As Angels starter Shohei Ohtani warmed up before the second inning in a game against the Giants on Wednesday, a foreign substance was spotted in his back pocket. Not sticky stuff, but baserunning gloves.
Shohei Ohtani, noted two-way player, forgot that he had his batting gloves in his back pocket shortly before pitching in the second inning. pic.twitter.com/8l0ImRKLVj— Brent Maguire (@bmags94) June 23, 2021
No other pitcher would have made the mistake of bringing baserunning gloves to the mound in an American League park, because no other pitcher would have had a chance of reaching base. But Ohtani had batted in the bottom of the first, as for the seventh time this season the Angels surrendered the designated hitter and allowed their starting pitcher to hit for himself—something that has happened only six other times in the 49 seasons since the advent of the DH. Wednesday was the first time in MLB history that an NL team started a DH and its AL opponent didn’t. The Angels’ decision came back to bite them in extras, as pinch hitters and injuries shortened their bench. But it gave us a glimpse of a moment when Ohtani’s jobs blurred together, a harmless mishap that nonetheless symbolized the two-way-player problems that Ohtani—and Ohtani alone—encounters as he navigates a season of the sort that hasn’t been seen since integration.
Not that the extra obstacles in the paths of potential two-way players have posed many problems for Ohtani this year. Admittedly, Wednesday wasn’t a banner two-way day: Ohtani the hitter took an oh-fer against Kevin Gausman, as Gausman gave him a taste of the nasty splitters that Ohtani the pitcher deploys. But on the mound, he matched the Giants’ ace for six solid innings. Facing an offense whose non-pitchers have out-hit every team’s except the Astros’, Ohtani allowed one run on six hits, walking two, striking out nine, and garnering 21 whiffs, which led all pitchers on Wednesday. As a pitcher, he’s produced a 2.58 ERA (177 ERA+) with 82 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings on the season. At the plate, he’s hitting .265/.351/.633 (162 wRC+) through 279 plate appearances. Until Vladimir Guerrero Jr. passed an idle Ohtani on Thursday, he was tied for the major league lead with a career-high 23 home runs, and he’s stolen 10 bases in 13 attempts.
If I could talk my editors into it, I’d cover Ohtani as closely as the late Pedro Gomez embedding with Barry Bonds, but in lieu of a daily or weekly two-way watch, periodic updates will do. In March, I wrote about the rekindling of the Ohtani two-way dream, and after the first two months of the regular season, I noted that Ohtani was making that dream come true. Since that second piece was published on June 1, Ohtani has only picked up the pace, slashing .271/.411/.746 and pitching to a 2.35 ERA (with a 32-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio) in 23 frames. In the eight games between last Tuesday and this Wednesday, Ohtani smashed six home runs and turned in two separate six-inning, one-run pitching performances, all of which was worth 1.24 WAR. The two-way, one-WAR week, a unique accomplishment that Ohtani first treated us to in April 2018, earned him his third AL Player of the Week award, and his first since his rookie campaign.
Most recent one-week stretches with 5+ homers and a win:— Jeremy Frank (@MLBRandomStats) June 21, 2021
Shohei Ohtani - June 14-20, 2021:
6 HR hit, 6 IP, 1 ER, 1 win
Babe Ruth - June 9-15, 1921:
7 HR hit, 5 IP, 3 ER, 1 win
Exactly 100 years apart (pretty much)@kennyjackelen
Ohtani’s exploits are unparalleled in living memory and unmatched in the modern game. Even if his success cracks the door for future two-way players, there’s no telling whether the players who’ll follow his lead will be capable of playing both ways at such elite levels. Nor is there any guarantee that Ohtani, who’ll turn 27 on July 5, can keep this up indefinitely: Between age, injuries, pandemics, potential work stoppages, and other circumstances that could conspire to prevent him from maintaining his high-wire act, he may never be better or more durable than this. For now, though, he’s not only a leading MVP candidate but a player whose personality and skill set make him at least as fun to follow as any member of MLB’s brigade of young, international legends in the making; if you can’t get into Ohtani, maybe baseball isn’t for you. We shouldn’t take this season for granted or treat Ohtani like less than a sports miracle just because he’s playing on the West Coast for a mediocre team, so as he nears the midway point of a historic campaign, let’s marvel at what he’s accomplished and consider 10 questions about what could come next.
