‘Beyond incredible’: Shohei Ohtani constantly left MLB peers in awe during historic 2021 season
Thunderstorms rolled through Boston early on the evening of June 30, causing the first pitch of the contest between the Royals and Red Sox, originally set for 7:05 p.m. local time, to be delayed about 30 minutes.
For the players, the delay offered an opportunity.
“We were about to go onto the field,” Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield told Sporting News, “but everyone stopped and went to the TV, because it was his first at-bat.”
Who was at the plate? Shohei Ohtani.
MORE: Full list of Sporting News 2021 MLB Awards
The Angels star, finally healthy and empowered by the franchise to fully pursue his dream role as both superstar hitter and superstar pitcher in Major League Baseball, was in the middle of his best stretch of the season heading into the final game of a three-game set in New York. He’d hit 11 homers in his previous 13 games, including three in the first two games at Yankee Stadium. And Ohtani was pitching that night, too. He’d allowed two runs in 12 innings with 14 strikeouts in his previous two starts.
So, hell yeah, the Royals were watching, taking advantage of the precipitation opportunity.
“We expected him to hit a homer,” Merrifield said. “You just don’t see 20 major leaguers stop and watch one guy hit in a random at-bat in June. But we watched because he was up. The eyes that are on him, the pressure that’s on him day in and day out, to continue to do what he’s doing is beyond incredible.”
Of all the words that have been written and said by those of us in the media, few speak louder than that real-life story from Merrifield, one of Ohtani’s peers in the small fraternity of MLB players. And Merrifield certainly isn’t alone.
“As a fan of baseball,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, the 2020 NL MVP, told Sporting News, “being able to see what he’s accomplishing and doing day in and day out, you’ve just to go take a step back and watch, and realize the greatness that Shoehei Ohtani is. What he’s doing, I don’t think is going to come around ever again.”
And those types of stories and plaudits are a big reason why Ohtani was voted the 2021 Sporting News MLB Player of the Year, an award that dates back to 1936 and has always been exclusively voted on by MLB players.
Players know special, and they see special in Ohtani.
“Unless you’ve actually played, I don’t know if you can appreciate the scope of what he’s doing,” Angels manager Joe Maddon told Sporting News. “He’s getting voted this award by a group of his peers and they fully understand what this takes and what he’s done, how significant, how unbelievable it it.”
Ohtani collected 56 percent of the vote; Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — who authored a season that would have made him a deserving winner any other year — was second at 29.3 percent. He was the only other player above 4.3 percent.
Finding context for Ohtani as a two-way player has always been a challenge, because there are no comparisons who are even relatively close to what he accomplished in 2021.
In the modern era, Rick Ankiel struck out 194 batters in 2000 and hit 25 homers in 2008, but he never was a hitter and pitcher in the same year. Michael Lorenzen and Brooks Kieschnick have pulled double duty as both outfielders and relief pitchers in the same seasons, but neither had anywhere near Ohtani’s level of success at either discipline.
You already know the name that always pops up in conversations about Ohtani: Babe Ruth.
“Whenever you hear your name mentioned next to Babe Ruth in anything we believe in with baseball, it’s pretty impressive,” Maddon said.
Ruth joined the Red Sox in 1914 at 19 years old, and by 1915 he’d established himself as an elite pitcher. From 1915 to 1917, Ruth had a 2.02 ERA in 867 2/3 innings, but it was clear he could hit, too. In 1918, he made 19 starts as a pitcher and 70 starts as a position player, leading the league with 11 homers. In 1919, his only one with close to full-time double duty, Ruth started 15 games on the mound and 111 in the field. The Red Sox sold Ruth to the Yankees in the offseason — something about a curse? — and New York put an end to his pitching days. He made just five appearances as a pitcher the rest of his career.
Let’s compare Ruth’s 1919 to Ohtani’s 2021.
