Solving Ohtani? Here's what Red Sox can do

April 16th, 2018

There's at least one silver lining to the poor early-season weather that canceled six games on Sunday, which prevented everyone from enjoying 's highly anticipated third Major League start. Instead of facing the Royals in frigid Kansas City, Ohtani will now take the hill vs. and the Red Sox in Anaheim on Tuesday night. We get to see the two teams with the most wins in baseball, with baseball's two best offenses so far, with baseball's biggest story on the mound. That sounds fun.

Maybe that's not as much fun for Ohtani, who was prepared to face the Royals and their 24th-best lineup, and now has to change course against a much higher-caliber hitter.

"Obviously I was preparing for the Royals' lineup, but since it got canceled, I haven't had time to look at the Red Sox lineup or the data yet," said Ohtani after Sunday's game was postponed. "I'll start working on that right after this. I know they have a great team. They're off to a great start, so it's not going to be easy."

It's not. Maybe we can help. How should Ohtani attack the most prominent hitters in Boston's lineup? How should the Red Sox's bats prepare? They've never faced him before, obviously. They've never really faced anyone like him, really. There isn't anyone quite like him.

For the moment, Ohtani is something of a two-pitch pitcher. He uses his blazing four-seam fastball about 45 percent of the time; at 97.1 mph, it's thrown harder than all but two other starters. Ohtani upped his split-finger usage from 26 percent in his debut to 37 percent in his second game; by getting misses on 29 percent of swings, it's the second-toughest pitch of any type to hit from any starter. They're two of the most elite pitches in the game, regardless of batter.

Ohtani also has a slider, though it hasn't yet lived up to its reputation as a plus pitch, and he threw it only half as often in his second start as he did in his first. He'll very rarely throw a curveball (three percent so far) as well. So that's what the Red Sox have to deal with. How do they? Can they?

Don't let Ohtani expand the zone

Assuming that the left foot contusion that Betts sustained in Saturday's win over the Orioles isn't serious, he'll be the first hitter that Ohtani faces, and this battle is entirely about contact. Of the 150 pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings, Ohtani has the third-highest strikeout rate, whiffing 40 percent of the batters he's faced. Of the 160 batters with 50 plate appearances, Betts has the 10th-lowest strikeout rate, at just 9.7 percent.

Betts, along with the injured , made it a clear mission in 2018 to be more aggressive on hittable pitches. The thing is, it hasn't happened, at least not in the way you think -- Betts has gone after the same number of pitches in the zone and on the edges as he did last year. But where he's excelled so far is not going after pitches outside the zone, as his swing rate there has dropped by two-thirds.

The problem here is that even when Ohtani has allowed contact, it hasn't been good contact. There have been 177 pitchers with 25 balls in play, and only 10 have a lower exit velocity allowed than Ohtani's 83.9 mph. For his part, Betts is hitting .304 on in-zone pitches since the start of last year, and .156 outside the zone. As always, the battle over the strike zone is the only fight that really matters.

Try to turn around the velocity

We know that Devers can handle serious heat. After all, he had been in the big leagues for less than a month last year when he turned around a 102.8-mph fastball for a home run, the hardest-thrown pitch to become a home run since pitch-tracking velocity went online in 2008.

That's just one pitch, to be fair, but it's more than that. Since the start of 2017, Major Leaguers have hit just .237 and slugged .463 against four-seam fastballs thrown 95 mph or harder. Devers, meanwhile, has hit .281 and slugged .549. Ohtani's 99-mph heat isn't exactly easy to catch up with, but at least it's straight; as we noted after his debut, Ohtani's league-average spin rate leads to a hard pitch without much rise or sink. Either way, better that than the splitter.

Bonus fact: Infielder , who has started three games at shortstop in Bogaerts' absence, has hit .429 against that kind of heat. That's the best of the 481 hitters who have had at least 25 plate appearances end with a fastball like that since the start of last year.

Do damage against the splitter

After Ohtani's first start, we looked at that splitter and noted he'd done something that only and had been able to do all of last year in terms of swinging strikes. It's a deadly pitch, and a relatively rarely thrown one.

That means that we're dealing with relatively small sample sizes against the pitch, from a pitcher who is nothing but a small sample size. That said, take this note as an interesting item that comes with a large grain of salt: Since the start of 2016, no hitter has performed as well against the splitter as Ramirez has.

That includes a homer against Tanaka last June, another against Alex Cobb over the weekend, and a 114.6-mph exit velocity single against Cobb last year, Ramirez's hardest-hit ball of the entire season.

If teams are going to take down Ohtani, they need to figure out the splitter. Ramirez may be the best bet to do so.

J.D. Martinez

Catch an in-zone fastball and crush it

Martinez is off to an interesting start with the Red Sox. He's swinging at far more pitches in the zone than he ever has before, nearly 82 percent, compared to his usual 73-74 percent. But on those swings, Martinez is also making less contact in the zone than ever, 79 percent, compared to his usual 72-73 percent.

What's happening? And why, despite a relatively hot last week, including a grand slam off Tanaka, is Martinez's OBP a very low .306? In part, it's because he's seeing fewer strikes (just 43 percent of his pitches are strikes, down from his usual 47-48 percent), and he's doing less damage on them -- hitting .325 in the zone, after .363 and .361 the last two years.

When Martinez is right, there's no hitter in baseball outside of better equipped to crush a four-seamer in the zone. Since the start of 2016, 321 hitters have seen 100 in-zone four-seamers, and only Judge (.919 SLG) has mashed more than Martinez (.885). Meanwhile, Martinez has hit just .203/.226/.407 against splitters for his career. Ohtani would love to see swings against the splitter, but even he can't rely only on it. Martinez has to take one of those straight fastballs, and do some damage on it.