Could this be the best single season ever?
No, we’re not starting small. Per Baseball-Reference, Ohtani leads the majors with 5.0 WAR, which puts him 0.4 WAR ahead of second-place player Jacob deGrom. (At FanGraphs, which bases its pitching WAR on FIP rather than runs allowed, Ohtani trails deGrom and Guerrero.) There’s a pleasing symmetry to his season so far: His value is almost evenly split between batting WAR (2.53) and pitching WAR (2.47). The Angels have played 74 games—all but two of which have featured Ohtani—which puts the two-way player on pace for 10.9 WAR over 162 games. That’s not counting any additional value that Ohtani provides by squeezing a slugger and an ace into a single roster spot.
Ohtani’s all-time-great teammate Mike Trout has never reached 10.9 Baseball-Reference WAR in a single season. Mookie Betts hasn’t done it. Albert Pujols hasn’t done it. Neither has Zack Greinke or Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer. In MLB’s modern era, there have been 44 seasons—24 by pitchers and 20 by batters—of 10.9 WAR or more. But 28 of those seasons happened prior to integration, and no active player has cracked the list. The last hitter to do it was Bonds in 2002, and the last pitcher to do it was Pedro Martínez in 2000.
Othani is the outstanding athlete you don’t see everyday. He’s the complete package in one player. He can throw 100, can hit a ball 400 feet, can run! You can take him to Hollywood and he could become a movie star #ShoheiOhtani #completepackage— Pedro Martinez (@45PedroMartinez) June 20, 2021
The caliber of competition in MLB continues to climb, and pitchers throw 4–5 miles per hour harder, on average, today than they did during Bonds’s big, PED-tainted years in the early 2000s. Given the extent to which Ohtani’s skills stand out at a time when players are more gifted than ever—and when pitchers have collectively slashed .112/.153/.142—it’s almost inarguable that he’s the most physically talented all-around athlete ever to play the game (though Bo Jackson might have had enough arm to hold his own as a pitcher). Among qualified hitters, only Ohtani, Ronald Acuña Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., and Tyler O’Neill rank in the 90th percentile or higher in Barrel rate, hard-hit rate, and sprint speed, and unlike the other three, Ohtani makes the cut in pitcher strikeout rate too. WAR-wise, Ohtani’s 2021 wouldn’t be the top-ranked campaign even if he sustained this level of play for the rest of this season (which is far from assured), and thanks to his lackluster teammates, he probably won’t get the chance to cap off his heroics with a playoff encore. But considering the context and the high degree of difficulty, he’d have a strong claim to the top spot on any era-adjusted ordering of the best seasons ever.
Could he have been this valuable as a one-way player?
In his first few years stateside, the debate about Ohtani’s role was often framed as an either/or choice between “two-way player” and “everyday player.” The thinking was that Ohtani’s two-way role necessarily restricted his playing time, both because it increased his injury risk and because it forced him to take days off before and after his pitching appearances. This year, buoyed by better health, a revamped, data-driven approach to weight training, nutrition, and rest, and his manager’s much longer leash, Ohtani has been both a two-way player and an everyday player, sitting out only the first game of a late-May doubleheader and one June contest in an NL park. From a spectator standpoint, Ohtani was always more intriguing in a two-way role: Would a win or three more for the also-ran Angels have justified ripping the horn off a unicorn and depriving fans of his splitter, one of the game’s best (and prettiest) pitches? With his hot start to this season, that question became moot, as Ohtani proved that playing two ways was both the best story and the best way for him to help his team.
