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The Magic of Shohei Ohtani’s Two-Way, One-WAR Week

However the rest of the season unspools, the Angels sensation has already met the seemingly unmeetable hype thanks to a stretch of perfectly poetic pitching and hitting excellence

A collage of the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani pitching and hitting Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It took just 10 days for ace/slugger/superhero Shohei Ohtani to cement his status as the greatest spectacle in sports. But the Angels phenom’s wondrous two-way week, which both fulfilled expectations and defied belief, still felt like it was long in the making.

I first heard Ohtani’s name in December 2013, at the tail end of an interview with Jason Coskrey, a baseball writer for The Japan Times. MLB was then in the midst of the Masahiro Tanaka posting sweepstakes, and in the final few minutes of my Tanaka conversation with Coskrey, I asked him who the next Nippon Professional Baseball player to cause such a sensation/feeding frenzy might be. “It may be Shohei Ohtani,” Coskrey said. Ohtani, then a teenager, had just completed his rookie season in NPB, and he’d done it all: pitched in 13 games, played 54 games in the outfield, made more than 200 plate appearances. He just hadn’t done anything especially well, recording a higher-than-average 4.23 ERA on the mound and a lower-than-average .660 OPS at the plate. “Eventually he’ll pick one of those, hopefully, and he’ll be really good at it,” Coskrey said.

Ohtani never picked pitching or hitting. Instead, he got great at both. And as his NPB stats grew more and more eye-popping and his hypothetical MLB debut date presumably approached, the stateside hype began to build. In July 2016, I talked to Coskrey again, this time about Ohtani alone; that October, I embodied the distracted boyfriend before he became a meme, glancing away from the MLB playoffs to ogle Ohtani’s NPB playoff performance. During the 2016 regular season, Ohtani had been worth a Mike Trout-ian 10.4 wins above replacement—5.8 as a pitcher, 4.6 as a hitter—in a league with a 143-game schedule. No one was sure when he’d cross the Pacific, what position(s) he would play when he did, or how his last name should be spelled, but at 21, Ohtani was already the most interesting man in professional baseball.

Throughout the years of anticipation of Ohtani’s potential two-way future, though, it always seemed as if something would get in the way of the uncut Ohtani experience. Surely those NPB stat lines were too good to be true, and the prospect of a contemporary player having the sort of major league season that hadn’t been seen in a century must be a mirage. Ohtani would get hurt, or he’d decide to stay and play in Japan, or his hitting wouldn’t hold up against major league pitching, or MLB would prove too rigid for a true two-way player.

Over and over, obstacles arose, temporarily threatening to confirm our fears. First, the CBA’s international spending restrictions on young players ensured that Ohtani would have to accept a fraction of what he was worth in order to play in the majors before turning 25. That should have been a deal breaker, but it wasn’t: Ohtani asked to be posted this past offseason, knowing that his bonus couldn’t possibly be bigger than $3.5 million, or roughly the same amount that it took to sign Lucas Duda. Shortly after Ohtani signed with the Angels, a report revealed that the righty, who’d pitched only five games in an injury-shortened 2017 season, had a damaged elbow ligament. Much to our relief, the ligament wasn’t torn enough to cost him time. Lastly, he recorded a .347 OPS and a 27.00 ERA in spring training, as anonymous scouts lined up to liken him to a “high school hitter” and say he’d need a full season in the minors to have any hope of hitting in the big leagues. Those small-sample struggles incited some speculation that he’d start the season in Triple-A, but that crisis was averted, too, and Ohtani debuted at DH on Opening Day.

After clearing his throat with a 1-for-5 first game at the plate on March 29 and a six-inning, six-strikeout mound debut on April 1 that was marred by only a three-run inning, Ohtani put together a one-week stretch that was the stuff sports dreams are made of. We still don’t know whether Ohtani’s rookie year—let alone his career—will fully live up to its unprecedented promise. But the week Ohtani just had proved that the player I labeled a “sports superweapon” in 2016 is fully armed and operational: He homered in three straight games as a DH on Tuesday, Wednesday (against Corey Kluber), and Friday, then dominated the A’s over seven scoreless, one-hit innings on Sunday in his second start against them, recording 19 outs before allowing a base runner and ultimately striking out 12 Oakland batters.

