Shohei Ohtani Is Baseball America's 2021 MLB Player Of The Year
Nez Balelo has known Shohei Ohtani as well as almost anyone since the Japanese two-way star first arrived in the United States.
Balelo, the co-head of Creative Artists Agency’s baseball division, became Ohtani’s agent in the winter of 2017. He guided Ohtani through a fevered recruiting process that saw nearly every team try to sign him, watched Ohtani achieve his highest highs and was up close for his lowest lows—namely, the repeated injuries that limited Ohtani each of his first three seasons in MLB.
Ohtani had Tommy John surgery in 2018, knee surgery in 2019 and suffered a forearm strain in 2020. He hit .190 and made just two, disastrous starts for the Angels last year, amplifying questions whether he should continue trying to be both a pitcher and hitter.
As those questions became more prevalent last offseason, Balelo saw a change in Ohtani.
Ohtani had always been a disciplined worker, but as he entered that winter, there was an extra layer of motivation that hadn’t been there before. He shed fat, added muscle, changed his diet and sought new training methods. After an offseason split training in both Japan and the U.S., he reported to spring training bigger and stronger than he had ever been.
“He knew that he was obviously much better than what his numbers showed,” Balelo said. “He was very committed to be able to say, ‘I’m going to erase 2020 and watch: I’m going to come back in 2021 with a vengeance.’
“And he did.”
Ohtani delivered one of the greatest seasons in major league history in 2021. He performed as one of baseball’s best pitchers and hitters simultaneously and, for the first time in his MLB career, maintained it over a full season.
As a hitter, Ohtani finished third in the majors with 46 home runs, fifth with a .965 OPS and eighth with 26 stolen bases. He also drove in 100 runs, scored 103 runs, led the majors with eight triples and finished in the top five in walks, extra-base hits and total bases.
As a pitcher, he went 9-2, 3.18 and averaged 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings, tied for ninth among all pitchers who threw at least 130 innings. He held opponents to two runs or less in 17 of his 23 starts and limited opponents to a .205 batting average, ninth-lowest among any pitcher with 130 innings.
He became the first player in MLB history with more than 10 home runs as a hitter and 100 strikeouts as a pitcher in the same season, something not even Babe Ruth accomplished, and blew by both marks with ease. He made 14 starts on the mound during which he also led the majors in home runs.
For his singular, unprecedented season, Ohtani is the 2021 Baseball America Major League Player of the Year.
“I’ll leave it up to the fans . . . and other people out there to decide if I met expectations, but I was really excited to get through this season without any injuries,” Ohtani said through an interpreter on the final day of the regular season. “Obviously I wish I could have done this, had a season like this, a little earlier. This is my fourth year, so I think it took a little too long.”
Improved fitness, and the resulting improved health and durability, was the first step in setting the foundation for Ohtani’s historic season. The second was increased opportunity.
Angels general manager Perry Minasian scouted Ohtani extensively in Japan. After Minasian was hired in the offseason, one of his top priorities was to remove the strict schedule Ohtani was previously on—hit four straight days, take one day off, pitch, take the next day off, repeat—and instead make playing decisions based on how Ohtani felt day to day.
“From my experience being around players my entire life, especially major league players, I don’t like limitations,” Minasian said. “I don’t believe in limitations. So for us, I think it was more, let’s let him play.”
When Minasian arrived in Arizona for spring training, he met with Ohtani, Angels manager Joe Maddon and Ohtani’s interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, in a conference room on the minor league side of the Angels’ complex at Tempe Diablo Stadium. There, Minasian laid out his plan to have Ohtani play as often as he wanted, provided he communicated openly and honestly with the Angels about how he was feeling.
When Minasian finished presenting his plan, Ohtani broke into a wide smile.
“I think part of the message we wanted to relay was, ‘This is your career,’ and I think Joe did a great job of relaying that message, too,” Minasian said. “This is your career, take ownership of it, we’re not going to tell you what to do.”
With his new physique and schedule, Ohtani took off.
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Ohtani threw 11 pitches of at least 100 mph, sixth-most of any starting pitcher, and hit 20 home runs that traveled at least 425 feet, most of any hitter. He was the only hitter with at least 45 home runs and 25 stolen bases and one of just 13 starting pitchers to strike out at least 29% of the batters he faced. He became the first player ever selected to the All-Star Game as both a pitcher and position player, and participated in the Home Run Derby, too, for good measure.
Ohtani not only played both ways, but was elite both ways. The end result was a season the likes of which has never been seen before, and may never be seen again.
“He does it in a way with joy about the game that I think hides how difficult it actually is,” Maddon said. “He actually hides the degree of difficulty by the way he goes about his work. Please don’t be deceived by that. Don’t buy the snake oil.
“This is different. This is ridiculously different. And appreciate it, because you may never see it again.”
Other BA Player of the Year Finalists
Bryce Harper, RF
Harper’s epic second half (1.188 OPS) helped propel the Phillies into the wild card chase. He hit .309/.429/.615 with 35 homers and led the NL in slugging, OPS (1.044) and doubles (42).
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B
The awaited breakout materialized at age 22 for the young Blue Jays slugger. He hit .311/.401/.601 with an AL-leading 48 homers while also topping the league in OBP, slugging and OPS (1.002).
Juan Soto, RF
Soto led the NL with 145 walks and a .465 OBP and just kept hitting even after the Nationals traded most of their lineup at the deadline. He picked his spots with a 1.103 OPS after July 30.
Fernando Tatis Jr., SS/OF
Tatis missed 30-plus games to a shoulder injury and learned outfield on the fly, but he still led the NL with 42 homers while hitting .282/.364/.611 with 25 steals for the Padres.