If Ohtani were a full-time corner outfielder instead of a two-way pitcher/DH, his offensive WAR would have been boosted by a more forgiving positional adjustment. He might have picked up a few more plate appearances, and his bat and his baserunning might have been a bit better without the mental and physical strain of pitching (though Ohtani clearly finds it fulfilling to do both jobs). Even so, says Baseball-Reference developer Kenny Jackelen, it “definitely would be really, really hard to scrape together 2.5 more wins from offense.” To get to 5.0 WAR through 74 games without pitching, Ohtani would have had to hit even more often, run and bat better, and be baseball’s best defensive outfielder (or at least a really, really good one, if he’d played center in Trout’s absence). That’s asking a lot, considering that until his occasional outfield cameos after pitching appearances this season, he hadn’t played the field professionally since he was a teenager.
On Wednesday, MLB Network’s John Smoltz argued that Ohtani “would be Jacob deGrom if all he did was pitch,” remarking that “Ohtani has everything that deGrom has, with another pitch.” That’s quite a claim, but even if it were true, it might not make him more valuable than he is as a still-impressive pitcher who’s also on pace to hit 50 homers. He’s already leading the majors (or, at FanGraphs, is among the league leaders) in WAR as a two-way player, so how much more valuable could he be in any other role? If he gets hurt again or declines with age, the questions about putting him out to the pastures or turning him into a DH/late-inning reliever will start surfacing again. But for now, at least, he’s silenced the suggestions that he’d be better off specializing.
Is he somehow getting better?
Early in the season, Ohtani’s bugaboo on both sides of the ball was walks: not enough at the plate, and too many on the mound. As the season has gone on, he’s addressed his free-pass problems, leaving him without a glaring weakness. As a hitter, Ohtani still strikes out regularly—when he’s not bunting for singles, he’s swinging for the fences—but his walk rate has soared as he’s cut down on chases on pitches outside the strike zone.
As a pitcher, Ohtani has rediscovered the strike zone as he’s put more distance between himself and the elbow injuries that kept him off the mound for much of 2018, all of 2019, and almost all of 2020. In his first four starts, Ohtani walked 22.6 percent of the hitters he faced, but he slashed that to 7.3 percent in his subsequent seven outings, below the 8.7 percent MLB average over the same span. That rate has fallen further, to 5.3 percent, over his most recent four starts (including the first walkless appearance of his MLB career, on June 4 against Seattle). He’s pulled off that transformation into a control pitcher by pounding the zone and trusting his swing-and-miss stuff to get him whiffs—which it has, leaving his strikeout rate almost unaffected.
Ohtani’s low-walk makeover has coincided with a little less velocity, which seems like more of an intentional tactic than a scary symptom. On May 19, his pitch speeds sank precipitously, but they’ve since bounced back, and he still has the ability to hit the high 90s or even touch triple digits when he really needs an out. Ohtani has complained of feeling “heavy” or “sluggish” at times, so perhaps throwing at slightly less than max effort is his way of conserving energy and improving his command. If so, it seems to be working.
Overall, nothing about Ohtani’s performance thus far screams “regression.” At the plate, he has a higher Barrel rate than any other hitter, and his quality of contact suggests that if anything, his hitting stats should be better than they are. (Ohtani ranks fifth in the majors in expected wOBA, and he’s first in expected home runs.) On the mound, he’s gotten a little lucky on balls in play—especially given the Angels’ issues in the field—but he’s also limited hard contact. Even if he suffers a slight decline in inning-per-inning effectiveness, he could compensate by taking turns in the rotation more regularly than he did early on. Wednesday was the first time that Ohtani made consecutive starts on five days’ rest (rather than the six days he’s typically taken between outings), and he threw 105 pitches, his high since returning from Tommy John surgery. He’s about 20 innings away from matching his combined innings total from the past four seasons, so Joe Maddon will have to take care not to overwork him down the stretch. But for now, there’s no reason to think that his skills don’t support the dominance he’s displayed.
Could his catchers help him more?
Ohtani’s pitching performance appears even more impressive given that he seemingly hasn’t had much help from his batterymates. Of the 54 catchers with at least 2,800 pitches caught this season, 37-year-old Angels veteran Kurt Suzuki ranks dead last in Called Strikes Above Average, a Baseball Prospectus metric that quantifies backstops’ receiving skills. Angels backup catcher Max Stassi ranks fourth. Yet Suzuki—who doesn’t rate well as a blocker or a thrower, either—has caught Ohtani in 10 of his 11 starts, with predictably poor results on balls and strikes.
