Shohei Ohtani is far from the first two-way player in MLB history, but he’s in the midst of a year that even Babe Ruth can’t match.
Shohei Ohtani is having more than an MVP season. The two-way marvel is having a season so singular that there’s no real comparison in the modern era.
The Angels All-Star has done more than break long-standing records and put up absurd statistics. Nobody alive has ever seen a season like his 2021, and the reason is simple: It’s never happened before. And in the big picture, not even Babe Ruth boasts a combined year from the mound and the plate that’s as statistically impressive.
This is not to argue that ShoTime is better than the Babe; that would be ridiculous. Ohtani has been in the majors for four seasons, and this is the first in which he’s played 120-plus games.
But this singular season is truly unique in terms of the way the Halos’ Japanese superstar has created value on the field, and it’s made him the premier event in Major League Baseball.
Redefining Player Value
Individually, Ohtani is having an MVP season at the plate and an All-Star season on the mound. Combined, there’s no logical argument to give the AL MVP award to anyone else.
Heading into Aug. 31’s games, Ohtani leads the MLB in wins above replacement (7.9) — an incredible 1.4 bWAR above than any other player — as well as home runs (42), extra-base hits (72), and win probability added (4.3). He ranks second in slugging (.626) and runs created (102).
Ohtani the Starting Pitcher™ is almost as impressive. He is slightly under the innings threshold for qualified starters, but if he qualified, he’d rank seventh in the majors in ERA (2.79), fourth in ERA+ (168), eighth in FIP (3.19), and eighth in strikeouts per nine innings (10.8).
And in his last six starts, Ohtani is throwing like a Cy Young winner. Since July 6, he has pitched to a 1.58 ERA with opponents hitting .183 off of him and only .231 on balls put in play. Opponents’ .505 OPS comes from just a .209 on base percentage — Ohtani has issued just four walks over his last 40 innings pitched.
In the AL, he ranks No. 6 in pitching bWAR (3.6) despite having thrown between 10 and 50 innings fewer than the five men ahead of him.
Another perspective to consider in terms of overall value created? The bulk of the money that the Angels have paid for Ohtani went to his previous organization, the Nippon Ham Fighters, in the form of a $20 million posting fee. Ohtani himself is only making $3 million in 2021, which is an incredible bargain for the Angels. (His $6 million in annual endorsements, meanwhile, currently rank No. 1 in the bigs.)
Fangraphs estimates one WAR to be worth about $8 million as of 2020. Given that Ohtani is at 7.9 and rising, that would peg his “real” value in excess of $63.2 million this year with more than 30 games still to play.
And that’s not even taking into account the game tickets Ohtani has sold — home and away, to be clear — or his impact on jerseys, merchandise, collectibles, memorabilia, video games, and everything else that comes with being a generational athlete in the second-biggest market in the country.
As FiveThirtyEight pointed out earlier this year, Ohtani is about to become the first player since 1965 to earn even 2.0 WAR both as a batter and pitcher in the same season — and he’ll be the first since 1935 to do so while also generating a total above 7.0 WAR.
The Inevitable Ohtani/Babe Ruth Comparison
Ruth is the go-to for Ohtani comparisons, mainly because he’s the most famous example of a true combination of a pitcher and hitter who could take over a game in either respect.
Over his career, Ruth is arguably the greatest hitter and player of all time, hitting 714 home runs and owning the all-time best career slugging percentage (.690) and OPS (1.164). His career did come before the game was racially integrated and he didn’t pitch long enough to become a singular legend on the mound, but the Bambino still compiled a 2.28 career ERA in 147 total starts.
Compared to what Ohtani is doing now, however, Ruth’s closest year is all the way back in 1918, when he earned 6.7 total fWAR in just 95 games as a hitter and 20 as a pitcher. It points to Ruth having the stronger year at the plate on a per-game basis; his 189 wRC+ in fewer than 120 total contests is head-spinning stuff.
