Learn about Ohtani's post-spring training adjustments, the pitch Tanaka ditched and more in this week's Nine Innings column.
INSIDE THE ELECTRIC BEGINNING TO SHOHEI OHTANI'S MLB CAREER
By Tom Verducci
Tuesday: home run. Wednesday: home run. Friday: home run. Sunday: seven shutout innings, the first 6 1/3 perfect. Today: full-blown phenomenon.
How was your week? The one for Shohei Ohtani of the Angels burst with historic significance and promise. The arc of his coming to America is dizzying: mystery begat hype, hype yielded to skepticism, skepticism evanesced under sheer amazement.
Less than two weeks after the question about Ohtani was whether he even deserved to be in the majors, the question now is how big this happening can get. A week like this, and suddenly the horizon is as big as it was for Fernando Valenzuela in April of 1981, when he opened with five straight complete game wins, four of them shutouts; or Mark Fidrych on June 28, 1971, when he beat the Yankees on Monday Night Baseball, smack in an 11-2 run in which he completed 12 of those 13 starts; or for Babe Ruth on May 6, 1918, when the Red Sox started their star pitcher in the field for the first time. Playing first base and batting sixth that day, Ruth clobbered a home run. He hit cleanup the next day, and hit another home run. Baseball would never be the same.
It took 100 years, but baseball has another Ruth, at least when it comes to a starting pitcher who hits home runs in between starts.
Two years ago, during the NLCS, a front office executive asked me, “Have you seen Ohtani? I’ve never seen anybody like him. He’s the real deal. Right now he could be an All-Star pitcher in the major leagues and hit in the middle of anybody’s lineup.”
Few dissenting words ever were spoken about his skills—until he actually hit the field for the Angels in spring training. He failed miserably as a hitter, oh-for-the-spring when it came to extra-base hits, and struggled on the mound, though when you saw him throw his fastball in the high 90s and break off wicked splitters you could easily see the impact he could make there.
And now … this: jaw-dropping power in the batter’s box and unhittable stuff on the mound. What happened? No doubt Ohtani needed time to grow accustomed to his new country, new training methods, new baseball and new competition in this fishbowl life. But it’s more than that. Ohtani made quick adjustments.
At the plate in spring training, Ohtani had been hopelessly late on pitches, hitting with a high leg kick, closed front foot and closed front hip, which never allowed him to get his back side through the baseball. Angels hitting coach Eric Hinske knew this swing could not work against big league pitching, where there is more velocity than in Japan and where pitchers pitch inside more aggressively. Hinske knew he had to find a way to “shorten up” Ohtani’s swing and “to clear his lower half” so that he could get to velocity and inside pitches.
So Ohtani adjusted. He ditched the leg kick. He adopted a small trigger mechanism with his front foot, getting it down early to get started earlier. Now he can fire his hips before his hands come through. There is more freedom and speed in his movements. His lower half is no longer closed and blocked, but “clear” in the way Hinske imagined.
That the adjustment could happen this quickly is testament to Ohtani’s athletic talent, diligence and baseball intelligence.
On the mound, there is nobody like Ohtani, not with a split this good, this often. The splitter is common in Japan, but rare here in the majors. Ohtani is one of only about a half dozen starting pitchers who throw the pitch. Hitters simply don’t see it enough to learn how to hit it.
Now consider that nobody throws one as often as Ohtani—32% in his first two starts—or with the viciousness of his drop. Yes, it’s only two games. But Ohtani’s splitter already ranks with Clayton Kershaw’s curveball and Justin Verlander’s fastball among the nastiest pitches in the game.
These numbers are incredible, even in a small sample. Ohtani has thrown 58 splitters—39 for strikes, or 67%. Hitters have swung at his splitter 37 times. They have failed to make contact 26 times. They have no hits. That is flat-out ridiculous. Think about that. The best hitters in the world cannot even make contact with his splitter 70% of the time.
