Even if you don’t care about Major League Baseball, you may want to start paying attention to the season that Shohei Ohtani is having with the Los Angeles Angels. We recently passed the mid-way point in this season and Ohtani leads the league with 34 home runs, which puts him on track to achieve, if not shoot beyond, the 60-homer mark. That would make him only the ninth player in MLB history to ever do so, and the first since Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa did it in 2001.
He’s so good that he became the first Japanese player to be selected for the Home Run Derby, and although he got knocked out in the first round, he earned $150k in prize money that he then donated to the Los Angeles Angels support staff, so he’s also a rad dude.
Home runs are one thing, but Ohtani is also arguably the most proficient hitter in baseball currently, where he leads in total bases. That’s an often overlooked stat that counts the number of bases taken by a player from the plate (this doesn’t include walks or steals). So, if you hit a single, that counts as one base. If you hit a double, that counts as two, and so on. Not only does he lead in home runs, he’s 4-4 when bunting for a hit, leading in that stat as well. He also ranks second in RBI’s, making him one of the most valuable hitters in the league.
Hitting isn’t the only thing Shohei Ohtani does better than almost anyone, he’s also the best pitcher on the Angels roster and one of the best in baseball. He’s the first player ever to be selected to the All-Star game as both a hitter and pitcher. He’s striking out almost 12 batters per 9 innings and his signature pitch, a nasty splitter, induces whiffs nearly 30% of the time it’s thrown. His 4-seam fastball hangs around 95mph, but can break the triple digit barrier when he needs it to. He has a 3.49 ERA (earned run average) in 13 starts.
That pitching proficiency together with his hitting prowess are what make Shohei Ohtani’s 2021 season so historic. Two-way players don’t really exist in the MLB, that is, a player who excels at both pitching and hitting. The reason for this is because pitching has become an incredibly specialized position, requiring tons of hours of practice, analyzing opposing hitters, and rest between starts.
Pitching alone is incredibly hard on the body, and it just doesn’t make sense for a team’s critical pitcher to be adding additional stress to his arm and shoulders by taking to the plate. Teams have designated hitters for that. Many big league pitchers are athletically gifted enough to be good hitters, but their focus and training time is better spent on the mound.
The only comparable player to Ohtani in MLB history was the great Babe Ruth. Ruth was a true two-way player in the 1918 and 1919 seasons, but quit pitching to focus on hitting as he told reporters at the time that he never felt he was effective while doing both. One hundred years later, Shohei Ohtani is not only living up to the Sultan of Swat’s legacy, he’s surpassing it. No player has ever hit 30 home runs and made 10 starts on the mound in the same year, but Ohtani has done that in 81 games. He has a higher slugging percentage than Ruth did at the same point in their careers.
Fans love a good “who is better” comparison, but the truth about Shohei Ohtani is, there is none.
He’s doing something that has truly never been done before in the MLB, and he’s challenging what managers, players, and pundits have thought was possible. “We all romanticize what it would have been like to watch Babe Ruth play.” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “Now we’re living it.”