5 ways Ohtani has somehow gotten even better

December 9th, 2023

This story was originally published on Nov. 30. MLB.com is republishing it now that Ohtani has agreed to a deal with the Dodgers.

has been a one-of-a-kind superstar since he first arrived in the Major Leagues, and the Dodgers are certainly getting a one-of-a-kind free agent after landing him with a record $700 million contract.

But he's not the same superstar now that he was as a rookie. Ohtani has found ways to raise his game -- improvements that culminated in him becoming the first two-time unanimous MVP in MLB history this year.

Because Ohtani is only hitting in 2024, and won't pitch again until 2025, we're focusing mainly on improvements he's made at the plate, although we're including one pitching improvement at the end, too.

Ohtani's ability to adjust at the big league level is a good sign for MLB clubs preparing to offer him a megadeal. Here are five ways he has gotten even better.

1) He became one of the best fastball hitters in baseball

This is the most dramatic improvement Ohtani has made. He's learned how to crush the kinds of fastballs that pitchers use to strike out power hitters. In the Major Leagues nowadays, if a pitcher is blowing away hitters with his fastball, that fastball will generally fall into one of these buckets: four-seam fastball, high-velocity fastball, or elevated fastball. Often all three.

And Ohtani is now one of the best hitters in baseball against all three of those fastball categories.

He was not at this level before, not even in his 2021 MVP season. Look at how some of his key numbers have changed:

Ohtani vs. 4-seam fastballs
2021: .253 BA, .540 SLG, .905 OPS, 36% K rate
2022: .305 BA, .554 SLG, .933 OPS, 23% K rate
2023: .402 BA, .818 SLG, 1.298 OPS, 21% K rate

Ohtani vs. high velocity fastballs
(4-seamers at 95+ mph)
2021: .164 BA, .400 SLG, .703 OPS, 49% K rate
2022: .257 BA, .459 SLG, .780 OPS, 31% K rate
2023: .350 BA, .567 SLG, 1.010 OPS, 27% K rate

Ohtani vs. elevated fastballs
(4-seamers in upper third of zone or higher)
2021: .222 BA, .500 SLG, .860 OPS, 37% K rate
2022: .314 BA, .571 SLG, 1.006 OPS, 22% K rate
2023: .385 BA, .738 SLG, 1.219 OPS, 20% K rate

2) His contact hitting improved to a career best

Ohtani has elite power every year. But if you look at his 2023 stat line, the thing that jumps out is his good old batting average: Ohtani was a .300 hitter for the first time in the big leagues, finishing the season at .304.

His career year as a contact hitter was backed up by his underlying quality-of-contact metrics. Ohtani's expected batting average, per Statcast -- based on the exit velocity and launch angle of every ball he hit -- was right in line with his actual batting average.

Ohtani's .294 xBA was a career high, and he raised his xBA in each of the last three seasons, from .266 in 2021 to .275 in 2022 to the .294 in 2023. He ranked in the 95th percentile of MLB hitters in xBA last season. Ohtani's xBA was top-10 among qualified hitters, and sixth among AL hitters, behind only Corey Seager, Bo Bichette, Yandy Díaz, José Ramírez, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

That shows you Ohtani's .300 season was no accident. Maybe he'll even challenge for a batting title at some point.

3) He hit the ball harder than ever

Ohtani always has elite exit velocity. But he was even more elite in 2023 than ever before.

Ohtani posted career bests in average exit velocity (94.4 mph, ranking in the top 1% of hitters) and hard-hit rate (54.2%, ranking in top 3% of hitters). His career averages entering the 2023 season were a 92.8 mph average exit velocity, and a 49.9% hard-hit rate, so 2023 was a sizable jump.

But the most interesting aspect of Ohtani's hard hitting in 2023 was how often he reached extreme exit velocities. The harder you hit the ball, the better your results can be -- Statcast's baseline for hard contact is 95 mph, but the rare hitters who can hit the ball 110-plus mph, or even 115-plus mph, with regularity, are even more dangerous. Ohtani is one of those.

Ohtani hit 47 balls 110 mph or harder last season, accounting for 13.2% of his total contact. Those were both career highs; only Ronald Acuña Jr. hit more baseballs that hard, and only Acuña, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge reached that threshold at a higher clip.