There is no way to know quite where this is heading. Ruth, for instance, kept up the true double duty only for one more year. “I don’t think a man can pitch in his regular turn, and play every other game at some other position, and keep that pace year after year,” Ruth said.
“Phenomenon” comes from late 16th century Latin, which derived the word from the ancient Greeks, who used it to describe an appearance of some sort, drawing upon the root word “phainein,” which means “to show.” As in “Shohei.” We have a true phenomenon upon us.
The legends of Fernando, The Bird and the two-way version of The Babe did not gain perpetuity because they lasted; only that they happened at all. It’s not worth speculating how long Ohtani can keep this up, no more than it would be worth gazing upon a glorious sunset and worrying about when it will be dark. This is a week to simply sit back in wonder and amazement.
THE BEST THING I SAW THIS WEEK: THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE SPORTS PAGE
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
Let’s go ahead and add the asterisk as Shohei Ohtani was responsible for the best baseball that any of us saw this week. Aside from that? I’ll go with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sporting Green after Andrew McCutchen’s walk-off home run on Saturday night. McCutchen entered Saturday’s game with two hits and an .083 average over his first six games for his new club, hardly the start McCutchen or the Giants fanbase envisioned from the 2013 NL MVP. But then he delivered what's sure to be a signature moment of the Giants' season.
Sunday's sports cover— SFChronicle Sports (@SportingGreenSF) April 8, 2018
Stories at https://t.co/L240wV2xK7@annkillion @hankschulman : McCutchen's 6th hit lifts #SFGiants over #Dodgers @Bruce_Jenkins1 : Start NBA playoffs, already!@JohnSheaHey : All-anniversary teams revealed (make your lineup at https://t.co/EqGA9pbd7b) pic.twitter.com/CxqW9WiY4o
It wasn’t a standard walk-off home run. It was McCutchen’s sixth hit of the game, it was his first home run as a Giant and it came in the 12th pitch of his at-bat against Dodgers reliever Wilmer Font. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he became the first player since 1969 to have six hits and a walk-off homer in the same game. He fouled off six consecutive pitches before clubbing the ball into the leftfield seats. He was also wearing “212 VIP” cologne by Carolina Herrera.
McCutchen and fellow newcomer Evan Longoria have started slowly in San Francisco, so Saturday’s homer was a welcome moment for one of baseball’s most respected players. If the Giants remain in the NL West hunt, McCutchen will likely find a good home in San Francisco, which has one of baseball’s most consistent and supportive fan bases. If they can’t keep pace with their division foes, then McCutchen may only stay with the Giants until the trading deadline.
Regardless, he should find the sports page with the perfect photo—head down, hands extended, ball flying—to commemorate a career night for one of baseball’s most decorated players.
RANK 'EM: NINE MOST SURPRISING STARTS TO THE SEASON
By Jon Tayler
1. Ryan Flaherty, 2B, Braves: .414/.514/.552
Did you know that Ryan Flaherty was a first-round pick? Back in 2008, he was the 41st overall selection, or 31 slots ahead of Charlie Blackmon. The latter just signed a $106 million extension; the former joined the Braves a couple of weeks ago after being released by the Phillies in late March after spending six years with the Orioles as a light-hitting utility infielder. Now Flaherty is hitting like Blackmon with cheat codes, but if you think a glove-first 31-year-old with a career .215/.284/.355 line is suddenly this, then I have beachfront property in Colorado to sell you.
2. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves: .367/.558/.733, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 13 BB
It’s no surprise that Freeman is hitting like this—he was slashing an absurd .341/.461/.748 through his first 37 games last year before breaking his wrist and missing the next six weeks of the season—but 13 walks in 43 plate appearances is some freakish discipline. His 162-game pace right now: 227, or five off Barry Bonds’ all-time record. That won’t happen, but feel free to marvel at that Bonds number while you can.
