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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How should a pitcher attack Ohtani? That’s a $700 million question.

Shohei Ohtani at bat earlier this season (Wikipedia/All-Pro Reels)

By Fabian Ardaya

At some point this past 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 as the Los Angeles Angels defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 5-3 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. Yarbrough thought he had 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 the right fielder’s head for another double.

So, yes, the question came within a few weeks of spring training this year when someone asked Yarbrough: 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 Saturday leading the majors in batting average (.322) and he is striking out less than ever.

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

How do you game-plan against that? It is 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 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 the Dodgers’ credit, they managed relatively well against Ohtani — an .828 on-base plus slugging percentage that is more than 100 points below his career average. Of course, that is 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 will most likely be right in the zone you are looking to avoid.

“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 change-ups 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.”

Here’s a sampling of opinions from Ohtani’s teammates, pitchers who have the luxury of not having to face him any time in the near future:

Daniel Hudson: “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: “Definitely want to live on the edges a little bit more.” In 2019 with the Baltimore 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.”

Michael Grove: “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.”

Tyler Glasnow: “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: “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 superimpressive. 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.”

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