When you ask any baseball historian about who’s the best player of all time, the answer will most likely be Babe Ruth. It’s because he was simply the most dominant hitter of all time as well as excelling as a pitcher; a rare thing about a century ago. George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. was the home run king for years in Major League Baseball with 714 homeruns before Hank Aaron broke the record with 755. Then, Barry Bonds broke it with 762. As a hitter, the larger-than-life man who was affectionately called “the Babe”, batted .342 with 2062 RBIs to go along with his many home runs. As a pitcher, he had a 94-46 win-loss record with a 2.28 ERA. Ruth was a cultural icon to many people as well as a hero because he was so much better than everybody else and his play was very influential in making baseball America’s pastime in the 1920’s and 1930’s. (For more info: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruthba01.shtml)
Fast forward to 2018 and we’re witnessing Shohei Ohtani.
Ohtani has come over to America and he’s striving to be the modern-day Babe Ruth with his great talent as a two-way player for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. When Ohtani played in Japan, he was known as the “Japanese Babe Ruth”. There was much hype and interest when he was made available to Major League Baseball teams in December 2017. He played five seasons for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in the Japanese League and as a hitter, batted .286 with 48 home runs and 166 RBI’s in only 403 games while as a pitcher, carried a 42-15 record with a 2.52 ERA in 85 games. (More info: https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=otani-000sho)
Major League Baseball owners in conjunction with Japanese baseball allowed teams to post a bid for Ohtani in an attempt to negotiate a contract and bring him to the United States. He was so eager to play for MLB that he decided not to wait the two extra years that’d have netted him a contract close to $200 million, according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. Instead, he signed for the MLB minimum of $545,000 a season. For a player of his ability and talent, this was not a good business move, but his obvious desire to prove himself in America outweighed the financial gain.
Ohtani eventually narrowed the list down to seven teams before deciding to sign with the Angels. This was a surprise, as he turned down powerhouse teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. The prevailing thought and speculation were that Ohtani would eventually sign with the New York Yankees, because New York was one of the best and most high-profiled teams. Instead, he decided to choose the more low-key Angels. It was reported by the media that he preferred a quieter environment of the west coast and that he preferred to team up with Mike Trout, the widely considered current best player in professional baseball. As per Ohtani’s agent Nez Balelo, the co-head of CAA Baseball, Balelo explained, “While there’s been much speculation about what would drive Shohei’s decision, what mattered to him most wasn’t market size, time zone or league, but that he felt a true bond with the Angels. [Shohei] sees this as the best environment to develop and reach the next level and attain his career goals.” According to the Athletic’s baseball insider Ken Rosenthal, the Angel’s general manager, Billy Eppler said that he’d been chasing Ohtani since high school and often visited him in Japan after becoming the Angels’ GM.
Over the last two decades or so, there’ve been numerous Asian baseball players who came to Major League Baseball. A handful of these Asian players, mostly Japanese, made a big impact in the Majors and had distinguished careers. A majority of baseball experts and historians consider the top three Japanese MLB players of all time are Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Hideo Nomo. Each had great careers in Japan before joining the Majors. In Ichiro’s case, he’ll no doubt be a future Hall-of-Famer because he’s an outstanding hitter and defensive player, mostly with the Seattle Mariners. He has 3089 hits and finished with a career batting average of .311. (For more info: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/suzukic01.shtml)
Both Matsui and Nomo also made their marks as Matsui was one of the most consistent, as well as underrated, offensive players for the Yankees. Nomo was one of the top pitchers for the Los Angeles Dodgers many years. I feel that Ohtani has more talent than any of these three guys mentioned and barring injury, I’d be very surprised if Ohtani doesn’t make it to the Hall-of-Fame like Ichiro. An advantage that Ohtani has over the other MLB Japanese players is that he’s arrived younger in age and made his debut as a 23-year-old compared to the others who’ve started in their mid-and-late 20’s.