3. Freddy Galvis, SS, Padres: .364/.475/.485, 1 HR, 5 RBI
There are few things more reliably futile than Padres shortstops. Of the 23 San Diego players who have appeared at short in 85% or more of their games in a season and qualified for the batting title, just one—Khalil Greene, twice (2004 and ’07)—has posted an OPS+ of 100 or better. The rest is a mess: from young Ozzie Smith given up on too soon to Garry Templeton’s ugly 30s to whatever Tony Fernandez was trying to do. Galvis, last seen hacking away to little effect with the Phillies, won’t keep this up, but it’s worth highlighting just how little he has to do to be the greatest shortstop in Padres history.
4. Ben Zobrist, OF, Cubs: .360/.448/.520, 1 HR, 3 RBI
Consigned to the Willie Bloomquist Veteran Utility Player Rest Home before the season, Zobrist saw his shine eclipsed by the brand new flavor that was Ian Happ. Instead, Happ has collapsed after opening the season with a homer, hitting .179 and striking out 17 times, and Zobrist has looked like his old Tampa Bay self. Joe Maddon still has the touch.
5. Joe Panik, 2B, Giants: .344/.400/.625, 3 HR, 3 RBI
Joe Panik has more home runs so far this season than Aaron Judge, Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and J.D. Martinez, and as many as Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout and Joey Gallo. We all saw this coming, right?
6. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals: .357/.535/1.000, 6 HR, 12 RBI, 13 BB, 5 K
Yes, Harper has more home runs than strikeouts at this young point in the year and is tied with Freeman for the league lead in walks. There’s no surprise that he’s one of the league’s best players; consider this more amazement that he’s somehow capable of still getting better.
7. Gary Sanchez, C, Yankees: .063/.091/.188, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 0 BB, 5 K
Slumps are allowed to start the season; not everyone comes firing out of spring training. But to see Sanchez not only struggling so badly but also failing to hit anything with any kind of authority is baffling. He’s quietly been the engine of New York’s deadly lineup the last year-plus. It’s no surprise that, with him scuffling, the Yankees don’t look quite right.
8. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Yankees: .167/.271/.429, 3 HR, 7 RBI, 6 BB, 20 K
We all expected some adjustments for Stanton as he moved from Miami to the Bronx and from the NL to the AL, but whiffing in 42% of his plate appearances is probably beyond even his worst nightmares. His first homestand as a Yankee: six games, 29 plate appearances, three hits, one homer, 16 strikeouts (including two five-strikeout days), and more boos in a weekend than he probably heard in his entire Marlins career. It can only go up from here.
9. Byron Buxton, OF, Twins: .185/.185/.222, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 0 BB, 9 K
We’ve all always wanted better from Buxton, and this year, we finally had reason to expect better after his stupendous second half to close out 2017 (.298/.342/.541 from Aug. 1 onward). But the massive swing-and-miss portion of his game seems determined to override and ruin everything. This wasn’t the start Buxton needed, and one we’d hoped we wouldn’t see.
QUICK HITS ON THE NL CENTRAL
By Tom Verducci
• Count at least one manager as unimpressed with the Cardinals’ infield defense. “That looks like it’s something that’s going to be an issue,” he said. Matt Carpenter continues to have throwing issues without full shoulder strength, shortstop Paul DeJong has average range at best, and first baseman Jose Martinez is a liability with the glove.
• Here’s a bad combo: a staff that loves to throw sinkers and poor infield defense. St. Louis is again a top-10 team when it comes to throwing two-seamers and sinkers (24%, above the MLB average of 20%). The Cardinals through the first two weeks of the season allowed an MLB-worst .332 batting average on balls in play.
Because of the modern swing, the game is not kind to teams that throw sinkers—the easiest pitch to hit in baseball. Of the five teams that threw the fewest sinkers last year, four made the playoffs. Of the 13 teams that threw the most, 12 of them did not make the playoffs. (Minnesota, an 85-win team, was the lone exception.)
• After Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham colorfully expressed to SI what he perceived as the organization’s lack of faith in him, Pham approached manager Mike Matheny to talk about the story. Matheny was disappointed that Pham’s shots at the organization detracted from an even better story: the outfielder’s perseverance after being drafted in the 16th round in 2006 and the way he has overcome multiple injuries and a serious eye condition, keratoconus. For the record, Pham is not legally blind in one eye, despite a few such reports. His left eye has 20/50 vision.