According to FanGraphs, Ohtani was worth exactly 1.0 WAR in the past week: almost poetically, 0.5 as a hitter and 0.5 as a pitcher. To put that into perspective, the Angels had only two players (Trout and Andrelton Simmons) top 2.2 WAR all of last season. One-WAR weeks aren’t unheard of, but they are rare, and when they have happened, they haven’t looked like Ohtani’s. WAR isn’t really designed to be a single-game stat, and some of its components—particularly defense—can’t be calculated or queried on such a small scale. But at my request, FanGraphs founder David Appelman came up with a close approximation for weekly WAR totals, which don’t consider defense but do factor in players’ positions.

Dividing every season since 2002 (when FanGraphs’ split data starts) into one-week, Monday-to-Sunday increments, Appelman found 13 one-WAR weeks by 10 pitchers (less than one per season) and 68 one-WAR weeks by 57 position players (roughly four per season). More players would have qualified had he searched for performance over any span of one week, regardless of days of the week, but one way or another, the one-WAR-week club would be a select group of extremely locked-in players. The pitchers topped out at 1.2 WAR (Curt Schilling’s 16 scoreless innings in April 2002, with 26 strikeouts against only nine combined hits and walks), while the hitters peaked at 1.5 WAR (Shawn Green’s nine homers in 27 at-bats in late May 2002).

Ohtani may not top the list, but he stands out from the other one-WAR-weekers in the 16-season sample in three ways. First, his age: No other pitchers, and only six other hitters, have qualified for the club at 23 or younger. Second, his experience: Only one other player—Giancarlo Stanton in August 2010—qualified in his first MLB season, and Stanton, at least, had two months of major league action under his belt. Third, his playing time and position(s): Every other player on the list was either a pitcher who started two games or a non-DH position player who played at least six and made at least 21 plate appearances. Ohtani started one game as a pitcher and three at DH, where the high offensive baseline makes it more difficult to qualify for a list of this type.

On the one hand, a single week is a minuscule sample that doesn’t necessarily represent the season that Ohtani will have. On the other, it’s a larger sample than we need to confirm what we thought: Ohtani is preternaturally talented at everything he does. Ohtani, who’s hit in only four games, is one of only 18 players this season to have hit two or more balls at least 112 mph; only Minnesota’s Miguel Sanó tops him in average exit speed among hitters with at least 10 batted balls. Only two other starters have a higher average fastball velocity than Ohtani’s 98.0, and among pitches thrown at least 10 times this season, the only one with a higher miss-per-pitch rate than Ohtani’s splitter (44.8 percent) is Seattle reliever Edwin Díaz’s slider (47.6 percent). On Sunday, Ohtani—who threw 91 pitches and induced 44 swings—recorded 25 misses, a total matched or eclipsed in only 15 games (by 13 pitchers) all of last season and in only 13 games (by 10 pitchers) in 2016. Even his sprint speed is nearly elite.

Numbers like those are one way to convey Ohtani’s outlier nature, and salivating over Ohtani’s stats has become a popular pursuit: According to FanGraphs’ Sean Dolinar, Ohtani’s player page at the site has been viewed 5.3 more times than anyone else’s since the season started (although that’s double-counting his hitting and pitching tabs). But in Ohtani’s case, stats are still a prosaic proxy for the spellbinding experience of seeing the pitches and swings that produce those data. It’s comparatively common to watch pitchers hit, or even hitters pitch, but both of those activities are typically exercises in incompetence, entertaining largely because the out-of-their-element players, who seem so deft in their primary roles, look like interlopers, reminding us how masterful the regulars are and occasionally surprising us by not failing, for once. No number can quite capture the cognitive dissonance that comes from seeing the same man excel at both jobs, looking equally at home on the mound or with a bat in his hands—and, in mortal moments, softening his awe-inspiring displays of skill with infectious smiles and occasional bursts of celebratory intensity, like the fist-pump that followed the outing-ending sequence to Matt Olson that engineered Ohtani’s escape from the only jam he encountered on Sunday: a 99 mph four-seamer for a called strike on the corner …

… backed up by a devastating splitter, 10 mph slower, for a swinging strike three.