With all the attention Ohtani receives as “the Japanese Babe Ruth”, he didn’t get off to a good start in spring training, struggling as both hitter and pitcher. He hit just .107 in 28 at bats and had an awful ERA of 27.00 during preseason. Articles were already written about him being a bust before the regular season even started. There were clearly those in the media and fans who wanted to dismiss the hype, but Ohtani had other ideas. He got off to an excellent start, batting an amazing .359 with four home runs and 12 RBI’s in just 39 at bats. More so, he pitched to a 2-1 record with a 4.43 ERA. He also struck out 26 batters in 20 innings in only 4 games while holding opposing hitters to a low .197 average. This got him rewarded as April’s American League Rookie of the Month. Although Ohtani cooled off into a subpar .254 average in May, he still had 8 extra base hits in only 59 at bats along with 2 home runs and 8 RBI’s and he walked 11 times. He had his best pitching performances in May as he was 2-0 with a 2.16 ERA and he struck out 31 batters in 25 innings and he held batters to an anemic .196 average. (For more info: http://www.espn.com/mlb/player/_/id/39832/shohei-ohtani)
Ohtani’s production on the field was certainly noteworthy. Both his hitting as well as pitching is very exciting as illustrated by an article in the Wall Street Journal, which explains what makes him special. The article suggests that if all of the best skills of baseball’s elite players are wrapped into one freakish athlete, Ohtani would be the result. Comparing Ohtani as a hitter, Aaron Judge emerged as a rookie sensation last year because of how hard he hit the baseball—94.9 mph off the bat on average, the best in the majors. Ohtani had nearly matched that earlier in the season, posting an average exit velocity of 94.1 mph, revealing his remarkable ability to make consistent contact. In Japan’s home run derby of 2016, it was rumored he’d hit a home run that traveled 525 feet in batting practice. At 6’4” and 200 lbs., Ohtani has good size and he has been a great power hitter and slugger as a rookie. (For more info: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-best-player-in-the-world-inside-shohei-ohtanis-unmatched-skills-1526568600?)
According to the WSJ article mentioned above, yet another part of what makes Ohtani dangerous is his sprint speed of 28.1 feet-per-second; well above-average. Earlier in the season, he even reached almost 30-feet-per-second, a rate surpassed only by the sport’s most elite speed demons. This was surprising to the average fan, because Ohtani had not stolen many bases in Japan, or even in the Major Leagues so far, but look for it to be another weapon at his disposal in the future. Furthermore, about speed, almost no pitcher throws as hard as Ohtani in velocity as his average fastball travels at 97.1 mph, trailing just two current starting pitchers: Luis Severino (97.6) and Noah Syndergaard (97.5). Ohtani has thrown six pitches that reached 100 mph and when Ohtani needed to make a big pitch, he reared back even more to get extra velocity on his fastball. In summary, Ohtani is a great natural talent who’s worth the price of admission for his ability. He does three exciting things: home runs, fast running and a high velocity in striking out batters. It’s truly unique that he’s so good as both hitter and pitcher. (For more info: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-best-player-in-the-world-inside-shohei-ohtanis-unmatched-skills-1526568600?)
When the Angels made a road trip to play the Mariners earlier this year, Ichiro gave high praise for Ohtani. Ichiro said, “You can’t even compare me to him because he’s actually doing something that’s going to impact not just Japan or here, but [also] the whole world. People are interested in how Ohtani’s going to do today because he’s doing both. To have someone do that, and have that kind of impact and that much excitement, people [will] want to know how he’s doing. He’s going to impact a lot of people.” (Source: http://www.latimes.com/sports/angels/la-sp-angels-report-20180504-story.html)
Recently after his start as a pitcher on September 2nd, Ohtani became the second player in Major League Baseball joining Ruth to pitch at least 50 innings and hit 15 homers in a season. This was a distinction held only by Ruth for a near century. Still, despite this historical accomplishment, this season has not been without adversity for Ohtani. On June 8th, he was placed on the disabled list with a grade-2 sprain of the Ulner Collateral Ligament in his throwing elbow. As per the physical obtained on Ohtani by Yahoo Sports, after he was signed by the Angels, it revealed that he had already gotten a first-degree sprain in his UCL. Neither his agent or the Angels commented on the report and Ohtani apparently reinjured his elbow after pitching for two months. He could have opted for surgery, but instead, chose to undergo platelet rich plasma and stem cell injections while on the disabled list. In comparison, Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka received the same treatment after a grade-2 UCL sprain in July 2014. Tanaka has since returned to pitch well without further injury. At the time of Ohtani’s grade-2 UCL sprain, he was a 4-1 win/loss pitcher with a 3.10 ERA. As a hitter, he was batting .289 with 6 home runs and 20 RBI’s. He returned to action a month later as a hitter and he started throwing bullpen sessions on the side in an attempt to return as a pitcher before the season’s end. After not having pitched since June 6th, Ohtani came back to pitch on September 2nd against the Houston Astros. His game didn’t particularly went well, taking the loss after going just two-and-a-third innings, giving up two earned runs.
In that game, Ohtani threw only 49 pitches under a strict pitch count. After the outing, all the attention was focused on his health as he was coming back from the grade-2 UCL sprain. Unfortunately, in an MRI on September 5th it was revealed that there was new damage to the UCL that’d require reconstructive surgery (known as Tommy John) which ended his 2018 season as a pitcher. Tommy John surgery is a very common procedure among Major League pitchers where a tendon is taken from another part of the body and replaces another injured ligament. It’s known as “Tommy John surgery” because the operation was first performed on pitcher Tommy John for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1974. While the injury was terrible news for Ohtani as a pitcher, he was still in the lineup as the designated hitter against the Texas Rangers. In that game against the Rangers, he had an incredible time going 4 for 4 at bats. His overall stat for that game: 2 home runs, 3 RBI’s, 4 runs and a stolen base. After the game, there was much buzz surrounding his great performance on social media and even a joke was that suggested Ohtani plays better with just one UCL. On September 7th, the team and general manager of the Angels, Billy Eppler, announced that Ohtani was cleared to hit. Since the news of additional UCL damage on September 5th, he’s been a daily hitter in the Angels’ lineup.
