July 22, 2024

How do you get Shohei Ohtani out? Pitchers share their tales of woe

At some point this spring, Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Ryan Yarbrough figured someone would approach him. If anyone could understand the difficulty of getting Shohei Ohtani out, it would be Yarbrough.

On paper, Yarbrough should represent an uncomfortable foe for a left-handed hitter. Despite not throwing a single pitch topping 90 mph this season, his low arm slot and arsenal challenge hitters horizontally and present a frustrating look. And yet Ohtani tortured the left-hander on a June afternoon in 2019. That day Ohtani became the first Japanese player to hit for the cycle in the majors, and three of his hits came against Yarbrough.

He tried locating a fastball in the first inning but missed over the heart of the plate and Ohtani smoked it the other way for a home run.

Yarbrough tried getting him to chase a cutter away but it caught enough of the plate and Ohtani drove it over the left fielder’s head for a double.

He thought he’d fooled Ohtani on a full-count curveball only for Ohtani to reach out and poke it down the right-field line for a triple.

Two years later, he appeared to jam Ohtani with an inside fastball except that broken-bat shot wound up soaring over Manuel Margot’s head in right for another double.

So, yes, the question came within a few weeks of spring training this year when someone asked Yarbrough about a challenge the Dodgers won’t have to ponder for the next decade: How do you get baseball’s $700 million man out?

“It’s tough to just continue to live off a certain pitch because he’s going to make an adjustment,” Yarbrough said. “It’s a one of one. He’s so unique.”

Ohtani’s first year with his new club has been fruitful. The designated hitter entered play Wednesday leading the majors in batting average (.320) and trailing only Aaron Judge (211) in wRC+ (188). He’s striking out less than ever.

“Where he’s at right now, if the ball is in his hitting zone, it’s gonna be hit hard somewhere,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told reporters this week.

How do you game plan against that? It’s a multipronged effort that has prompted even Roberts to chuckle over the years. After all, the Dodgers have been there, tried that, when Ohtani played for the Los Angeles Angels.

“I think sometimes people try to go up on him,” Roberts said earlier this season. “We tried to go up on him. But he … closed that window.”

To their credit, the Dodgers managed relatively well against Ohtani — an .828 OPS that is more than 100 points below his career average. Of course, that’s still some quality production.

Ohani has hit just .100 this season on pitches up and in within the strike zone, but that keyhole is minuscule and invites danger. If you miss, it’ll likely be right in the zone you’re looking to avoid. And if Ohtani continues to swing at pitches outside the zone at the lowest rate of his career, that leaves few options.

“Earlier in his career, he was more raw and he was more of a free swinger,” Boston Red Sox right-hander Lucas Giolito said. “So it actually wasn’t that — like game planning against him wasn’t that intricate.”

Giolito would pepper Ohtani with elevated fastballs on the outer half of the plate, hoping to get him to chase changeups down after getting ahead.

“You just didn’t want to miss,” he said.

Only seven pitchers have faced Ohtani more often than Giolito (26 plate appearances). He struck Ohtani out nine times — while yielding six extra-base hits, including three homers

“He’s adjusting quickly,” Giolito said. “So you can beat him on certain pitches in one at-bat and strike him out and then the next at-bat, he makes that quicker adjustment. … I gave up a home run to him on a fastball up out of the zone. He’s now reaching out and staying on the changeup. And I’ve given up some hits on the changeup as well.”

The Dodgers’ plan, of course, had to pivot off elevated fastballs. Other common approaches — trying to bust Ohtani inside or get him to chase off the plate — also required adjustments.

“You see stuff and then it’ll work one at-bat and then the next at-bat it doesn’t,” said Dodgers bench coach Danny Lehmann, whose role includes devising game plans for opponents.

“You had to kind of take it to the next level and mix, set things up, do a lot of things to get him out. Because he hits everything. And he slugs everything. It wasn’t like there were safe areas with Ohtani.”

Here’s a sampling of other opinions from pitchers who have the luxury of not facing Ohtani in the near future:

Daniel Hudson (who said that during his Washington Nationals days, the task of facing Ohtani was usually assigned to Sean Doolittle): “You can kind of watch the game and see how he’s feeling that day, but I mean, he hits everything. He hits everything hard. You just try and hope he hits a 105 mph rocket at somebody. It’s very rare to see him get jammed. Even when he catches it off the end it’s still 100 mph. It’s a rare combination of power but like contact and hitting ability, as well.”

Evan Phillips (0-for-4): “Definitely want to live on the edges a little bit more. … I just remember (in 2019 with the Orioles) my thought was, stay away. Don’t let him get anything close to him. Ball four, put him on first isn’t as bad as a home run. I think I just came out on top with staying away from him. I think he grounded out twice to shortstop. (Author’s note: Ohtani pulled a grounder to a shifted shortstop in his first at-bat, then got jammed and grounded to a shifted third baseman in the second.) “The past couple years, my repertoire has changed a little bit and it was, I want to crowd them with velocity, show him some cutter shapes into his bat and then change speeds with the slider. Just a mix, I would say, is how I attacked him in recent years.”

Michael Grove (2-for-3, HR): “For me personally, it’s like completely against my strengths. I don’t really go up with the fastball anyway. I pretty much need to flip a curveball in and then I would throw him cutters and hope he just gets himself out. Like hits it at somebody. It’s a tough at-bat for me personally just with my arsenal. But it’s a tough at-bat for anybody, especially righties. Anything in the zone was red. It’s more like, I have a really good slider so I’d try to get him to chase as much as possible. For me honestly, I mean he hit a homer off me last year.” (Author’s note: it came on the slider.)

Tyler Glasnow (2-for-6, K, HR): “I kind of just attacked him the same way every time I faced him. He hit a homer off me and there was also a pop-up. I think I’ve struck him out. When I’d seen him the holes were relatively similar. But they’re not really holes like a normal person. He can still get to them. He just gets to them less. I kind of just would attack him with my strengths and try to live up and then slider below.”

Yarbrough (4-for-10, 3 Ks, 1 BB, 1 HR): “It’s just trying to keep him uncomfortable. Because he’s just so big. He’s so strong. Knows the strike zone so well. His bat’s in the zone for a long time. It’s just super impressive…So just trying to keep him guessing at the plate, getting him in uncomfortable counts where he has to chase. I don’t think I’ve done really a good job.”

— The Athletic‘s Jen McCaffrey contributed to this report.

(Photo of Shohei Ohtani: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)