According to BP, only Max Scherzer, John Means, and Mike Minor have lost more runs to poor framing than Ohtani, and all three have thrown more innings than Ohtani has. On average, 47.6 percent of pitches taken inside the “Shadow zone”—basically, borderline pitches—have been called strikes. Only 35.1 percent of Ohtani’s have—easily the lowest rate of any regular starter. In 2018, when Ohtani worked mainly with Martín Maldonado, his called-strike rate on those pitches was a much more robust 43.8 percent. Granted, Ohtani’s extensive array of pitches and speeds, his attempts to coax chases with offerings outside of the zone, and his sometimes-erratic command make him tough to catch—according to BP, only five other pitchers have cost themselves more called strikes, independent of their catchers—but that only makes it more vital that he work with a backstop who has a good glove.
Maddon has said that “some people put more stock into” framing than he does, and he likes the way Suzuki works with Ohtani. Perhaps Suzuki makes up for his defensive shortcomings by putting Ohtani at ease or by calling pitches well; we shouldn’t discount some sources of value just because we can’t currently measure them. But Ohtani’s walk and K rates would probably be better if he were paired with a catcher who could get him more calls.
Going from Max Stassi’s framing to Kurt Suzuki’s framing is a complete 180 pic.twitter.com/q8KtW4MnYT— Brent Maguire (@bmags94) June 16, 2021
How should he be handled during All-Star Week?
Early this season, when Ohtani was hampered by blisters and the prospect of a full, healthy season seemed tenuous, having him participate in the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game sounded like a dangerous indulgence. Although there’s little statistical backing for the existence of a Home Run Derby hangover effect, taking all those swings is still tiring, especially at altitude. If the priority is protecting Ohtani and increasing his odds of setting records and winning awards, then giving him a few days to recharge would seem smarter than asking him to travel to and from Denver to take hacks in a contest and play in an exhibition game. Two-way players need their rest, and Ohtani is irreplaceable.
But what good is having an awesome action figure if you don’t take it out of the box? (Sure, it’s sometimes worth way more in mint condition, but go with me here.) Ohtani isn’t in the thick of a pennant race. He’s probably not going to get a signature moment in the 2021 playoffs or become a two-way World Series hero. All-Star Week could be the closest he’ll come to the national stage. Thus, the Angels (and AL All-Star manager Kevin Cash) should let Ohtani eat. Give him the chance to replicate his semi-mythical Coors Field BP session from 2018. Let him set off indelible Derby fireworks, like Josh Hamilton in 2008 or Guerrero in 2019. And give him the opportunity to pitch and hit against baseball’s best players, many of whom are as awed by his powers as we are. To be given the gift of Ohtani and let it go to waste would be All-Star Game malpractice.
Ohtani seems to be on board: Last week, he became the first player to confirm his entry into the Home Run Derby, in part because he wanted to be the first Japanese-born player to participate. Despite his recent durability, he’s hardly invulnerable, and the risks are real. But the world deserves to see his stupid juice.
What’s holding him back from being a transcendent star?
Ohtani is superhuman, handsome, and seemingly squeaky-clean, and although he may not be better than Trout, his singular skill set makes him more likely to become a transcendent star. In many respects, he’s an endorsement deal maker’s dream. “He should be on Wheaties boxes, he should be on video game covers, he should be on talk shows,” says Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising. “Somebody that towers above their sport like that, you’d think he’d be just all over the place. … The comparisons to Babe Ruth are not out of line, so you would think somebody that’s that special would just have tremendous marketing potential.”
So why isn’t Ohtani omnipresent? “A lot of it comes down to making it into the playoffs, winning World Series,” says Dorfman. “That’s when you start to get the national exposure, where the casual fans or the non-baseball fans might be tuning in. It’s just not that prevalent when you’re playing on a team that always seems to be second division.” The Angels, as ever, are a bit below .500, stubbornly sucking despite fielding a few of baseball’s best players. They often play late on East Coast time. Baseball lends itself to regional audiences more so than national (or international) ones. Ohtani didn’t play two ways or hit like a superstar during his injury-riddled 2019 and 2020 seasons. There’s a language barrier between Ohtani and English-speaking audiences and cultural factors that may make him less likely to seek the spotlight. He’s not on Twitter, and he’s not very active on Instagram, which he didn’t join until last spring. He reportedly makes more than $10 million in endorsements (mostly in Japan), which dwarfs his Angels salary. But perhaps he has little interest in becoming more of a megastar or establishing himself as the so-called “face of baseball.”