We can quantify what Ohtani’s outs recorded and hits produced are worth relative to what a theoretical replacement would do, but from a spectator perspective, Ohtani is irreplaceable. In record time, he’s taken control of my baseball consumption. As a non–fantasy player who no longer roots for one team, I’d normally bathe myself in the firehose of the first few weeks of the season without any attempt to direct the flow. Instead, I’m checking lineups and scheduling my afternoons and evenings around Ohtani, tuning in a few minutes prior to the appointed time lest a game somehow start early and deprive me of a pitch. Friends and loved ones who are normally neither baseball devotees nor fans of any particular team have adopted the Angels and Ohtani as their own, and both Baseball Twitter and Ringer Baseball Slack, which usually lack focus until October eliminates most teams, broadcast on the same frequency for a few hours a day when he’s active. That Angels games also feature baseball’s best player and most mesmerizing defender sweetens the deal, but be honest: On Ohtani’s mound days, he crowds the supporting players out of the spotlight, and on his DH days, we silently urge other hitters to hurry up and get out or reach base, bringing his place in the order around again. To think that we once pined for Pat Venditte, or that last year at this time we were actually excited about Christian Bethancourt’s two-way trial.

So much of the story of Ohtani’s season has yet to be told: Whether opposing hitters can learn to lay off of Ohtani’s splitter and blunt his best weapon (not likely, as long as he also keeps painting the edges of the strike zone with league-leading heat). Whether Ohtani himself can stop swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, as he has to this point, particularly if opposing pitchers, who have thus far pounded Ohtani inside to no effect, can be better at sticking to the second part of the “fastball in, off-speed pitch low and away” preseason scouting report.

And, perhaps most intriguing of all, whether the 7-3 Angels can continue to show restraint in deploying the player who’s been both their most valuable batter and their most valuable pitcher, unleashing his arm only during once-a-week Sunday devotions and DHing him two or three times in between his turns in an NPB-style six-man rotation, with rest days bookending each outing. Thus far, the Angels have received 3.7 batting runs above average from the DH slot in Ohtani’s four games as a hitter, and -2.6 runs from the DH slot in their six other games, courtesy of Chris Young and Albert Pujols. The wild-card contenders, whose playoff odds are still hovering below 40 percent, are 2-2 without Ohtani and 5-1 with him, and the only loss with Ohtani took 11 innings. If the race remains tight and Ohtani sustains his star-level play, manager Mike Scioscia may be tempted to use him more often—even, perhaps, hitting him on the days he pitches, when it might be worthwhile to sacrifice the DH slot if Ohtani regularly goes deep enough into his starts that Scioscia could usually get away with only one Ohtani-less plate appearance from the pitcher spot.

However the rest of the season unspools, Ohtani has already delivered the rare thrills of anticipation rewarded and hype vindicated. Not only has sports Santa Claus come, but he’s brought every gift we wanted, fulfilling all of our fantasies except the one where Ohtani hits against himself (for that, there’s VR). In the past two decades, I’ve watched Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa break the home run–hitting scale. I’ve seen a similarly steroidal Barry Bonds be the best hitter of all time and (reportedly also enhanced) Rogers Clemens surpass Cy Young, witnessed Pedro Martínez post perhaps the most impressive pitching season ever, and marveled at Randy Johnson’s record extreme strikeout rates. I’ve seen Ichiro break hits records from the 1920s and ’30s, Bryce Harper have the hottest-ever hot streak, and Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Clayton Kershaw, and Trout have historic starts to careers. But no player has impressed and delighted me as much in one week as Ohtani, who may or may not be as successful as any other player in this paragraph but has already made himself equally compelling. For baseball’s sake, and for ours, here’s hoping that his first one-WAR week will lead to many more.