If 2021 belongs to any individual baseball player, it’s Shohei Ohtani. He’s the sport’s first elite dual-threat hitter and pitcher since perhaps the greatest player of them all—Babe Ruth. Sure, there have been better hitters and better pitchers than Ohtani, but nobody in modern baseball can do both as well as he does. He’s a true two-way superstar.
He plays on a roster with the best player of his generation, center fielder Mike Trout, and yet it’s Ohtani who has become the most compelling reason to watch the Los Angeles Angels (to be fair, Trout has been injured since mid-May). It’s not hard to see why: Ohtani can throw triple-digit fastballs and then step into the batter’s box and crank out home runs at a prodigious rate—he’s near the top of the league in homers.
Put simply, he’s an amazing player to watch. Here’s a deeper dive on what makes him so special.
Ohtani is the closest we’ll get to a new Babe Ruth.
Ohtani is often billed as the newest iteration of the Great Bambino. The comparison might make you recoil, because Babe Ruth is Babe Ruth and Ohtani, as good as he is, is in his fourth major league season and has yet to make an All-Star Game. That will certainly change this year, because Ohtani is doing things that nobody has done since Ruth played. He’s part of the Angels’ five-man starting pitching rotation, and when he doesn’t pitch, he usually joins the batting lineup as the designated hitter. He is quite good at both.
Ruth pitched and played outfield for the Boston Red Sox before converting to full-time hitter later in his career, after he joined the New York Yankees. Ohtani’s numbers make it clear he’s living up to Ruth’s example. As FiveThirtyEight recently detailed, Ohtani is on pace to become the fifth player ever to produce two wins above replacement (the measure of a player’s value compared to a standard minor league callup, more or less) in a season as both a hitter and pitcher. His statistical profile is more similar to Ruth than anyone else’s in that club.
Baseball doesn’t mint two-way players anymore, because it’s thought that being good at hitting or pitching requires so much specialization that being great at both is impossible. Ohtani is the lone exception to that rule in the modern era.
Ohtani’s plate appearances are one long highlight reel.
A constant refrain is that Ohtani makes hitting the ball a mile look easy. Consider this home run, which resembles a golfer pulling out a pitching wedge for a short shot onto the green:
As effortless as it looks, the ball rockets off his bat. According to Statcast play data, more than 43 percent of the pitches Ohtani hits qualify as “hard-hit,” meaning they exit his bat at 95 miles per hour or more. That’s the seventh-highest rate among all qualifying hitters. Ohtani also stands out because he hits the ball to every part of the field. He’s a left-handed hitter, and 27 percent of his hits go to the opposite field—a notably high figure.
Ohtani doesn’t just hit the hell out of the ball; he hits it to all fields in a way most power hitters do not. The results have been special, leading not just to pulled home runs like the one above but also plenty of bombs to center and left field:
And if you needed one more reason to watch Ohtani, he’s a serious baserunning threat, too. Witness him stretching this bleeder of a single into a double:
Ohtani might be even more fun to watch when he’s on the mound.
Again, he makes it look so easy. Ohtani’s windup and delivery are so smooth that it’s jarring when the ball flies out of his right hand at a maximum speed of 101.1 miles per hour.
His fastball sits at an average of 96 miles per hour, but what’s most interesting about Ohtani’s pitching is how he mixes in other pitches. He only throws the heater about half the time and likes to keep hitters off balance with a mix of sliders, changeups, cutters, and splitters. That approach has confounded hitters and led Ohtani to a 2.76 ERA and nearly 13 strikeouts per nine innings.
Ohtani’s splitter, in particular, is almost impossible for hitters to handle:
Even when someone achieves the rare feat of hitting the ball hard off Ohtani, he finds ways to shut them down—like on this line drive back to the mound:
There’s a lot to love about watching Ohtani play baseball. There’s the feeling that you’re watching history, of course, and the power with which he hits and throws. But what really puts the Ohtani experience over the top is how he makes it all look effortless. Like Ruth before him, Ohtani might just become a legend in his own right.
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