“The doctor said, ‘Can you read the big letter at the top of the chart?’” Pham said. “I said, ‘Yes. E.’ He said if you’re legally blind you can’t read it.”
• The Brewers ought to be concerned with starter Jhoulys Chacin. The velocity on his sinker is down about two miles per hour. He never hit 92 mph with it in his last start, against St. Louis—that should be his cruising speed. Yes, it’s only two starts into the season, but the Brewers noted that his velocity was down all spring, except for one start.
• Eighty percent of pitches thrown by Pirates pitchers this year have been thrown by pitchers between 24 and 29 years old. Only Ivan Nova and George Kontos are older. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the hardest-throwing staff in baseball is that of the Pirates. At 90.3 mph average velocity, they slot just above the New York Mets (90.2). Alas, only White Sox pitchers threw a lower percentage of strikes.
• Joey Votto of the Reds entered Sunday with five straight games without either a walk or an extra-base hit. It was his longest such streak in a decade, and the fourth longest of his career.
• It’s only two starts, but the Cubs are turning Yu Darvish into even more of a slider-happy pitcher. He threw more than 35% sliders in back-to-back starts for the first time in five years. His overall percentage has bumped from 25% to 37%. And why not? It has ridiculous spin (2,707 rpm, eighth-best in baseball) and is so hard to hit (.177 this year, which, in this small sample size, is actually a career-worst).
WRITER RECALL: THE AFTERMATH OF THE TOMMY PHAM STORY
By Jack Dickey
I admit to paying more attention than usual to the social-media reception of my Tommy Pham profile, which published online last Tuesday. I had a pretty strong feeling that certain thoughts he expressed in our conversation, not least because of the language he used in expressing them, would make news in St. Louis, for better or worse. What I was less sure of and curious enough about to trawl Twitter was how Pham would come across overall. To my mind, he said what he said and feels the way he feels because he’s given so much of himself to baseball and until last year he'd had hardly anything to show for it. (And he recognizes how close last year came to not happening.) He’s not a cocky whiner; he’s a guy who’s “all in” in a game he feels is in need of guys like that.
More often than not, a story's most inflammatory quotes overwhelm the full portrait, especially as they travel. Had I had more space, I would have written more about Pham’s obsessive desire to outwork and overcome—I barely mentioned his periodic bouts with bad vision! I was pleasantly surprised, though, to see that Cardinals nation, judging by the tweets, received and appreciated Pham’s comments in the context of his biography and his struggle. Even John Mozeliak, the team’s president of baseball operations, did. He told the press before the home opener: "I was not overly offended by what he said… I think Tommy is being Tommy."
ROUNDTABLE: WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE NOAH SYNDERGAARD AND JACOB DEGROM OR MAX SCHERZER AND STEPHEN STRASBURG LEADING YOUR TEAM'S ROTATION?
Gabriel Baumgaertner: This is a wonderful (and impossible) question. I’m rolling with the Nationals duo because of the contrast that each starter offers. Scherzer is the hyper-competitive gamer unafraid of any opponent, Strasburg probably has the best pure stuff of any starter in baseball. The Syndergaard/deGrom pair probably offers a bit more consistency, but the absolute fear that Scherzer and Strasburg strikes into opponents may be the extremely narrow edge that I afford the Nationals.
Michael Beller: Give me the Nationals' duo. Scherzer’s garnered a trio of Cy Young awards and is still at the height of his powers, while Strasburg was my pick to win the Cy this year. These are four of the best pitchers in the majors, so the floor is awfully high for all of them. I favor Scherzer and Strasburg because they have a higher ceiling. The three Cys testify to Scherzer’s. Strasburg, meanwhile, has been just as good on a per-game basis, ranking sixth in ERA, third in WHIP and second in strikeout rate since debuting in 2010. Injuries, of course, have held him back, but when he’s on the mound he’s as reliable as they come. Not only do I want the Nats duo for 60-plus starts over the regular season, they’re the ones I want to run out there in a playoff series.
