ANAHEIM, Calif. — The second pitch Shohei Ohtani threw on Opening Day was a 98-mph fastball spotted right on the edge of Jose Altuve’s inside corner. At the end of Thursday night’s first inning, the Los Angeles Angels two-way sensation threw seven pitches at higher velocity. Often in 2021, while feeling in command after half a decade without consistent pitching, Ohtani has moved to those higher speeds, saving the bigger numbers for tighter situations later in games.
Trusting him early shows how much it has changed for him on the mound in a year.
“He gradually got more control of his fastball – that’s what I think is the big difference,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said after his team’s 3-1 loss to the Houston Astros. “And you saw him again tonight – a lot of 97s and 99s. In the past, the first part of the game was fewer until he needed it. Right now, even when it’s not necessary, he always does those things.”
Ohtani – limited, like all Angels starters, to the 80-pitch range due to shortened spring training – allowed one run on four hits in 4⅔ innings against one of the most dangerous formations in the league, with one walk and nine strikeouts. Three of those strikeouts came against Altuve, who had struck out three times in a game just three times in the previous 11 major league seasons.
Despite the abbreviated pitch count, Ohtani threw seven 99 mph pitches, the third of his career. The average speed of his four-seam fastball, which seemed to display a bit more cutting action, was 97.8 mph, more than two ticks more than last year’s average. The effect of this height noticeably played his slider, which induced seven puffs on nine swings.
Ohtani, after being unanimously selected as the American League’s Most Valuable Player, started spring training by saying how much stronger he felt.
Maybe that manifests in a fastball that can consistently approach triple digits.
“That’s what I hope,” Ohtani said through his interpreter. “It’s going to be a long season, so I don’t know how fatigue is going to play into that, but I’ll try to pick my spots and throw hard.”
A sold-out crowd of 44,723 packed into Angel Stadium to watch Ohtani begin tracking arguably the most impressive season in baseball history, when he paired a .965 OPS with 46 home runs and 26 stolen bases as a batter with a 3.18 ERA. and 156 strikeouts in 130⅓ innings as a pitcher. By taking the ball top of the first and starting in the bottom half of the inning, Ohtani became the first player in history to throw and face his team’s first pitch of the season.
The Angels offense struggled with Astros southpaw Framber Valdez, who went 6⅔ innings scoreless and at one point struck out 15 consecutive batters. But they finally broke through with two outs in the eighth, when David Fletcher’s downline passed a Yordan Alvarez dive into left field, scoring Brandon Marsh and bringing the link run to the plate. Ohtani came on, who threw a 98mph fly ball that initially stirred the crowd but was eventually caught on the edge of the outfield grass.
“I thought he might have a chance to leave,” Ohtani said after a 0-for-4 attacking night. “I’m just a little under.”
Ohtani was retired as a pitcher with one on and two out in the fifth in part because Maddon wanted to use left-handed reliever Aaron Loup to attack left-handed hitter Michael Brantley. Back at the dugout, Maddon approached Ohtani to ask if he wanted to stay in the game and take advantage of a new rule that allows him to keep hitting even after he’s finished throwing.
Ohtani’s response: “Of course.”
By the end of the night, Ohtani said, he had almost forgotten he had pitched. He treated the final third of the game as if he was the designated hitter – and he nearly evened the score while doing so.
“Nothing is too fast for him,” Maddon said. “Nothing is too big for him.”