Image credit: (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
No matter what happens next, Shohei Ohtani has redefined what is possible in Major League Baseball.
Ohtani put the capper on one of the greatest three-year stretches in baseball history in 2023. The Angels’ two-way star didn’t pitch after Aug. 23 due to a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and discontinued batting after straining his right oblique on Sept. 4.
Despite that, he still hit a career best .304/.412/.654, led the American League with 44 home runs and led the majors with a 1.066 OPS. On the mound, he went 10-5 with a 3.14 ERA with 167 strikeouts in 132 innings. Opponents hit just .184, lowest in the AL among pitchers with at least 100 innings.
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Already baseball’s preeminent talent, Ohtani found a way to raise his game yet again. He set new career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases.
He was, simultaneously, the most dangerous hitter in baseball and the hardest pitcher to hit in his league, a level of dominance even he hadn’t achieved before.
For yet another transcendent, precedent-shattering season, Ohtani is the 2023 Major League Player of the Year.
“Really, it’s crazy,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “I never thought we’d see it in the major leagues that a guy could do what he’s been doing. Obviously he’s an outlier. Goes back to Babe Ruth. That’s what he’s been, and it really is amazing.”
The very notion that Ohtani, 29, could keep getting better seems preposterous. After all, this is the player whose two-way exploits were already unmatched in MLB history, even by Ruth.
Yet, he kept raising the bar.
In 2021, he hit 46 home runs, posted a .965 OPS and logged a 3.18 ERA on the mound en route to becoming the unanimous AL MVP. In 2022, he raised his batting average by 16 points, lowered his ERA to 2.33, increased his strikeout rate and lowered his rates of walks, hits and home runs allowed.
And in 2023, he raised his batting average another 31 points and led the AL in homers, walks, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases for the first time. Simultaneously, he was the hardest to hit that he’s ever been on the mound.
“I mean, he got better at everything, honestly, which shows a lot to his work ethic and determination to do it,” said Angels shortstop David Fletcher, one of just four players who has been teammates with Ohtani every year of his career.
“I will probably remember just him having fun doing it and obviously putting all the work in. When the game came, whether he failed or succeeded, he always had confidence that he would bounce back if he failed.”
The first sign the world was about to see the best version of Ohtani yet came in the World Baseball Classic this spring. Playing for his native Japan, Ohtani hit .435 with four doubles, a home run and eight RBIs at the plate and went 2-0, 1.86 with a save on the mound to lead Japan to a WBC championship and earn the tournament’s MVP award.
His strikeout of teammate Mike Trout on a full count in the bottom of the ninth for the final out of the gold-medal game remains one of the most indelible moments of the 2023 season, and a signature, crowning achievement of Ohtani’s career.
That night, in the aftermath of the championship celebration, Ohtani left no doubt about what it meant to him.
“I believe,” he said through an interpreter, “this is the best moment in my life.”
There were more great moments to come. There was the May 3 start against the Cardinals where he tied his career high with 13 strikeouts in just five innings. There was the June series against the Rangers where he hit three opposite-field home runs into the second deck in four days at Globe Life Field.
And then there was July 27 in Detroit, when Ohtani authored one of the greatest single-day performances in MLB history. In the first game of a doubleheader against the Tigers, he pitched a one-hit shutout for his first career complete game. In the second game of the doubleheader, he hit two home runs to power the Angels to an 11-4 win.
It was the type of all-encompassing greatness only Ohtani is capable of, and a symbol of the previously unthinkable standards he’s set.
Over the last three seasons, Ohtani hit .277 with 124 home runs, 290 RBIs, 57 stolen bases and a .964 OPS as a hitter. As a pitcher, he went 34-16, 2.84 with 542 strikeouts in 428.1 innings.
He simultaneously has the third-most home runs and sixth-lowest ERA of any player in baseball in that time.
“It’s hard to compare him to anybody because of what he does,” Angels manager Phil Nevin said. “But I would say he’s the best baseball player I’ve seen.”
While Ohtani’s past and present were remarkable, his future is unclear. Ohtani, who has not spoken publicly since Aug. 9, had an unspecified elbow surgery in late September to repair his UCL. His agent, Nez Balelo of CAA, said Ohtani will be ready for Opening Day 2024 as a hitter and will resume both pitching and hitting in 2025.
But the history of starting pitchers who have had multiple UCL surgeries is not encouraging. Ohtani, who had Tommy John surgery in 2018, can look to current Rangers righthander Nathan Eovaldi as evidence of a successful outcome, but even Eovaldi has pitched a full season only once in five years since having his second elbow procedure. Most others ended up shadows of their former selves, reinvented themselves as relievers or never pitched meaningful innings in the major leagues again.
There is also the matter of where Ohtani will play. He will be a free agent this offseason and is likely headed to a new home. The Angels’ buying spree at the trade deadline in an attempt to contend failed spectacularly as the team spiraled to its eighth straight losing season, the longest current streak in the majors.
Ohtani, who has stated his top priority is to win, will command a massive contract even with his long-term pitching outlook in question. The only question is which team it will be with.
Whatever the future holds, Ohtani’s 2023 will stand as his best season yet and one of the greatest individual seasons of all time. Yet again, he redefined what was possible in MLB.
“No one thought it was possible before he did it,” Fletcher said. “I still think there’s not very many who can do it, if any others. But I like when guys kind of open new doors. It’s pretty obviously impressive, and hard to do, to change the game.”