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Breaking Down Héctor Neris vs. Shohei Ohtani

There is one particular at-bat from the weekend series against the Angels that I’ve watched repeatedly.

MLB: Houston Astros at Texas Rangers Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Too often with baseball, I get consumed by the larger picture. Organizational direction. Long-term prospects. Player salaries. How competitive clubs will be in three to five years. It is easy to lose sight of the little moments that caused me to fall for the game in the first place. You know, that extra effort from a baserunner to go from first to third in a crucial situation. The little nuances of defensive positioning or the excitement of a close call for a stolen base. The sound of the bat when you know, without a doubt, it is a home run. The sight of a diving catch. There are numerous little moments during a game that I fear I overlook if I am not paying attention.

As such, when I watch a game, I like to find a few moments in the action to truly appreciate. One of my favorites is when I watch a particular battle between a pitcher and a hitter. Like, who makes the first adjustment? How does the other party adjust back? What weaknesses are either looking for? Any cues, no matter how insignificant they may appear to me from the comfort of my desk chair?

There was one particular at-bat during the weekend series against the Astros and Angels that I gravitated towards: Héctor Neris and Shohei Ohtani on Friday. The six-pitch battle was something that I enjoyed watching, not only because of the result but the process it took to get there. But, first, some context. As you possibly know, Neris throws three pitches: A four-seam fastball, a split-finger, and a sinker. Against right-handed hitters, Neris likes to utilize all three, primarily led by his four-seam and sinker. But, against left-handed hitters, Neris limits his repertoire to mostly his four-seam and splitter. The latter’s breaking action towards Neris’ arm side makes it a quality complement to his four-seam against lefties. It is also no coincidence that the Astros had Neris decrease his splitter usage against right-handers while maintaining a more consistent rate for left-handers when he arrived from the Phillies. There is a reason for that.

Ohtani is a left-handed hitter who regularly punishes four-seam fastballs. This season, the two-way superstar has a plus-10 run value against four-seamers as a hitter, with an impressive .382 batting average and .711 slugging percentage against right-handed pitchers. It is a dangerous business when a pitcher throws Ohtani a suboptimal four-seam. Heck, even good ones occasionally fail. When Neris and Ohtani squared off on Friday, the first pitch Neris threw was his four-seam. Needless to say, the Angels’ superstar wasn’t exactly fooled by it.

Luckily for Neris, Ohtani was a bit late against a four-seam that arguably was lower in the zone than initially planned. As you’ll notice throughout this at-bat, Ohtani wasn’t daunted by Neris’ four-seam fastball. Against splitters, however, Neris has a chance as his opponent’s track record, although improved thus far in 2023, is less optimal than against other pitches. At this point in the at-bat, there is nearly a 50% chance Neris goes splitter here. Considering Ohtani’s track record against four-seamers, it was arguably expected that Neris would pivot to his splitter, and, sure enough, he did go to it.

Unfortunately, Neris missed the location with that splitter. It was the right pitch to use in that situation, though. The right-hander now has a choice: Back to his four-seam or stick with the splitter. If he nails the location with his splitter, Neris is in a prime spot against arguably the best hitter in baseball. If not, it changes the complexion of the at-bat. In a 1-2 count Neris could use either of his primary pitches against lefties; in a 2-1 count, against left-handed hitters, Neris throws his four-seamer nearly 73% of the time this season. In a 2-1 situation where Neris needs a strike, Ohtani likely looks for a four-seamer. The at-bat, in a way, hinges on this third pitch.

Lo and behold, Neris stuck with his splitter and he executes, with breaking action out of the zone towards the arm side. Just a beautiful pitch to watch. I could watch that one on repeat. The battle now favors Neris, who is one strike away from retiring the league’s best hitter. With a 1-2 count, he could realistically utilize either one of his pitches with some confidence. It is worth noting that opponents tend to throw Ohtani a four-seam higher in the zone in two-strike counts, hoping to get him to chase it upstairs. Miss high and the chances of damage are mitigated versus missing lower in the zone.

Neris did exactly that with his fourth pitch of the at-bat. However, much like earlier, Ohtani wasn’t fooled by it. He was only a bit under it as he fouled it back. No harm done, but two four-seams in, Ohtani has fouled both off. If Neris goes back to it, his location can’t miss lower in the zone.

Pitch number five was another four-seam fastball, another foul by Ohtani. It became increasingly clear that Ohtani wasn’t going to let Neris beat him with his high four-seam. If anything, Ohtani would beat Neris if he threw it in the wrong spot. But we do know that Ohtani is susceptible to the breaking action of Neris’ splitter. Again, location matters here as a hanging splitter isn’t any better than a misplaced four-seam. Still, in a 1-2 count, the odds are nearly even about which pitch Neris uses. But considering how Ohtani has fouled off two high fastballs in a row, it was high time for the Astros’ reliever to use his split finger once again.

Another splitter with beautiful breaking action as Ohtani swung through it en route to a strikeout. This at-bat was a quality example of a pitcher figuring out what worked, and, arguably more important, what didn’t. Neris’ splitter was particularly sharp; other than Taylor Ward’s solo home run, the right-hander’s performance that night was fun to watch. But moments like this remind me it's fine to slow down and appreciate the back-and-forth between two talented individuals who have spent years honing their craft. The Astros fan in me was glad to see Neris emerge victorious. The baseball fan in me appreciated this moment in time as it reminded me of why I became a fan of this game in the first place.