But now, in a far different era full of elite-level athletes from all over the world, Ohtani has hit nearly four times as many home runs as Ruth did that season.
Unfortunately, Ruth never appeared in more than 20 games as a starting pitcher and 100 games as a batter in the same season. Even in his 1918 campaign, which one could argue created much more value compared to the next closest competitor than Ohtani is creating now, he only had 382 plate appearances. Ohtani has already surpassed that mark by more than 100 with five weeks left in the season.
Critically, as David Justice points out, he has done so against far more advanced competition.
On the question of ShoTime versus the Sultan of Swat, it may just be a pick your poison situation.
In the big picture, that Ohtani has taken such leap in 2021 cannot and should not be taken for granted. He’s already a veteran of Tommy John surgery, had not previously pitched more than 100 innings in an MLB season, and hasn’t reached 160 innings since 2015 back in Japan. Whether this level of output is sustainable over the next three or four years is in question, and Ohtani is now 27 years old.
Still in his prime, yes, but likely with only a handful of ultra-high production years remaining.
Ruth was an elite hitter well into his 30s, leading the league in home runs every year from his age 31 season through age 36. He also stayed healthy enough to play in at least 125 games every year from age 31 to 38. There’s simply no way to predict Ohtani’s productivity that far down the line, especially considering this is his first full Major League season as a legitimately full-time two-way guy.
The best we can do right now is say that this one season from Ohtani is unlike anything Ruth did in any single year of his own.
And that’s saying a whole lot.
The Best Two-way Season in History
The remaining list of two-way players in baseball is depressingly limited. Michael Lorenzen is the only current Major Leaguer with two-way experience, throwing 83.1 innings for the Reds in 2019 and hitting .208 in 53 plate appearances.
Rick Ankiel may be the modern two-way player most likely to come to mind, but he never hit and pitched in the same season, meaning he doesn’t qualify by MLB’s standards — and even if you combine Ankiel’s best hitting season (2008) with his best pitching season (2000), he still doesn’t touch Ohtani. ’08 Ankiel hit .264 and earned 1.7 fWAR as a batter, and ’00 Ankiel posted a 3.50 ERA and 3.4 fWAR.
Also not a “true” two-way player, Don Drysdale hit .300 in 1965 with an .839 OPS. Though he’s best known as a Hall of Fame pitcher, Drysdale earned 2.5 fWAR as a batter that season.
Interestingly, Japan has had a bevy of two-way successes previous to ShoTime. Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer Hideo Fujimoto may be the most successful example; we don’t have WAR data for that era of overseas baseball, but Fujimoto threw an eye-popping 648.1 innings in 1949-50 and had a 2.22 ERA over that span. He didn’t play in the field, but at the plate, he hit .285 with an OPS over .800.
Depending on the metrics you prioritize, Fujimoto’s stretch may be better than Ohtani’s now compared to the respective competition, which was decidedly inferior — experts tend to peg Japan’s NPB a bit above AAA in the United States. In terms of longevity, Fujimoto was an elite pitcher until age 35, though his batting fell off by age 33.
Jiro Noguchi played in the same era as Fujimoto, and while he was a Hall of Fame pitcher, he never had as successful a season at the plate. That said, Noguchi’s numbers as a pitcher are mind-boggling: from 1939 to 1943, he threw an average of 420 innings per year, winning 40 games in 1942, and accumulating a 1.32 ERA. As a batter and primarily first baseman in those seasons, he hit .235 with an OPS of .555.
This is a non-exaustive list, of course. From the NPB to the bigs to the Negro Leagues, there have been others who helped lay the groundwork for what Ohtani is doing today. But none of them can claim such success as both pitcher and hitter in the same season.
There’s just no perfect comparison for what Ohtani is doing right now. And with that in mind, even the game’s more advanced methods for measuring value may be insufficient in capturing just how historic the Angels superstar’s 2021 season truly is.