Ohtani's 110+ mph contact
2021: 41 total, 11.7% of batted balls
2022: 20 total, 4.7% of batted balls
2023: 47 total, 13.2% of batted balls

Ohtani also hit a career-high 11 balls 115 mph or harder, second only to Stanton. He's one of the only hitters in baseball capable of hitting the ball in the 115-120 mph range like that, reaching the upper limits of exit velocity. And it's a relatively new phenomenon for Ohtani -- he reached 115 mph multiple times in a season for the first time in 2021.

4) He combined the best versions of himself

Coming into 2023, Ohtani had two defining seasons as a Major Leaguer: his Rookie of the Year season in 2018, and his first MVP season in 2021. But in those two seasons, he was a very different type of player. Specifically, he was a different type of home run hitter.

As a rookie in 2018, Ohtani's signature was the home run to left-center field -- the image of the ball tailing into the rocks just left of center at Angel Stadium should come to mind. That's where the majority of his home runs landed. In 2021, by contrast, Ohtani tapped into his pull power -- that's what generated his career-high 46 home run total.

But in 2023? Ohtani gave us the best of both Ohtanis. He crushed home runs to the pull side and to left-center. He found the balance of Rookie of the Year Ohtani and MVP Ohtani.

Ohtani's pulled HRs
2018: 7 of 22 (32% of total HRs)
2021: 26 of 46 (57% of total HRs)
2023: 18 of 44 (41% of total HRs)

Ohtani's straightaway^ HRs
2018: 12 of 22 (55% of total HRs)
2021: 15 of 46 (33% of total HRs)
2023: 21 of 44 (48% of total HRs)
^Straightaway: Middle third of field (from RCF to LCF)

Look at Ohtani's 2018 home run spray chart, his 2021 home run spray chart and his 2023 home run spray chart. Last season's was the best illustration yet of Ohtani's elite all-fields power.

5) He made pitchers stop throwing him sweepers

The sweeper -- the "Frisbee" style of slider defined by its large amount of horizontal break -- became MLB's trendiest new pitch over the last couple of seasons. Ohtani himself is a master of the sweeper as a pitcher; he racked up 153 K's on sweepers between 2022 and '23, more than any other pitcher in the Majors. And as a hitter? He started crushing sweepers so much, pitchers had to stop throwing them to him.

In April and May of 2023, with the sweeper taking off around the Majors, Ohtani saw more of the pitch as a hitter than in any of his other months in the big leagues. And he crushed them.

Ohtani batted .333 and slugged .833 against sweepers over the first two months of the season, with a pair of home runs, a 92.0 mph average exit velocity, a 67% hard-hit rate and a 22% barrel rate.

And after that, he barely saw a sweeper again. He saw 47 sweepers in April and May; he saw 16 total the rest of the season.

Ohtani's # of sweepers seen by month in 2023
April: 25
May: 22
June: 6
July: 4
August: 6

Bonus) He kept throwing new pitches

All of the above are hitting improvements Ohtani has made. But here's one pitching improvement to finish things off. This is baseball's two-way superstar, after all, and Ohtani will be back on the mound in 2025.

As a pitcher, there's one particularly notable way Ohtani gets better: by adding new pitches to his repertoire on the fly. Ohtani has simply picked up and started throwing a new pitch multiple times throughout his MLB career, even doing it during the season.

Over the last few seasons, he's added a cutter, hard slider and sinker. (There are some indications he's starting to mix in a slurve, too.) And now he's committed to those new pitches. Ohtani threw his cutter, which he introduced in 2021, a career-high 16% of the time in 2023, behind only his sweeper and four-seamer. He bumped up his sinker usage, too -- and going forward in 2025 and beyond, that could be a pitch he throws even more to pair with his sweeper. A sinker-sweeper combo can be particularly effective since those two pitches break in opposite directions.

The thing is, these are nasty pitches Ohtani is adding. His cutter, from 2021-23, has averaged 89 mph with 4 inches of cut, well above average compared to similar MLB cutters. His sinker, from 2022-23, has averaged 96 mph with 24 inches of sink and 15 inches of run -- again, generating both above-average velocity and movement for that pitch type.

Ohtani's ability to adjust and add to his game is just one more reason he's such a unique player, and in a free-agent class of his own.