'You wish you could be him:' Ohtani only getting better

July 1st, 2023

Kyle Freeland’s face said it all.

The Rockies left-hander was utterly stunned at what had just transpired in the fifth inning of Colorado’s June 23 game against the Angels at Coors Field.

First, he stared at Shohei Ohtani’s 25th home run of the season as it sailed over the right-center-field wall. Then, his gaze shifted to the man himself as Ohtani rounded second base.

Eyes wide and mouth agape, Freeland didn’t need words to convey what he was feeling. And words probably couldn’t describe it even if he wanted to verbalize his emotions.

After the game, he tried anyway.

“Everything jumps off his bat at a rate that is kind of scary,” Freeland said. “You know that you made a pitch and got not his 'A' swing, and he still hits it out. Most guys, that’s a popup.”

The pitch Freeland made was a sinker that was well off the plate, a location Freeland described as “three baseball widths” inside. Ohtani deposited it into the Rockies’ bullpen with a drive that went a projected 434 feet.

What Freeland experienced has become commonplace for pitchers who have faced Ohtani in 2023 -- the two-way superstar is crushing pitches outside the strike zone like never before. And perhaps what’s most scary for those opposing hurlers is the specter of Ohtani only getting better.

If there was one area pitchers could consider a relative safe haven when pitching to Ohtani in the past, it was the “shadow” areas around the strike zone -- pitches around the edges. But after becoming the stuff of pitchers’ nightmares over the past few seasons, he’s even taken that from them.

From 2018-22, Ohtani’s swing/take run value on pitches in the shadow category was -33.2. So far in ’23, that figure is +9.3, which is ranked fourth in baseball. And he leads the Majors with six home runs on pitches outside the strike zone, the most recent being the pitch Freeland threw him on June 23.

Ohtani’s confidence when it comes to pitches in the shadow zone has gone up, too, as evidenced by his swing rate at such pitches. From 2021-22, his swing rate on shadow pitches was 53.5 percent, and so far this season, it’s 58.7 percent.

In 2022, Ohtani hit .258 and slugged .497 with a 34 percent whiff rate on pitches in the shadow category. This season? He’s hitting .331 and slugging .650 on those pitches with a 29 percent whiff rate. And nearly half of his homers in ’23 (13 of his MLB-leading 30) have come on pitches in the shadow zone.

What's more, Ohtani is laying off pitches that aren't borderline strikes in those regions more often. From 2021-22, 45.6 percent of his takes in the shadow zone were called strikes. This year, that number is 36.2 percent.

Shohei Ohtani has hit 13 home runs this season on pitches in the "shadow" zone.

All of this is an underlying element of a bigger overall trend for Ohtani the hitter: he's taken it to another level.

In his 2021 American League MVP campaign, Ohtani had a .965 OPS with 46 homers and an MLB-leading eight triples. This season, he's leading baseball with a .674 slugging percentage, a 1.070 OPS, five triples, 30 homers, 67 RBIs and 213 total bases.

In other words, Ohtani is the best hitter in the game right now.

If you told us a few years ago that Ohtani's superstar teammate Mike Trout would be in awe of another player, we might have been surprised. Trout was widely considered the best position player on Earth. That’s changed because Ohtani, who is somehow improving on the unprecedented, has been otherworldly.

Trout highlighted what Ohtani did in a mid-June series against the Rangers in Texas, when Ohtani launched four homers that included massive shots to the opposite field on pitches that normally don’t get hit that direction nor as far as he sent them.

One of those was a 453-foot shot to left-center field that came off his bat with an exit velocity of 116.1 mph, the hardest-hit homer to the opposite field by a left-handed hitter since Statcast began tracking in 2015.

“I’ve never seen anybody go up there and do that,” Trout said. “I mean, it’s hard to do for a righty, let alone a lefty. You just think he’s gonna do something special every night, or do something you’ve never seen before that night.

“I think you’ve gotta enjoy every minute of it. You don’t see this often. It’s just really impressive to be able to go out there and do that on a nightly basis. And then to pitch, it’s pretty amazing.”

Oh, that’s right -- he pitches, too. Ohtani owns a 3.02 ERA over 16 starts and has struck out a third of the batters he’s faced.

Freeland can pitch a little bit, too, and he’s one of the most competitive athletes you’ll ever meet. An opponent getting compliments from him, especially with a genuinely reverential tone, is unusual, to say the least.

But when Ohtani took him deep on that sinker way off the plate inside, all Freeland could do was marvel.

“There’s only one human being on the planet who has any business swinging at that pitch, and it’s him,” Freeland said.

“I hate being part of him hitting home runs off of me, but watching him do what he does on the mound and at the plate, it's amazing. You wish you could be him.”

MLB.com reporter Thomas Harrigan contributed to this story.