches. He threw a slider on the inside edge for a strike on 2-0, and he hit the zone on both 2-1 and 3-2 but Ramon fouled it off both times — one of them a mediocre 92 mph fastball. Finally, he missed on the second 3-2 pitch, but even that one wasn’t terrible; it’s the lower-right red dot on the chart below.
This one was as much a good at-bat by Laureano as it was a bad one by Ohtani. The biggest thing Ohtani did wrong was fall behind 2-0, because without that he might have had a better chance.
Third batter: Matt Chapman
This is where he started to really unravel. He got close with a couple fastballs up and in, and Chapman fouled off the lower one on the inside edge (second pitch of the at-bat), but after that there just wasn’t enough there to keep him swinging.
Now the bases were loaded, bringing up the guy who hit a grand slam just two nights prior.
Fourth batter: Matt Olson
Ohtani never gave him a reason for his bat to leave his shoulder. The first two pitches missed badly, and at that point, with the bases loaded and the wild pitcher on the ropes, Olson did the right thing by waiting to take at least one strike. It came on the next pitch, a fastball on the inside edge, and Olson wisely let it go by rather than potentially letting him off the hook by hitting into an out. Ball 3 wasn’t close; Ball 4 was, but he didn’t get the call.
Maybe on another day, when he’s not all over the place, he’ll get that borderline call on the final pitch. But this time it gave Olson a walk, and forced home the first run of the game.
Fifth batter: Mark Canha
Ohtani finally found the zone again. The first pitch missed, but then he earned a called strike followed by another in the zone that got fouled off — after struggling to locate the slider to that point (the yellow dots in the charts above), both strikes were using that breaking pitch. At least he’d found one tool in his arsenal that was beginning to work.
The fourth pitch, a splitter on the bottom edge, was too close to take and Canha fouled it off too. A slider in nearly the same spot was called Ball 2, and after that point Canha began to expand the zone a bit in fouling off the next two pitches — including one chase in the dirt that he only barely brushed with the bat, and which catcher Jason Castro nearly caught for the strikeout anyway.
Ohtani went back to another 2-2 slider on the eighth pitch, and while this one missed low, it was a good attempt at getting Cahna to chase again like he’d done on the previous offering. The ninth pitch was a similar story, just out of the zone but in a way that could draw a swing — and it did, but Canha made contact and lined a sharp single to right to drive in two runs. It was Ohtani’s slowest fastball of the day at 90.7 mph.
If those fastballs had been 99 instead of 90-92, would he have whiffed on the sixth pitch (green dot, upper right), or not caught up with the one he hit for the decisive blow and swung right through it?
Still, despite the bad result, this was a better at-bat by Ohtani, countered by a great one from Canha. The main problem seemed to be that his leading tool was gone — otherwise, he finally got the breaking ball down and around the zone, and he nearly had Canha struck out twice on sliders with the fifth pitch (blue dot, bottom edge of zone) and seventh pitch (green dot, lower right in the dirt).
Sixth batter: Robbie Grossman
Ohtani was back in the zone and threw him a first-pitch strike, then a nice low splitter that induced a swing and a groundball. However, rather than going to a fielder for a double play, it found a hole for another RBI single. BABIP is what happens when you can’t get swings and misses and have to rely on batted balls.
On that note: Ohtani didn’t get a single swinging strike in 30 pitches.
Add it up, and Ohtani issued three walks, two of them pretty bad ones, sandwiched between two hard-hit singles, and followed by a medium-hard grounder that didn’t pan out in his favor. It could have been worse, with homers and doubles flying all over the place, and to a large extent he beat himself — on top of the reminder that Oakland’s lineup is really, really, really good and might make lots of pitchers look silly this summer.
But that lack of velocity is troublesome. It was only his first start back after the long injury recovery, plus many pitchers are probably still a tick or two below normal as they finish warming up after a short preseason. Perhaps at least some of it will come back, but is he going to re-add four more miles to his average and more than six to his high?
For his part, Ohtani wasn’t worried about the velocity, reports insider Rhett Bollinger, so we’ll see if he can yet rekindle the old flamethrower. Where he lands on the spectrum from what we saw today, to the blistering heat he showed two years ago, could tell us a lot about what to expect from him the rest of this year.
And what of the wildness? Was that just rust, or season-debut jitters, or was it another cause for concern? He had a slightly high walk rate as a rookie anyway, and he did seem to settle down control-wise as the inning went on, but this is something else he’ll need to re-prove moving forward.
It’s too early to draw any conclusions about Ohtani, even as bad as this start looked. But all eyes will certainly continue to be on him to see how he responds in his next couple starts, which will come every Sunday. The A’s could potentially see him again for his fourth turn, between Aug. 10-12 in Anaheim.