Even so, Dorfman says, Ohtani has more potential to become a crossover, mainstream star than any other player: “If things fall just right, if he makes a big show at the Home Run Derby, an MVP or a home run championship at the end of the season—some kind of great combination of pitching and hitting, and getting his team into the playoffs—that would probably really help do it.” Essentially, he has to keep doing what he’s doing—and hope the rest of the roster can start pulling its weight before he reaches free agency after 2023.
Does any other player’s coverage compare to Ohtani’s?
Even if Ohtani hasn’t attained household-name status in the United States, he’s still the center of the baseball universe for at least three groups of fans and/or content creators: his faithful followers in Japan, the baseball media’s many fonts of fun facts, and the members of a thriving stan subculture, who will be watching every breath he takes and every move he makes.
Baseball writer Jim Allen, who has covered baseball in Japan since the early 1990s, points out that Ohtani’s two-way excellence is nothing new to fans from his home country, which affects how those fans have followed him from afar. “It’s an amazing buzz,” Allen says via direct message, but “it’s not like we haven’t seen this show before.” Ohtani’s 2021, Allen says, is “like 2016 all over again,” alluding to Ohtani’s breakout campaign for the Nippon Ham Fighters, in which the 21-year-old was NPB’s best pitcher and second-best hitter on a rate basis. As Allen puts it, “Ohtani’s a Broadway mega-hit that we watched in Dubuque months before it opened on Broadway but knew it would be spectacular—and now we’re nodding our heads and telling everyone, ‘See. Told you.’”
That’s not to say that fans in Japan are blasé about Ohtani reprising his 2016 performance in the world’s highest-level league, with a less forgiving schedule, and with even more power. (In 2016, he hit 22 homers in 382 plate appearances.) “Japan will probably stop for the Home Run Derby,” Allen says. Japanese telecasts of Angels games often employ an “Ohtani cam” that tracks the two-way player’s every move, and if he stays hot, the spotlight will be brighter by the end of the season. “When Ichiro started, every regular newscast in Japan reviewed his at-bats as part of the national news coverage,” Allen says. “Same with Nomo’s highlights. Every Nomo start in 1995 was on terrestrial TV. It’s a different era, and all Ohtani’s games are on cable or streaming, so it’s hard to compare. But if Ohtani is in the MVP hunt, the end of the season could look like Ichiro’s 1994 breakout year, when every news broadcast in Japan had a ‘Today’s Ichiro’ segment.”
Ohtani is a godsend for data providers and media members who get eyeballs by pumping out stats, such as author, Baseball-Reference intern, and prolific purveyor of Twitter trivia Jeremy Frank. “I’d have a hard time thinking of a player who has given me as much material as Ohtani,” Frank reports via DM. The richest fodder for fun facts, he says, are the outliers: Bonds with walks and homers, Rickey Henderson with steals. But “Ohtani is different because this year he’s been an outlier in pretty much everything.” He also generates trivia by batting high in the order or moonlighting in the outfield on the days he pitches.
“Vladdy [Guerrero] may end up being as valuable by some metrics as Ohtani this year, but that value, while impressive, is really just limited to his hitting,” Frank explains. “Ohtani produces in so many different ways that the list of wacky fun facts you can come up with by combining a couple of them are endless. If I said that Guerrero had a crazy game last night, you’re probably thinking 3-for-4 with a couple homers and a double. If I said that Ohtani did? Well, maybe it is 3-for-4 with a couple homers and a double. Or maybe it’s 4-for-4 with three stolen bases. Or seven shutout innings, with 11 strikeouts. The fact that he’s capable of doing any of those in a given week makes it so easy to come up with ‘firsts,’ because no one else in the last century has had that wide of a skill set and been able to turn that skill set into production on the field.”
