The Other Only Nolan

May 6, 2021
 
Last night, facing the defending AL champion Rays, Shohei Ohtani pitched five shutout innings. He struck out seven batters, walked six, and allowed just one hit.
 
That’s not exactly true, of course: one of Ohtani’s walks should’ve been a strikeout, but the Angels catcher Kurt Suzuki caught the breaking pitch funny, and it’s hard to complain about the ump missing one when a starter is throwing more balls than strikes.
 
More broadly, Ohtani’s line from last night accurately reflects how he’s pitched all year: the Angels two-way star has been very, very wild, and he has also been nearly unhittable. Armed with a fastball that can clip 100 miles-an-hour and an array of plus-plus breaking pitches, watching Ohtani pitch feels like you’ve stumbled onto a complicated game of catch, with the batter just there to keep up appearances.
 
The stats back this up: Ohtani currently leads AL pitchers in walks allowed, with 19. If he had enough innings to qualify, he would also lead the league in fewest hits-per-nine (Shohei is at 3.4; the AL leader is Dylan Cease at 4.1). Ohtani’s 14.5 strikeout-per-nine rate would sandwich him between Gerrit Cole (14.8) and Shane Bieber (14.3) among AL starting pitchers.
 
We are, of course, dealing with extremely small sample sizes: it’s only May, after all. And in the case of Shohei Ohtani, there is a good chance that we will only get a small sample sizes: being a full-time DH on one’s off-days makes it slightly more difficult to reliably pitch in the rotation every fifth or sixth day.
 
But even small samples can give us some insights, so I thought I’d ask the question: which pitchers in history have echoed Ohtani’s penchant for unhittable wildness? And what do their careers suggest for him going forward?
 
*            *            *
 
 
Here are the wild unhittables: pitchers who have led their leagues in:
 
-          Most Walks,
-          Most K/9, and
-          Fewest Hits/9
 
-          Nolan Ryan. The obvious one. If I asked you to name a pitcher who led his league in walks, strikeouts-per-nine, and fewest hits-per-nine, 99% of you would cite Nolan Ryan. And Ryan is, of course, the gold standard for successful wildness, having accomplished this dubious feat in four separate seasons (’72, ’74, ’76, ’78), all while pitching in Anaheim.
 
-          Another obvious one: Randy Johnson. Like Ohtani, Johnson was a physically imposing player who could throw a fastball through a seagull as a younger player but didn’t always know where the pitches were going. Johnson accomplished the feat in 1992, the year before he became a fixture on Cy Young ballots.
 
-          Bob Feller accomplished the feat in consecutive years, 1938 and 1939. Feller is another obvious candidate: a famous high-strikeout pitcher, but a wild pitcher.
 
-          Sandy Koufax comes very close in 1960. Koufax missed pacing the NL in walks by three, but he had a worse walk rate than leader Bob Buhl, who pitched 50 more innings than Sandy. Koufax paced the league in K/9, and he tied for the lead in fewest H/9 with Ernie Broglio (6.840).
 
-          Johnny Vander Meer also comes very close to meeting the criteria in 1941: he paced the AL in K/9 and fewest hits-per-nine, but he was only second in walks, six behind the leader Kirby Higbe.
 
-          Sudden Sam McDowell accomplished the feat in 1965: McDowell was like Feller: famously hard-throwing, famously wild.
 
-          J.R. Richard accomplished the feat in 1978. Richard was the NL version of Nolan Ryan in the mid-1970’s, a staggeringly talented pitcher whose career ended abruptly because of blood clots.
 
-          Tommy Byrne pulled off the trifecta in 1949, with the New York Yankees. Byrne was a wild thrower who never got over it, finishing with a career walks-per-nine of 6.9, which might be a record for any starting pitcher with more than 100 career decisions. He ‘won wild’: career record was 85-69, and he paced the AL in winning percentage in 1955. Helps to be a Yankee, I guess.
 
-          Toothpick Sam Jones - not to be confused with Sad Sam Jones - pulled off the feat for the Cardinals in 1958. Jones was the first black pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the majors. Paced the league in both walks and strikeouts three times.
 
That is impressive company: Koufax, Ryan, Feller, and Randy Johnson are all in the Hall-of-Fame, and J.R. Richard was certainly heading in that direction before fate came along and slapped him in the face.
 
What is striking, in relation to Ohtani, is how many of these pitchers were big pitchers: Randy Johnson (6’10) and J.R. Ricard (6’8) were very tall and lanky. Sam Jones was almost exactly Shohei’s size: 6’4, 200-something…the toothpick in the nickname was a habit of having one in his mouth, not a comment on his litheness. Sam McDowell was Shohei’s size…an inch taller, but the same kind of frame.
 
