Shohei Ohtani Has Already Proven The Impossible Is Possible


Image credit: Shohei Ohtani (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

If you’re any sort of baseball fan, the news that Shohei Ohtani has a torn UCL and will not pitch again this season is a gut punch. Ohtani was in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in MLB history, and undoubtedly the most unique. On the day he left his last pitching start of the season, he also hit his league-leading 44th home run.

While he may continue to hit as a designated hitter and continue to have a chance to hit 50 home runs, the greatest two-way season in MLB history has now ended.

So let’s honor today what he’s already done this year. Even as we all watch Ohtani do something that was believed to be impossible, it’s hard to fully comprehend just how unique and special he’s been. Over the past three seasons, Ohtani has managed to be one of the best hitters and pitchers in baseball at the same time.

That’s never happened before. The obvious and pretty much only MLB player who can compare to Ohtani is Babe Ruth, who was a two-way player more than a century ago. Even that comparison is difficult for many reasons. Ruth played in an age where there was no designated hitter. If he was going to hit in any other role than pinch hitting, he had to take his tired arm to left field or first base.

Of course, there are many other complicating factors on Ohtani’s side as well. He plays in an era of not only integrated baseball, but in a time where baseball is truly a worldwide game and where the best players from literally everywhere come to the U.S. to play. He also has to deal with East Coast-West Coast travel, night games and a flurry of other factors that would have seemed absurd in Ruth’s day.

But more importantly for the purposes of today’s story, I’m not sure if most, even diehard baseball fans, are aware of how brief Ruth’s two-way career was. From 1914-1917, Ruth was a pitcher. He was an excellent one who led the league in ERA and starts in 1916 and complete games in 1917. He did pinch hit sporadically, but during those four years, Ruth’s success as a hitter came in games where he was pitching. He did not take the field at any position other than pitcher (or pinch-hitter) in those four seasons.

And from 1920 on, Ruth was an outfielder. He made just four pitching appearances through the remaining 16 seasons of his MLB career.

So when we talk about Ruth as a two-way player, we’re only talking about 1918 and 1919.

Actually, we’re talking about parts of the 1918 season and parts of the 1919 season.

We’re actually talking about four and a half months over those two seasons where he was a full-time pitcher and a full-time position player at the same time.

We will again note the difficulty of being a two-way player in an era long before there were designated hitters. It’s worth acknowledging.

In April 1918, Ruth was still a pitcher/pinch-hitter. It was in early May of that year that he went to first base for the first time in his MLB career. Ruth homered as a pitcher on May 4, then as a first baseman on May 6 and May 7. From that point on, Ruth began to shift to becoming a position player. The Red Sox realized that as good a pitcher as he was, he might be an even better hitter.

As Ruth’s success as a hitter grew, his appearances as a pitcher diminished. Ruth threw 61.2 innings from the start of the season until May 15. He then made only five more pitching appearances over the rest of May, June and July.

With a pennant and a spot in the World Series on the line, Ruth did incredible double-duty in August. He made eight starts that month, throwing 73 innings in a truly heroic and impressive feat. He won six of his eight starts that month, while also playing regularly in the field (he hit .252/.423/.359 that month with six doubles and no home runs).

In the 1918 World Series, Ruth was a pitcher. He picked up two wins with a 1.06 ERA, but his only appearances as a position player were when he moved to left field in the ninth inning of his second series start and his entry as a defensive replacement in the deciding Game 6. Every one of his at-bats in the World Series came as a pitcher.

In 1919, the story was a similar one. Ruth didn’t make an appearance as a pitcher in April. He was a regular member of the pitching rotation from May-July, while also serving as a position player, but he made just one pitching appearance in August and two in September. Over Ruth’s career he had four and a half months (first half of May 1918, August 1918, May 1919, June 1919, July 1919) where he was both a full-time pitcher and a full-time hitter at the same time.

None of this diminishes what Ruth did. He showed a player could be both one of the best pitchers and hitters in the majors at the same time.

But it does emphasize even further just how special the past three years of Shohei Ohtani have been. For the past three seasons, Ohtani has been both an exceptional pitcher and one of the best hitters in baseball at the same time.

From the start of the 2021 season until now, here’s where Ohtani ranks.

Hitting Stats

Home Runs
1. Aaron Judge, 128
2. Shohei Ohtani, 124

1. Shohei Ohtani, 21

Total Bases
1. Shohei Ohtani, 932

1. Freddie Freeman, 339
4. Shohei Ohtani, 290

Slugging Pct
1. Aaron Judge, .621
2. Shohei Ohtani, .586

1. Juan Soto, 386
3. Shohei Ohtani, 246

Stolen Bases
1. Ronald Acuna, 104
17. Shohei Ohtani, 54

Pitching Stats

1. Julio Urias, 48
10. Shohei Ohtani, 34

ERA (min. 350 IP)
1. Max Fried, 2.75
5. Shohei Ohtani, 2.84

1. Gerrit Cole, 670
10. Shohei Ohtani, 542

Strikeouts/9 innings
1. Blake Snell, 11.85
2. Shohei Ohtani, 11.39

1. Max Scherzer, 0.96
8. Shohei Ohtani, 1.05

Hopefully we have many more years of seeing Ohtani do both, but we should truly appreciate what we just witnessed. It’s truly unprecedented, and has shown us that what was thought to be impossible was obtainable.

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