Jack Dickey: The Nationals could very well have the best rotation in baseball; since 2015, their starters have the third-lowest ERA in the game. Meanwhile, despite all the ink spent chronicling the Mets’ stable of young arms, the fantasized returns just haven’t been there: at this point, Matt Harvey’s best-case career comp is Kevin Millwood; Steven Matz got hurt while I was typing this list item; and, as for Zack Wheeler, he was wretched in 2017 after missing two full seasons, which makes it hard to see any turnaround potential.
And yet… give me Syndergaard and deGrom. Of the group of four, Scherzer has been and remains the best. He logs an ungodly amount of innings and strikes out more than a hitter per inning; he’s a throwback. But Syndergaard is a mutant, blessed with the best stuff of any starter in the game, and accordingly capable of matching or outdoing Scherzer when he’s on and healthy. DeGrom, meanwhile, has just been a little bit better than Strasburg since entering the league. (Since 2014, deGrom’s rookie year, he has produced 16.1 WAR to Strasburg’s 15.) He goes a little deeper into games and is a little better at limiting home runs. It’s awfully close. What puts the Mets’ pair over the top for me, though, is something not so statistical (and admittedly your mileage may vary): I try not to go to Sunday night games, lest I commence the work week with a bad night’s sleep. But I found myself at Nats-Mets on Aug. 2, 2015, and I watched Syndergaard do this to Bryce Harper. I’ve never heard Citi Field louder. Any pitcher who can dazzle like that… well, you spurn him at your own risk.
Connor Grossman: While Scherzer and Strasburg are surely the safer, more decorated duo to pick in this scenario, it's impossible to overlook Syndergaard's electric repertoire and deGrom's understated dominance. What the Mets tandem lacks in track record it makes up for in potential; a ceiling it seems neither deGrom nor Syndergaard has yet reached. It feels like we've seen the best Scherzer and Strasburg have to offer—which is enough to be the envy of almost every team—but I'm willing to wager my team's chances on Syndergaard and deGrom.
Jon Tayler: What you consider to be the right answer to this question depends on what you look for in a starter. Scherzer is brute force; Strasburg is a symphony; Syndergaard is overpowering velocity; deGrom is quiet excellence. Their styles all differ, even if the results are more or less the same. Aesthetically, I prefer Strasburg over anyone in this quartet, given his ludicrous assortment of pitches. And if I needed one man in this list to start a must-win game, I’m handing the ball to Scherzer and watching him bully and curse his way through his assignment. So give me the Nationals’ co-aces, then: You can’t lose no matter who you choose here, but this is the pair I’d prefer to watch.
Tom Verducci: I'd rather have Scherzer and Strasburg, if only because I should expect more volume out of them. Syndergaard and deGrom have thrown 175 innings only three times between them. Strasburg has done that himself, and of course Scherzer is as proven an elite pitcher as there is right now. But, hey, this one is close. I picked Syndergaard to win the Cy Young this year and deGrom has an elite fastball with command.
WHAT'S BEHIND MASAHIRO TANAKA'S RESURGENCE?
By Tom Verducci
Masahiro Tanaka was terrible last year through 14 starts. His ERA was 6.34 and he had surrendered 21 home runs.
Then, beginning June 23, when he threw eight innings of shutout ball against the Rangers, everything changed. In his 21 starts since then, including the postseason, he is 11-7 with a 3.09 ERA and has allowed only 16 home runs.
What happened? Tanaka realized his fastball doesn’t play in the big leagues. It has neither the velocity nor command to be a feature pitch. He can’t challenge hitters with it. When he threw it in the strike zone last year, hitters slugged .725, ranking it last among 149 pitchers.
“I think he had one game against us where he threw like six fastballs the whole game,” said Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson. “You have to make him get the ball up, because it’s going to be lots of splits and breaking balls.”