As a pitcher:
Ruth: 17 G, 2.97 ERA, 133 1/3 IP, 148 H, 58 BB, 30 K, 3.58 FIP, 1.545 WHIP, 0.8 bWAR
Ohtani: 23 G, 3.18 ERA, 130 1/3 IP, 98 H, 44 BB, 156 K, 3.52 ERA, 1.090 WHIP, 4.1 bWAR
As a hitter:
Ruth: 543 PA, 29 HR, 113 RBI, 12 3B, .322/.456/.657, 217 OPS+ 7 SB, 9.1 bWAR
Ohtani: 639 PA, 46 HR, 100 RBI, 8 3B, .257/.372/.592, 158 OPS+, 26 SB, 4.9 bWAR
Different eras, but pretty similar seasons, right? Ohtani hit more home runs, but it should also be noted that Ruth’s 29 homers set a single-season MLB record, which he promptly destroyed in 1920 as a full-time position player with 54 home runs.
But other than Ruth? There are no comparisons.
Well, not at the big league level.
“This is like a little league or high school or college team, the best player on the team doing everything,” Maddon said. “He’s the best player in the big leagues, doing the same things we normally did in little league, high school or even college. And even when they did that there, it wasn’t every day. It was a couple days a week, with time to recover. He doesn’t have time to recover.”
The durability component can’t be overlooked. In his debut season in 2018, Ohtani made 10 starts as a pitcher, and he didn’t hit in those games. He’d also typically take days off before and after his pitching outings, not necessarily because he wanted to, but that’s how the Angels approached it. Because, again, there’s no playbook on how to properly handle a player who is both a star pitcher and star hitter. He didn’t pitch at all in 2019 after Tommy John surgery and only made two starts in 2020.
The Angels let it be known early that 2021 would be different. Maddon and GM Perry Minasian said they were taking the reins off, that they’d let Ohtani hit when he was pitching, and basically DH every other day. The only thing they didn’t do was start him in the field when they were playing an interleague game in an NL ballpark, without the DH. He pinch-hit in several of those, though, finishing the season by playing in 155 of the team’s 162 games.
“When we talked to him in spring training, I didn’t anticipate that he would have participated in this many games without needing a rest. I thought there was going to be rest,” Maddon said with a grin. “The number of games he played, the level of durability and endurance is incredible. We can’t tell you, either one of us, that it was going to look like this by the end of the year. There’s no way.”
There was no rest, because rest was not needed. There was fastball command that had been lacking in 2018, though.
“From the beginning when I first met him and spoke about him as his manager, I kept harping on, ‘Once he gets fastball command, this guy is going to absolutely take off,’” Maddon said. “His other pitches are that good, but they’re not going to be honored as much unless he knows where his fastball is going. Boom, he nailed the fastball command, and here we are.”
Oh, and there was speed, too. Not sure anyone expected him to steal 26 bases, the fifth-highest total in the AL.
“The speed,” Maddon said, “you heard about his speed but he makes even ground balls to first base interesting, where he can beat a first baseman to the bag. The base-stealing, this is part of his driven nature. He wants to be able to do that.
“He really believes when he does those things that he’s contributing to the win. He likes to hit and pitch on the same day because he thinks he can help the team. He always speaks of team. Always. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him speak of himself in regards to personal accomplishment, though I’m sure it’s in there and I’m sure it’s part of the drive. But he’s so humble and sincere that I believe his first motivation is team.”
The 2021 All-Star Game events were basically the Shohei Ohtani Show. He was picked as the starting pitcher for the AL team by Rays manager Kevin Cash, and he batted leadoff for the AL squad. Oh, and he also participated in the Home Run Derby.
And it was during those days in Denver where it became clear how his peers viewed him.
“I hope people realize what he’s doing, because it’s incredibly hard. I don’t know how he can pitch and hit,” Freeman said. “I get tired just swinging the bat, and he’s trying to do both, and do it at a very high level. It’s pretty amazing.”
Said Nationals star Juan Soto: “He can do everything. What he’s been doing this year is just incredible.”
Spend enough time around professional athletes, and it’s clear when they’re saying nice things because they feel obligated. That was not the case in Colorado.
“Normally you’re in awe of the heroes who were there before you ever got there. It’s rare that you’re in awe of a contemporary,” Maddon said. “He’s unique, and deserves all the accolades. He deserves this award. He deserves a lot of awards this year.”
It should be no surprise that he won this one, considering it was voted on by the peers who stopped what they were doing to watch him on the clubhouse TV and who could not wait to meet him at the All-Star Game.