We’re not appreciating Shohei Ohtani as much as we should be
Shohei Ohtani’s early season performance is the talk of baseball. He couldn’t hit all spring and he’s come out of the gate banging, going 7-for-18 with three homers in the early going. He got beat up pitching all spring and all he did yesterday was dominate, pitching perfect baseball into the seventh inning while striking out 12 and looking more dominant than any pitcher we’ve seen in some time. Worth noting: it was against the Oakland Athletics, who had seen him a week before, so it’s not like they weren’t at least somewhat prepared for him. Didn’t matter.
Ohtani’s early spectacular performance allows us to return to the conversation which was cut short when he struggled during spring training. The conversation about how special he can truly be and how unprecedented what he is trying to do truly is.
Ohtani was given the nickname “The Japanese Babe Ruth” a couple of years ago. Some scoffed at this because, hey, there’s only one Babe Ruth, and Ohtani is not gonna either win 24 games on the mound nor hit .360 and smack 50 dingers. The nickname, though, was not given because anyone thought he’d be as good a hitter or pitcher Ruth was, but because he’s a dual threat like Ruth was, able to both hit and pitch at a high level, all at a time when the level of competition and the grind of the season is far greater than it was back in 1920.
Still, the nickname might turn out to still be something of an insult . . . to Shohei Ohtani.
Babe Ruth was an outstanding pitcher and, historically speaking, remains a massively underrated one. Obviously he was one of the best hitters in the history of baseball. But he was not really a two-way player the way Ohtani is attempting to be for very long. Indeed, he was only a true two-way player for part of the 1918 season and for the 1919 season with Boston.
Ruth was a part-time hitter at best before he turned 23, Ohtani’s current age, before the 1918 season. In 1918 Ruth got a bit more exposure as a hitter, playing in 95 games in the field and making 382 plate appearances while making 19 starts and one relief appearance, tossing 166.1 innings. In 1919 he was basically a full-time offensive player, making 543 plate appearances in 130 games, while backing off a tad on the pitching, appearing in 17 games, starting 15, and tossing 133.1 innings. It’s worth noting, though, that as the batting workload increased, his typical pitching workload dramatically decreased. Indeed, he pitched over 320 innings in 1916 and 1917, so for the era, it’s probably best to consider what he was doing in 1918 and 1919 as part-time pitching. Following his purchase by the Yankees in 1920 all pretenses of him being a two-way threat were dropped. He would appear in only five more games as a pitcher over the next 13 years, all one-offs, gimmicks or emergency spot appearances.
Ohtani, in contrast, is currently set up to be a full-time pitcher for his era. Barring injury or being skipped for strategic purposes, he’ll probably make 30 starts, maybe a couple more than that, and pitch close to 200 innings. He’s on pace for that now anyway. As a hitter he’s hit in four of the Angels’ first ten games. If he keeps that pace up he’ll only be a DH for around 65 games, but if he keeps hitting well, and as he gets more comfortable with the major league routine, it’s not hard to imagine Mike Scioscia putting him in the lineup more often. How could he not? Could that give him 300 plate appearances? 400? That’s probably a bit much, but it’s not totally out of the question if he’s raking and the Angels are in the playoff hunt.
No, I am not insane, and no I will not even suggest that Ohtani will pitch or hit as well as Babe Ruth did. But he may very well come pretty close to the workload Ruth had as a dual threat, and he may very well do it for a longer time than the, at best, one and a half seasons Ruth ever did. All at a time when the baseball schedule, the crush of the media and the mental demands of the game are far greater than they were in Ruth’s era and when the competition is far tougher.
Maybe you’re already sick of all of the talk about Shohei Ohtani. But it’s worth remembering that there’s a good reason no one has done what he is trying to do for close to a 100 years. That he’s doing it and that, so far anyway, he’s doing it at such a high level, means that, in my view, we’re not talking about Shohei Ohtani enough.