In the Land of the Free, the Major League Baseball season has passed it’s halfway point and is about to enter the leadup to the trading deadline at the end of the month, and that brief period between the end of the NHL and NBA seasons and the onset of the NFL training camps.
In brief, it’s been an interesting year so far as the League gets back to normal after last year’s heavily abridged season though some of the ‘innovations’ of 2020 – such as 7-inning games for doubleheaders and starting extra innings with a runner on-base – have been retained. There’s been a host of storylines as well; Atlanta lost hosting rights for the All-Star Game after the state of Georgia passed discriminatory (and quite frankly, racist) voting laws, offensive production continuing to fall and strikeout numbers climb, with MLB instituting a crackdown on substances used by pitchers to get a better grip. And on the individual front the New York Mets’ pitcher Jacob deGrom has taken aim at trying to better the remarkable record-low 1.12 earned run average put up in 1968 by the late great Bob Gibson.
But there is one story that eclipses the lot, that of the Los Angeles Angels Shohei Ohtani.
As I write this Ohtani leads the Major Leagues with 34 home runs, smacking one roughly every 10 times he comes up to bat, and closing in on his combined total from his first two seasons in the majors in 2018 (when he was American League Rookie of the Year) and 2019. And we aren’t talking about homers that just clear the fence, several have been tape-measure shots well over 450 feet. Plus he’s already gone past the record for the number of home runs by a Japanese-born player in a single season, previously held by Hideki Matsui.
That alone would be remarkable, except that every five days or so Ohtani picks up the ball and heads out to the mound as the Angels’ starting pitcher. He’s no slouch there either, having started 14 games this season so far and given up 26 runs in 73 innings and with a fastball that touches 160 km/h.
To possess elite major-league skill as a hitter or pitcher is one thing but to have it in both disciplines is almost unprecedented. That’s led to comparisons with someone you may have heard of; baseball legend George Herman Ruth, otherwise known as Babe.
In his rookie year, Ohtani became the first person to pitch 50 innings and hit 15 home runs since Ruth did in 1919, and with one more start this will be the first to start 15 games and hit more than 25 home runs since Ruth that same season. And already this year he became the first person to start a game on the day they led the Majors in home runs since the Babe did so in 1921. But the key difference is that there was only a short overlap in the career of Ruth the pitcher and Ruth the hitter, which came in 1918-19 while with the Boston Red Sox, and bar a handful of outings (including that one in 1921) he stopped pitching after he was sold to the Yankees – a saga all of its own and set the course of the fortunes of the two clubs for decades – after that 1919 season. Ohtani, you’d think, is likely to do both for quite some time.
There’s more though. Ohtani was elected to this year’s All-Star Game as the starting designated hitter for the American League team and also as one of five starting pitchers voted in by the fans. It’s no surprise that he was the first to do that. He also participated in the Home Run Derby, where despite being ousted in the first round he still launched six shots over 500 feet into Denver’s thin air.
And just this past Monday against division-rivals Oakland he became the first player since 1968 to pitch six scoreless innings and then play another position, a tactic that keeps his bat in the lineup even after he’s been replaced as the pitcher.
His mix of skills made him a star in Japan even as a high school teenager, and despite openly suggesting he’d make the jump straight to America he was drafted by and played five seasons for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, where he debuted at 18 and was an All-Star every year. His wish to then try and make it in MLB led to him being “posted”, a process by which players under contract in Nippon Professional Baseball can negotiate with Major League teams, and if terms are agreed the NPB team receives a fee equal to a percentage of the MLB contract.
His time in MLB and with the Angels hasn’t been without setbacks. In his first year he twice injured his pitching elbow, the second of which resulted in the dreaded “Tommy John” ligament replacement surgery and apart from two brief appearances last year kept him off the mound for two seasons. But while rehabilitating that injury he was still able to contribute as an above league average hitter before resuming his pitching this year which makes his success as the latter this year so far all the more remarkable.
Will he continue his torrid home run pace and challenge Ruth’s season-best of 60, or Roger Maris’ American League record of 61? Maybe, maybe not. But to watch him try, while simultaneously throwing heat on the mound as one of the league’s best pitchers is going to be well worth watching.
And when it’s someone doing things that no one else has in a century, why wouldn’t you?
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