Shohei Ohtani’s 2021 campaign has gone about as well as anyone could have hoped, in great part because he has spent the year excelling at things that previously seemed to be lacking from his overall profile as a player. Where once there was fragility and anxious caution, there is now durability and consistency. Ohtani has played a ton of baseball this year, because that’s what he wanted to and was able to do. Yesterday, despite having had his previous start pushed back due to arm soreness, he took the mound against the Oakland Athletics and played some more baseball. As has been the case all year long, it rocked.
I’m sure various members of the Angels front office were grimacing at the thought of Ohtani starting a September baseball game during a season in which the Angels are well out of contention, but to hell with those guys. Ohtani seems to have come into this season with a clear goal in mind: proving that he can simultaneously be one of the best hitters and pitchers in baseball, day in and day out, all season long. The Angels don’t have dick to play for, but that doesn’t mean Ohtani needs to set aside his own personal ambitions.
And how could anyone complain after getting to watch Ohtani strike out 10 in eight masterful innings? It was one of his most impressive outings of the season, particularly because he decided that it was a good day to finally let his splitter eat.
Ohtani’s splitter is one of the best pitches in all of baseball, and one mildly frustrating thing about his season thus far has been how often he’s set it aside in favor of throwing more fastballs and sliders. He got off that trend yesterday, though, and decided to throw his splitter a staggering 56 times, which elicited 18 swings and misses from the Oakland lineup. If you watch that highlight reel above, you’ll notice that all but one of Ohtani’s strikeouts came via the splitter. After the game, he was asked about his decision to go split crazy, and his answer revealed something interesting about how he’s approached this season.
“The biggest goal I had coming into this season was staying healthy and finishing healthy,” Ohatni said. “In order to do that I felt like I needed to balance out certain pitches at certain points in the season, because some pitches are more stressful on the elbow than others. But like I said earlier, we only have a couple games left and I feel good right now physically, so I felt like this was a time to test out the splitter.”
What we’ve just learned here is that Ohtani managed to strike out 146 batters in 123.1 innings this year while intentionally holding himself back from using his best putaway pitch as often as he might like. That means that the Ohtani we’ve seen kick plenty of ass was also just as concerned with keeping his body intact as he was with striking out whoever was standing in the box. We’ve somehow been watching the tentative version all along.
It’s easy enough to hand-wave all of this; certainly there are a great many pitchers in baseball who could, if they really wanted to sell out and only use their best stuff and not really worry about what might be happening to their arms, reach a higher level of performance more consistently. Should we really get all that excited about a good pitcher going all-out and having a great start in a meaningless September game? If he can’t do this every game, then what does it really matter?
I’ll only ask you to think about this, my friend: Imagine a future in which several miracles occur and the Angels actually make the damn playoffs for once. Imagine that Ohtani has once again hit 40 homers and struck out 140 guys and has led the team just as steadily and consistently as he did this year. Now imagine that Ohtani, feeling strong and healthy and like he could maybe start throwing 50 or more splitters per game for a short period of time, gets to make a few starts in the playoffs. Ohhhh boy. My goodness. You see what I’m getting at?