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Shohei Ohtani and Reframing the Way We Think About Sports

The Angels’ hitting and pitching sensation wasn’t just a unique baseball phenomenon as a rookie: He forced fans and analysts to abandon established heuristics of evaluation to wrap their minds around his brilliance

Adam Villacin

The year of Shohei Ohtani began with home runs and strikeouts, but in the wrong order. Instead of crushing homers at the plate and whiffing every batter in sight from the mound, as had been expected from Japan’s Babe Ruth, Ohtani spent his first MLB spring training enacting the ruinous reverse.

As a pitcher, the 23-year-old Angels rookie faced two major-league lineups and allowed nine runs (eight earned) while collecting just eight total outs; as a hitter, he posted the second-worst OPS among 535 players with at least 30 at-bats in spring training, collecting just four singles, three walks, and no extra-base hits throughout the exhibition schedule. Article after article after article wondered whether Ohtani was ready for the majors, or outright proclaimed he wasn’t; one scout told ESPN Ohtani belonged in single-A.

Those alarmist reports will make for excellent montage fodder in the eventual Ohtani movie as one of the early hurdles he needed to surpass en route to major league stardom. In retrospect, those articles seem wildly overreactive. But in the moment, even though samples were small, concern suffocated and overwhelmed all manner of reason. We as a baseball-watching audience had no real concept of what Ohtani would look like in the majors as he attempted to become the first two-way star since Ruth, and after a frenzied free-agent search and his surprising selection of the Angels, the early returns looked as discouraging as possible.

And then he hit a home run in his second regular-season game as the Angels’ designated hitter, and then he hit another home run in his third, and another in his fourth; and then he struck out 12 and took a perfect game into the seventh inning of his second start on the mound the following weekend. As late as mid-May, Ohtani’s OPS as a batter was north of 1.000, and in his last five pitching starts before suffering an elbow injury in June, he never allowed more than two runs in game.

By September, Ohtani’s two-way shine had given way to temporary one-way excellence because his torn elbow ligament meant he was destined for Tommy John surgery, but the rookie continued to make highlights. He was an easy choice for the AL’s Rookie of the Year award, and his final staggering numbers—22 homers, 10 stolen bases, and one of the 20 best batting lines for a rookie in the past century, plus a 3.31 ERA and 11 strikeouts per nine innings—fail to encompass just quite the thrill he brought to the sport each night.

All the early doubters certainly looked foolish, yet while excessive fretting isn’t unusual in sports discourse, Ohtani’s overall situation was. As fans and analysts and (hopefully) intelligent thinkers about sports, we rely on past precedent to help map the present and future. At The Ringer, for instance, our annual NBA draft guide includes a “Shades Of” line for each player, listing three benchmarks to help readers understand a prospect’s likely outcomes. Various baseball projection systems do the same by triangulating statistical comps for every player in the majors and minors; we have so many numbers, we might as well use them all.

But sometimes, our irrepressible need to place the present and future in context can limit the imagination. We can chart likelihoods and predict outcomes because of what came before, yet while this human tendency is useful and aids understanding of the game, it can simultaneously suffocate and overwhelm pure enjoyment on its own terms. This side effect is especially apparent in baseball, a sport inextricably wedded with its past, and whose Hall of Fame sparks the most vociferous debates and various round-number statistical milestones garner the most celebration.

Ohtani breaks this analytical system—both the natural impulse and the very statistical methodology that buttresses it. Consider, for instance, Baseball-Reference’s similarity scores, which list for every MLB player with at least 500 plate appearances or 100 innings pitched the 10 most similar players to the player in question, grouped by career, age, and individual season by age. This tool illustrates that because so many people of all shapes and sizes and skill sets and statistical indicators have played baseball, everybody in the modern game, Ohtani excepted, looks a lot like other people who have played baseball. Even the best players are updated versions of past greats or close to contemporaries beside whom they sit on leaderboards. Clayton Kershaw’s most similar pitcher through his age-28, 29, and 30 seasons is Pedro Martínez. One reigning MVP (Christian Yelich) is the top overall comp for another reigning MVP (Mookie Betts). Mike Trout is the best player alive—the best ever, in fact, for a player through his age-26 season—but he’s also not so different from Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, and Ken Griffey Jr.

