HOUSTON — For months we’ve all been told that Shohei Ohtani is unique, a player doing something that no one has done in 100 years in the major leagues.
And it’s all true.
Except it’s also obscured the fact that Ohtani, in other ways, is just like everyone else.
Which is what hitting coach Jeremy Reed sees when asked to evaluate what’s happened to Ohtani at the plate.
“Baseball is a game of adjustments,” Reed said. “It’s a game of failure. It’s a game of trying to keep positions and the comfort when you’re going good, and expanding those streaks, and minimizing the other streaks that happen to every player.”
Ohtani has been in one of those “other streaks,” for the past few weeks, or past couple months, depending how you want to slice the numbers.
Although Ohtani leads the majors with 43 homers and is fourth with a .964 OPS, the latter has been steadily dropping.
Ohtani has hit .122 with a .576 OPS over his past 47 plate appearances. He’s hit .196 with a .738 OPS over his past 125 plate appearances. He’s hit .217 with a .787 OPS in 199 plate appearances since the All-Star break.
Ohtani said last weekend his recent issues are because he’s not been seeing strikes and wasn’t remaining disciplined.
“The last month, I haven’t been really been seeing pitches over the plate where I could put good contact on it, but when I do I need to make sure I put a good swing on it and drive the ball,” Ohtani said through his interpreter. “Otherwise, it’s simple. I just need to lay off of pitches that are close or are balls and swing at strikes.”
Manager Joe Maddon has said the same thing, also adding that Ohtani is better when he’s hitting the ball to center and left-center more often than he has been lately.
Reed ran through a few possible issues with Ohtani, but as he spoke there were two specific themes that he hit repeatedly. He agreed with Ohtani’s assessment about the quality of pitches he’s seeing, and he added something that neither Ohtani nor Maddon has acknowledged.
“Fatigue matters,” Reed said. “This guy has gone wire to wire pitching and hitting, and it’s September.”
Reed added mental fatigue.
“There’s the mental grind of being able to game plan for pitching and game plan for hitting, and then also to execute it,” Reed said.
The Angels have essentially abandoned the planned days off they built into Ohtani’s schedule when he was a two-way player in 2018. Back then, he never hit the day before or the day after he pitched, or the day he pitched. Now, he does all of that.
Ohtani has started 127 of the Angels’ 140 games. He pinch-hit in six others. He pitched and hit in the same game 17 times.
Although Maddon said in June that the Angels might ease the workload on Ohtani in the second half, to this point they have not. Ohtani threw a career-high 117 pitches last Friday and was back in the lineup the next day. Ohtani will pitch again Friday, on the six days’ rest that has become standard for him.
Asked Wednesday if Ohtani had expressed any desire for a break after that game, Maddon said he had not.
“I just don’t know how he does it, where he comes from,” Maddon said. “It’s just so unusual to be able to pitch like that, throw that many pitches, throw that hard, and then be able to even DH the next day, but I’ve not heard from him or anybody else anything negative about that.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Ohtani is just finishing a three-day stretch in which he did get some rest. Because the Angels played Tuesday and Wednesday without the DH in San Diego and had Thursday off, Ohtani was able to recharge. He pinch-hit Tuesday, but did not play at all Wednesday.
Aside from the fatigue question, the main issue that could be affecting Ohtani is the way he’s being pitched.
With Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon out, the Angels have no one in the lineup to adequately protect him. The next best hitter, Jared Walsh, doesn’t usually hit directly behind Ohtani because the Angels would then be vulnerable to allowing left-handed pitchers to face the left-handed Ohtani and Walsh consecutively.
“We have great players that handle the bat, but it’s just different when Mike’s not a presence in the lineup,” Reed said. “I think you’re seeing, over 500-600 plate appearances, they could be a little more careful with you.”
While it certainly makes sense that opponents would throw fewer strikes to Ohtani as he establishes himself, the numbers don’t entirely support that narrative.
In the first half, pitchers threw Ohtani strikes 43.9% of the time. In the second half, 44.6% of the pitches he’s seen have been strikes. He has swung at those pitches out of the zone slightly more often in the second half, with his chase percentage going from 27.6% to 28.5%.
It’s been more of an issue in the past couple weeks.
Since Aug. 22, Ohtani has seen strikes with just 41.5% of pitches, and he’s swung at 29.9% of those pitches out of the zone.
He has struck out in 42.5% of his at-bats since then – compared with 35.2% of the time before that – and not surprisingly, he’s hit .149 with a .639 OPS.
Other numbers also support Maddon’s assertion that Ohtani is not using the whole field as he did earlier. Ohtani’s pull percentage has jumped from 43% in the first half to 54% in the second half.
Ohtani’s recent slump, however, has come at the end of a season so spectacular that his overall offensive numbers are still excellent. His OPS is built mostly on a .608 slugging percentage that ranks second in the majors.
Also, he’s done all that while improving as a pitcher. He’s 9-1 with a 2.97 ERA, including a 2.25 ERA over his past eight starts.
The combination of being one of baseball’s best hitters – slump included – and best pitchers is why Ohtani is widely expected to win the MVP award.
Which brings Reed back to where we began.
Yes, Ohtani goes through slumps like every hitter. But he’s also unlike anyone else.
“To see what he’s doing is hard to put into words, to be honest,” Reed said. “We just have to appreciate what he’s doing vs. questioning it, in my opinion, because this is greatness. This is something we haven’t seen before.”
Angels (RHP Shohei Ohtani, 9-1, 2.97 ERA) at Astros (LHP Framber Valdez, 9-5, 3.08), Friday, 5:10 p.m., Bally Sports West, 830 AM