every time I see an Angels highlight it's like "Mike Trout hit three homes runs and raised his average to .528 while Shohei Ohtani did something that hasn't been done since 'Tungsten Arm' O'Doyle of the 1921 Akron Groomsmen, as the Tigers defeated the Angels 8-3"— ℳatt (@matttomic) May 18, 2021
For true Ohtani stans, though, Ohtani generates content just by being on the field, regardless of what he does there. Portia, a woman from the Philippines who currently lives in Shenzhen, China, operates one of many popular fan accounts devoted to Ohtani, @shoheisaveus. Although her family is full of baseball fans, she lost touch with the game until 2018, when Ohtani’s first MLB hit was retweeted into her timeline. “It was a bit of love at first sight,” she says via Twitter DM. “He’s just very cute!”
Portia started watching clips and highlights, then graduated to full Angels games and TV shows and documentaries about Ohtani. “I started sharing news and information about Shohei because I noticed no one in the baseball world does what most stan accounts do, where we update and share lots of things about our favorites,” she says. “No one in baseball follows any players as closely as we Shohei fans follow Shohei.” Portia belongs to a group chat of Ohtani stans—aka “Shobaes”—who live all over the world and discuss Ohtani in several languages. (She estimates that most of the Shobaes are between the ages of 16 and 30, and some are also K-pop/BTS stans on the side.) Many of its members knew nothing about baseball until Ohtani’s taters, splitters, and thirst traps became their conduits to the sport.
Shenzhen is 15 hours ahead of Anaheim, but Portia rarely misses an Angels game. “A lot of our group chat members suffer from sleep deprivation because we have messed-up time zones,” she says, adding that to see Wednesday’s day game, “a lot of us woke up at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. just to watch Shohei play, and we have work or school.” Ohtani accounts abound on Twitter, on Instagram, and especially on YouTube, where one unofficial fan club account run by a woman in Anaheim sometimes draws hundreds of thousands (or more than a million) views. Some of the Shobaes save up to travel overseas and see Ohtani play in person, and Portia hopes to do the same post-pandemic. “He is the complete package and MLB really needs to promote him more,” she says. “His good looks, his skills, his talents, I can’t even explain how amazing he is.” Portia’s preaching to the choir.
Lotta talk about shohei ohtani "having the most disgusting, unhittable splitter" or "absolutely demolishing baseballs with his incredibly powerful swing" not enough about shohei ohtani "being very cute" https://t.co/b4xASSgxDi pic.twitter.com/WU8lSVqNDp— tess mcgeer (@tessmcgeer) June 23, 2021
Why does he seem so nice?
Part of Ohtani’s appeal is that he seems improbably pleasant for someone so talented. “Gaston” could be about Ohtani: No one swings like Shohei, no one slings like Shohei. He’s skilled enough to get away with behaving badly. Yet on the field and in the dugout, he doesn’t display any trace of redassery or entitlement. Instead of chewing out umpires, he makes GIFable facial expressions and politely asks for clarification. He hits 470-foot homers, throws 101-mph fastballs, and picks up litter while he’s walking to first base:
Shohei Ohtani picked up trash when he was walking to first base.— DicDic (@MD_Son) June 18, 2021
How many ways does he have for Angels? pic.twitter.com/zY2vg8lcd4
He also hands bats to bat boys:
Shohei Ohtani picking up the bat and giving it to the bat boy pic.twitter.com/gYR9KEXYi8— 大谷翔平⚾️Ohtani Shohei ❶❼ (@shoheisaveus) June 12, 2021
When umps inspect him for sticky stuff, he consents with a smile:
Of course this is how Shohei Ohtani’s substance check goes.— Ben Verlander (@BenVerlander) June 23, 2021
Smile. Laugh. Thank them.
And instead of roping off a corner of the clubhouse for himself, he sings “Despacito,” hangs out with mere mortals such as José Iglesias and David Fletcher, and playfully flicks seeds at his interpreter.