Shohei Ohtani has been a much better player since the All-Star break in the middle of July. He’s had a hot August as a hitter batting .328 with 6 home runs and 18 RBI’s in 61 at bats. In the month of September so far, he’s been on fire hitting .424 with 4 home runs and 11 RBI’s in just 33 at bats. (For more info: http://www.espn.com/mlb/player/_/id/39832/shohei-ohtani)
Ohtani has now gotten better towards the end of the season and the UCL damage appears to have had no negative effect on his hitting. Ohtani, who throws right-handed but bats left-handed, said, “Swinging doesn’t affect my elbow in any way. “I feel like I’m progressing as a hitter right now. I’m getting as many experiences as I can while the games count.” Angels superstar Mike Trout complimented Ohtani when he said “It’s pretty amazing. He could easily shut the season down, but he wants to finish out strong and he’s worked hard in the batting cage and just in general coming to the field.” (Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/angels/2018/09/07/shohei-ohtani-mlb-home-run-history-tommy-john-surgery/1230186002)
There was a lot of hype for Ohtani to live up to when he came to the Majors and to his credit, he’s had a fantastic rookie season, especially as a hitter. In the season’s second half, he’s been one of the best players in baseball and has gotten better since being a starter on a regular basis. Since the All-Star break, Ohtani is hitting .306 with 12 home runs and 32 RBI’s in just 134 at-bats with an excellent on-base percentage of .384 and a Ruth-like slugging percentage of .664. As of September 14th, he’s batting .294 with 19 home runs and 54 RBI’s in only 272 at bats along with an on-base percentage of .375 and slugging .592. A good measure of a player is how they perform under pressure. Ohtani has been excellent batting .359 with runners in scoring position. In fact, in these situations where there are two outs with runners in scoring position, he’s hitting an outstanding .379 average. For the first week of September, he was named Player-of-the-Week helping the Angels go 5-1 on their road trip with a .474 batting average, 4 home runs and 10 RBI’s along with 8 runs. As a pitcher, it was an incomplete season due to his UCL injury, but he displayed great potential and promise as a dominant pitcher for years to come pending injury. Ohtani finished the season with a 4-2 record with a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts and in 51.2 innings, he allowed 38 hits and averaged 11 strikeouts per 9 innings. (For more info: http://www.espn.com/mlb/player/_/id/39832/shohei-ohtani)
Despite his terrific rookie season, however, one disadvantage that Ohtani has is the time he missed due to his UCL injury. He’s also sat out games as a result of his pitching schedule as a hitter. Angels manager Mike Scioscia didn’t play Ohtani against left-handed pitchers for a long time as he really struggled against them. In comparison, starting Yankee third baseman Miguel Andujar has played in 134 games comparing to Ohtani’s 89. Andujar’s offensive numbers are very good, hitting .299 with 23 home runs and 79 RBI’s while playing for one of the best teams in baseball. Andujar is considered one of the favorites for the American League Rookie of the Year but Sports Illustrated makes a case for Ohtani as the winner. Ohtani leads all rookies in slugging percentage as well as on-base percentage and his .967 on-base-plus-slugging tops all other rookies. Since 2003, there’ve been just eight rookies to post a higher OPS than Ohtani.
Ohtani has been one of the best rookie hitters in recent memory. The numbers say that he’s undeniably been the best this year in the American League. If you were to evaluate him just at the plate, judging him as a designated hitter and taking the limited playing time into account, he’d still have a remarkably solid case for AL Rookie of the Year. In addition, he’s also been a legitimate top-of-the-rotation arm with the highest strikeout rate of any rookie starting pitcher in the American League. If Ohtani had been healthy for most this season, there’d be no doubt that he’d have been AL Rookie of the Year. Hands down. He’s a generational talent who’s capable of revolutionizing baseball the way that Babe Ruth did and hopefully he can fully recover from his UCL injury because it would be extraordinary to see him dominate both as both pitcher and hitter. Ohtani has exceeded the great expectations that was placed on him when he came over to Major League Baseball and the scary thing is that Ohtani is only getting started. The sky is the limit for Ohtani. The nickname he received in Japan is fitting because whether he’s hitting or pitching: it’s “Showtime”.
* Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article by Frank Chun. Shohei Ohtani’s injury and his pending surgery will be discussed along with his future as a two-way player.
Frank Chun is a New York native who likes sports, especially the Nets, Jets, Rangers and Mets. He enjoys writing about Asian athletes like Jeremy Lin and Shohei Ohtani.