During last night’s game, the announcers commented that Ohtani’s struggles with command often come when he pitches with a full wind-up: when he has to pitch from the stretch, he tends to be better at finding the zone. This makes an intuitive sense: pitching from the stretch means that there are fewer moving parts for a pitcher to worry about.
 
That might explain, too, why Ohtani’s ERA so far (2.41) is so significantly at odds with the number of baserunners he allows (1.39 WHIP). Ohtani puts a lot of runners on, but it is possible that he’s a more effective pitcher when he is forced to pitch from the stretch.
 
This is a glancing observation, not an in-depth analysis: the take-away I’d encourage you to consider is that Ohtani’s pitcher performance, so far, places him within a specific context: at twenty-six years old, his pitching profile aligns very clearly with pitchers like Sam McDowell, Randy Johnson, and J.R. Richard. He is very, very, wild…but he is also very hard to hit.
 
*            *            *
 
So will Shohei develop into an elite pitcher? I remain skeptical.
 
Pitching is a skill that requires a capacity to refine and repeat approaches. Committing his off-days as a designated hitter means that Ohtani has another ambition that he has to give equal time to: how to become a better hitter.
 
Ohtani is a savant: I would count what he has already accomplished this year as the most singular thing I have ever see on a major league field. He does not have to throw a no-hitter while hitting forty homers for me to be sold on what we’re seeing: this is a performance we’re unlikely to see again in our lifetimes.
 
But Ohtani is playing a sport that requires specialization. If he were blessed with the pinpoint control of Greg Maddux or Zack Greinke, it might be easier to believe that he can add ‘learning to hit’ to his to-do list and predict a long dual-career. But Ohtani isn’t Maddux: his toolbox as a young pitcher is Randy Johnson’s tool box: impressive stuff, no control.
 
Whatever processes took Randy Johnson from being a hard-but-wild thrower to the pitcher who won multiple Cy Young Awards required a significant commitment of time and energy and deliberate thought. It requires work, and that work that doesn’t leave much space for other pursuits.
 
Ohtani could be the best pitcher in baseball, and he could be the second-best hitter on the Angels. But vying to do both things does not merely double the challenge ahead of him: it multiplies things exponentially.
 
Think it through. As an everyday hitter, Ohtani has to swing a bat. I have no idea how often your average hitter swings a bat on a regular day, but I guess that number is in the hundreds. Ohtani cannot practice like other hitters: on days when he pitches, he can’t spent an hour in the batting cage working through a vulnerability to inside fastballs. And that work…hitting…is a stress on his hands, on his fingertips. Pitchers are meticulous about their hands: they have to trim nails and watch for hot spots. That kind of work that runs counter to the demands made on hitters.
 
And what about in the game? Ohtani was hit by a pitch on Sunday….so his Monday start has to get pushed back two days because the team has to let the elbow heal. It is a massive, complicated juggling act. Jose Abreu knocks into him at home plate, and then he gets a blister: have to postpone that bullpen session now. Have to change the schedule.
 
The challenges of Ohtani trying to be a pitcher and a hitter are greater challenges than the general public has grasped, and it’s incredible that he’s managed even a month of what he’s done. If he makes it through the full season, I think we’re not going to have any idea how to understand how to sufficiently measure what his impact on his team was.
 
In the meantime, we’re lucky. We’re lucky to see Ohtani try at something professional baseball hasn’t seen in a century, and we’re lucky that he plays on a team that’s willing to give him the chance to try.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

chuck
One more comp I forgot. I took Herb Score, through his first 2 months:

SO ... BB ... HT .. HR ... Pitcher
136 . 173 . 088 . 087 ... Ohtani
245 . 151 . 092 . 144 ... Score

Similar control and BABIP profiles, but not close in the other two.
1:01 PM May 10th
 
chuck
Dave, I looked at Ohtani’s ratios to the league in strikeouts and control (BB+HBP), and to teammates in BABIP and HR/batted ball, so far through his career. As you say, a very small sample to go on. I’m comparing those ratios below to the pitchers you mentioned, as well as a few others. I took data only from their first season or so - their first 300 batters, roughly. In some cases this went over by a 100 or 200. In Sam Jones’ case it would have been way over had I included all of 1955, so I just took through April of that season.

In addition to Ohtani’s very good strikeout ratio (and wildness), he’s also had very good ratios in both areas of batted ball so far. That, of course, can change quickly with a larger sample size. But in this group, the only one with the better batted ball profile at this point was Vander Meer, who allowed no home runs in his rookie season. I'd say Ohtani's a good bet for a no-hitter, given how many have already occurred this year.