Lmao Fletchtani is just here to bully Ippei— 大谷翔平⚾️Ohtani Shohei ❶❼ (@shoheisaveus) June 19, 2021
Like the attractive transfer student who inexplicably befriends Sam, Neal, and Bill on Freaks and Geeks, Ohtani is almost too approachable for someone who’s so far out of everyone’s league. All of this goes against great-athlete archetypes. Ohtani sets goals, works as hard as (or harder than) anyone, and gets fired up about big hits and big outs. He might even drop an occasional curse (while still seeming unflappable). He has to be driven and dedicated to have gotten this good. But he’s neither a hyper-efficient, unrelatable robot like Tom Brady or Novak Djokovic, nor an ultra-aggro, ever-aggrieved narcissist in the mold of Michael Jordan. We’re conditioned to think that elite athletes must be broken in some way. But Ohtani doesn’t sound at all tortured by his commitment to his craft. “I do not feel pressure at all when it comes to playing baseball, and this is being 100 percent honest,” he said in 2017. “Playing baseball is genuinely fun for me, and I enjoy every moment of my time on the field, whether it’s practice or game time.”
It’s almost unfair that Ohtani seems so silly, sympathetic, and down to earth despite also possessing the skill set of an organic Cylon designed to make humans obsolete.
Who would win in a head-to-head matchup: Ohtani the hitter or Ohtani the pitcher?
Ah, the age-old debate, which won’t be settled as long as Ohtani keeps dealing and raking in roughly equal measure. If the question is “Who would win most of the matchups?” the answer has to be pitcher Ohtani, just because pitchers get outs more often than they fail to get outs. But that response goes against the spirit of the exercise. In a sense, each Ohtani would lose: Because Ohtani is above average on both sides of the ball, his hitter and pitcher selves would do worse when facing each other than they do overall. But which one would be at a bigger disadvantage? Hitter Ohtani would have the platoon advantage, and he’d probably gain a greater edge from knowing pitcher Ohtani’s patterns and tactics than the other way around. He’d also benefit from the times-through-the-order effect the more often they faced each other. Then again, pitcher Ohtani’s stuff is well suited to his counterpart’s fastball bat: Hitter Ohtani hasn’t been good against splitters, as Gausman showed on Wednesday.
The verdict: Pitcher Ohtani wins the first battle, but hitter Ohtani wins the war, provided their matchup memories aren’t reset at the end of each plate appearance.
Are you doing all you can to catch the two-way show?
A lot of athletes are incomparable and revolutionary in their respective sports. There are too many wonders in the world for any one person to pay attention to all of them. Maybe there’s an angler who’s the best at both bottom fishing and fly-fishing, or a dude who throws darts and does two different darts things. If so, I wouldn’t watch him. So if baseball isn’t your bag, I get it. (And I’m flattered that you made it this far.)
But if it’s even conceivable that you could care about baseball—or about boundary-breaking human achievement, regardless of the field—you should try to pay attention to Ohtani. We’ll always have his stats and archived video, but there’s nothing like looking in live as he breaks baseball for a few hours a day. “Barry Bonds was the last guy that I would go to a game just to watch him, and steroids or not, you would not miss an at-bat when he was playing,” Dorfman says. “Hopefully Ohtani is getting there.” In my house, he’s there already. Next week, my wife and I will celebrate the 10th anniversary of our first date. It just so happens that Ohtani will be in town too. It may not sound romantic, but we’re getting tickets to the two-way show. There’s no way to know how long it will last.
By the time the Babe began launching homers regularly—aided by a livelier ball—he’d already reduced his workload on the mound. In 1919, his last season as a true two-way player, he hit 29 homers and made 15 starts as a pitcher, which (until Ohtani) made him the only major leaguer to start more than 10 games on the mound and hit more than 20 homers in a season. Ohtani is on track to blow by both of Ruth’s 1919 totals, which would make him the lone member of a brand-new club. He’s Ruth with better wheels, Bullet Rogan with a 162-game schedule. And unlike players who peaked in the 1920s, he’ll probably be in the lineup tonight. Catch him while you can.
Thanks to Jonathan Judge of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.