Those players are still all individuals with their own paths to follow, of course, and we enjoy the speculation and debate about their futures. No two players are exactly the same, but they’re close enough that when Kershaw signed his contract extension with the Dodgers last month, analysts could point to Pedro’s 30s as a predictive or instructive map for Kershaw’s next decade.

Yet just as Ohtani forced Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs to tweak how they calculated or presented player value models, and just as he plunged the sport’s fantasy infrastructure into chaos, he will also require individual accommodations for B-Ref’s simple similarity scores tool. Although he won’t reach both 500 PA and 100 IP for a while, as he won’t pitch at all in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery this fall, the site’s developers know they’ll have to make changes in the future. “I suspect we’ll want to do something special for Ohtani’s page once he has both sets of similarity scores to show so that users can see both” Ohtani’s hitting and pitching comps, Kenny Jackelen, who oversees the site’s day-to-day operation, writes in an email.

“Something special” is an apt descriptor of Ohtani himself, too, as he and he alone fuses two disparate skill sets into one. Pitchers as a collective have never hit as poorly as they did in 2018, continuing a perpetual decline, and on the rare occasion that a position player pitches in a non-blowout (i.e., when a full staff has already been used in a long extra-innings game), he almost invariably does terribly. Yet Ohtani last season was a top-10 hitter and threw the majors’ fastest and most unhittable pitches when he was able to take the mound between injuries. For next season, the Steamer projection system thinks Ohtani will be one of the sport’s dozen best batters (the names immediately after his on the projected wRC+ leaderboard are Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Aaron Judge, Manny Machado, José Ramírez, and Freddie Freeman) and that he would be a top-25 starter if he were able to pitch. (Although he likely won’t be ready to start the season due to his recovery, he will be able to return as a batter far sooner than as a pitcher.)

As Ohtani’s success perhaps paves the way for more two-way experimentation, “something special” will still apply, too, with all other attempts posing as mere pyrite to Ohtani’s genuine gold. Matt Davidson, a DH for the White Sox before being non-tendered last month, is reportedly considering that path. Reliever Michael Lorenzen might play some outfield for the Reds. The Mariners added utility man Kaleb Cowart with a two-way intention. But they were non-tendered, thrust into middle relief, and used as a utility player, respectively, for a reason: None of them can match Ohtani at either pitching or hitting, let alone both. And the uninspiring likes of Anthony Gose, Christian Bethancourt, Micah Owings, and Brooks Kieschnick have tried and largely failed to maintain a two-way presence in the recent past. They played both ways to try to maintain a roster spot; Ohtani plays both ways because he’s twice a star.

He’s a hitter with a triple-digit fastball and knee-buckling splitter, and he’s a pitcher with a titanic swing and terrific speed. That fact bears so many repetitions because it’s so extraordinary; let it marinate; let it soak into your skin. Ohtani last season was a top-10 hitter and threw the majors’ fastest and most unhittable pitches. The worry now is not that he might not hit well enough to do double duty in the majors—it’s that he might hit so well that a strong showing at the plate in 2019, as his pitching arm recovers from surgery, might lead the Angels to question his two-way future. Ohtani’s schedule last season meant he hit just 3-4 times a week while he was pitching; his club might not want to sacrifice so many at-bats—plus increase his risk of missing time due to injury—if he evinces staying power as one of the majors’ best hitters. From a strict WAR perspective, it could be worth more to give Ohtani a full season at the plate rather than let him take so many rest days that the pitching value he gains fails to compensate for the hitting value he loses in the tradeoff.

That very set of complicated factors is why even Ruth didn’t do the double for long. For the Red Sox, he played both ways in only one and a half seasons before departing the rubber almost for good; he stopped pitching midway through the 1919 season, when he set the single-season home-run record, and after moving to the Yankees the following winter, he pitched in just five more games, spread across four separate seasons, in his career.

Ohtani’s most valuable deployment might not jell with his most entertaining deployment; the former is still unclear, yet the latter is easy: We want the Ohtani who can collect both home runs and strikeouts, please. That Ohtani is a baseball dream made manifest; that Ohtani brings a new kind of exhilarating magic to the sport and renders Angels games watchable in a way that even the best offensive player and best defensive player on the planet couldn’t accomplish as a pair; that Ohtani is unprecedented in living memory, making him sheerly, enjoyably different not just as a baseball player but as an athletic phenomenon in 2018.

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