Tanaka has become a true junkball pitcher, heaving an assortment of sliders, curves and splits.
Here’s a quick look at how he’s abandoned his fastball:
Tanaka's Two-Seam and Four-Seam Fastball Use
In Strike Zone
First 14 starts of 2017
21 starts since
The good news for Tanaka is that his off-speed stuff is superb, particularly his splitter. Here’s an amazing note about Tanaka’s splitter: he has thrown 166 consecutive splitters without giving up a home run. In that span, which dates to last September, hitters are 4-for-58 (.069) with 26 strikeouts against his split.
EXAMINING THE WHITE SOX' OFFENSIVE RISE
By Michael Beller
One team in the majors is slugging better than .500. It won’t last, of course. Last year’s slugging leader, the Astros, finished the season at .478. Still, it’s an accomplishment worth celebrating, especially when you learn the identity of the team—the Chicago White Sox.
The White Sox entered Sunday slugging .504 as a team, equaling Edwin Encarnacion’s slugging percentage from last season. They were first in wOBA (.373) and weighted runs created plus (145), and fourth in fWAR (2.0). Plenty of teams are going to have runs like this over a week or 10 days of games, and it’s not as though it’s driving the 3-5 White Sox to unprecedented success, but that shouldn’t obscure how impressively the team's lineup has performed.
It would be one thing if the Sox were doing this on the shoulders of Jose Abreu or Avisail Garcia. Those two have swung their bats well, but rank sixth and seventh on the team in wOBA. Matt Davidson has left the yard just once since his three-homer outburst on Opening Day, but he’s still slashing .280/.419/.800, and while he has struck out eight times, he has also drawn five walks. Yolmer Sanchez is hitting .333/.429/.667 with one homer, one double and two triples. Tim Anderson has three jacks while carrying a .269/.367/.615 slash line. It has been the team’s secondary players that have led the offensive charge.
The emergence of players who aren't Abreu or Garcia should have the White Sox and their fans so excited about a season in which it feels like they’re playing with house money. Davidson, Sanchez and Anderson will likely come back to earth a bit, but all three are showing they can be reliable, productive everyday players on a good team. Yoan Moncada isn’t going to be a replacement-level player all year, and Eloy Jimenez should be with the big league club at some point this summer. And, of course, Abreu and Garcia are still doing their thing, with the former hitting .300/.344/.533, and the latter sitting at .323/.333/.484.
No prospect is a sure thing, but the White Sox, like the Astros and Cubs before them, have amassed so much high-level talent, that it seems nearly a guarantee that enough of them will pan out to make this a competitive team sooner rather than later. Look no further than the last two World Series champions to find hope for a team looking for its first winning season since 2012.
FROM THE VAULT: JACKIE ROBINSON MAKES HIS MAJOR LEAGUE DEBUT
By Connor Grossman
This upcoming Sunday marks the 71-year anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His courageous story has been well chronicled, but not through the narrative that William Nack used to transcribe Robinson's rise in a 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated. His story commemorated the 50-year anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947.
Across 14 games in May, Nack wrote, Jackie Robinson erased any doubt that he belonged in the majors. You can find the story here and read an excerpt below:
"Among the converted local skeptics was Lou Smith, who covered the Reds for the Cincinnati Enquirer and who wrote on the eve of the May 13 game that Robinson was no lock to stay at first base. "Robinson...is no Dolph Camilli in the field," Smith wrote, referring to an earlier Dodgers first baseman. Had Robinson not been the first Negro in the major leagues and the focus of so much attention, Smith wrote, "he would have been benched a week or two ago." The next day, in quick reverse, Smith was telling readers that he had learned that Robinson "is a cinch to stick with the Dodgers" and "has already mastered all the fine points of playing the bag. Jackie is not an overpowering hitter, but he hits the ball hard. His line drive to Eddie Lukon in the fifth was one of the hardest hit balls in the game." After Blackwell tossed his shutout, Smith noted that "Robinson was the only Dodger to get more than one safety off Blackie's blazing fastball and exploding curve."