It’s an impressive list, but also a cautionary list, as it contains long-career guys Ryan, Johnson, and Feller, but also guys who broke down mid-career.
I included Wes Ferrell, who was not nearly so wild, but since he was perhaps the best pitcher-batter prior to Ohtani to have a lengthy career and also had good batted ball ratios early on.

The ratios are on a 100-scale, with above 100 good for SO but not for the other three things. Ohtani, for example has a control ratio 73% worse than the league. Which amazingly looks good, relative to Vander Meer, Ryan and Jones. Feller SO ratio is not a typo.
I tried to order the list by similarity in SO and BB ratios.

SO ... BB ... HT .. HR ... Pitcher (first approximately 300 batters)
136 . 173 . 088 . 087 ... Shohei Ohtani
132 . 167 . 108 . 114 ... Randy Johnson (Montreal)
139 . 159 . 100 . 038 ... Bob Veale
117 . 176 . 105 . 090 ... Jim Maloney
125 . 197 . 102 . 087 ... Sam McDowell
167 . 191 . 081 . 104 ... Tommy Byrne
114 . 138 . 108 . 096 ... Sandy Koufax
180 . 187 . 112 . 052 ... J.R. Richard
143 . 234 . 084 . 000 ... Johnny Vander Meer
156 . 209 . 096 . 204 ... Nolan Ryan
149 . 225 . 094 . 184 ... Sam Jones (thru April of ’55)
334 . 177 . 107 . 044 ... Bob Feller
123 . 118 . 098 . 067 ... Wes Ferrell

12:44 PM May 10th
 
Marc Schneider
Dave,

What you say makes sense but also consider that Ohtani is coming off TJ surgery. Most pitchers take some time to regain their command after the surgery. So, perhaps, his control will improve as he gets farther away from the surgery. But I generally agree that, in trying to pitch and hit, Ohtani risks becoming a jack of all trades and master of none.
9:58 AM May 10th
 
steve161
Sorry, Dave, it flew right over my head. Duh.
5:32 AM May 10th
 
DaveFleming
My tongue was firmly in my cheek on that Vander Meer comment, Steve.
7:58 PM May 9th
 
FrankD
wildness and no-hitters.... it makes sense in one aspect: batter fear. If the batter has to be very attentive to the fact that a pitch might drill him anytime, said batter may be a little slow to react to a pitch in the strike zone .....
2:05 PM May 9th
 
steve161
For what is Johnny Vander Meer remembered if not for back-to-back no hitters?
8:48 AM May 8th
 
ajmilner
Actually, Sam McDowell NEVER threw an MLB no-hitter, and Feller threw THREE.
6:51 AM May 8th
 
DaveFleming
One thing I meant to mention...but didn't...was that MOST of these guys threw no-hitters. Multiple no-hitters.

Ryan had seven. Feller had one no-hitter and a dozen one-hitters. Koufax had four. Jones had one. Johnny Vander Meer had two...not sure if anyone remembers that part of his career. Randy Johnson had a perfecto and another no-no, and came close a bunch of times. I think Sam McDowell had one. J.R. Ricard didn't have a no-hitter, but he was one of those pitchers who seemed like it was an inevitability that he would get one.

I was talking to some friends about this: it doesn't make intuitive sense that 'wildness' and being unhittable should go together, but they frequently do. It's not ludicrous to imagine Shohei notching a no-hitter...or helping in a collective no-hitter...someday.


4:39 PM May 7th
 
evanecurb
Sad Sam Jones was traded to the Giants for Bill White. He led the NL in ERA in San Francisco but it was an even better trade for the Cardinals, as White lasted a lot longer and became an all-star. The Cardinals of that era made a series of excellent trades. They actually got White's replacement, Orlando Cepeda, from the Giants for another starting pitcher, Ray Sadecki.

I guess that was a tangent, huh. Nice article, Dave. You continue to write really interesting stuff on this site. I enjoy your work a lot.
12:25 PM May 7th
 
jrickert
It does seem like a decent percentage of those pitchers turned in outstanding careers. Considering how tough pitching is on the arm the success rate seems pretty good.
Regarding the pitching from the stretch I note that this season he's walked 22% of the hitters with the bases empty and 24% with men on base. Coming into this year his career totals were 9% with the bases empty and
20% with men on base.
In small-sample-size-theater: the 3rd and 4th place hitters have walked in 52% of their plate appearances (6/11 and 5/10, respectively). The rate for 3/4 hitters entering this year was 16%.
His overall walk rate through 4 games is walks in 23% of plate appearances, up from 14% entering this year.
10:57 PM May 6th
 
 
©2021 Be Jolly, Inc. All Rights Reserved.|Powered by Sports Info Solutions|Terms & Conditions|Privacy Policy