With the NCAA Basketball National Championship and The Masters occupying our lives last week (and rightfully so), baseball took a back seat in the sports world. Even though it was the opening week of baseball, with 162 games, you can usually afford to miss weeks at a time and still really not miss much of anything. Besides, with the NBA and NHL playoffs starting up, most people don’t turn their focus to baseball until the middle of June, when every season is over besides the MLB and sportscenter becomes an endless loop of baseball highlights and what LeBron James ate for lunch. However, now that one of the greatest sporting weeks of the year is in the books and the playoffs are just kicking off, it would be a crime against sports if we didn’t pause and just re-visit Shoehi Ohtani's first week in the majors.
I first became intrigued by Ohtani after he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated last April. At that point, I had heard rumblings of a Japanese prospect who both pitched and hit, but knew if he ever made it to America, he would come over exclusively to be a pitcher or exclusively as a hitter. No one does both.
Now most, if not all, major league pitchers were at one time or another, the best hitter on their high school team, as anybody who is talented enough to become a professional athlete is usually the top overall athlete at their high school. By the time they reach college or the minors however, hitting becomes an afterthought. They focus on pitching and pitching only. Former Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta (5 career home runs), is considered to be one of the best hitters at his position today, but nobody was pitching around him to get to another hitter anytime he stepped to the plate. We weren’t using him at DH instead of Kyle Schwarber in the World Series. In the live ball era, pitchers pitch and hitter, well, hit. They can’t do both and Ohanti, whenever he came over the US (if he came over at all) would have to choose. Or so we thought.
Now a year later, Ohtanti is here playing for the Los Angeles Angels and if you failed to take notice, Ohtani didn't just get off to a hot start, but instead recorded what may very well be one of the best weeks in sports history and yes, you read that correctly; THE BEST WEEK IN SPORTS HISTORY. A 23-year old rookie from Japan that unfairly drew comparisons to Babe Ruth, who by the way, is the GOAT, had one of the greatest weeks an athlete has ever had in his very first week in major league baseball. He wasted absolutely no time erasing any doubters off the face of the planet. As the great Permain Panther Boobie Miles once said, "Hype is something that isn't real. I am all real".
So, what did the Angels decide to play him at; pitcher or batter? Well, instead of sticking to the league norms of the last 100 years and having Ohanti stick to one discipline, they have him doing both. And simply “doing both” is a drastic understatement.
Ohanti is just the third player in MLB history to record two wins and hit three home runs in his team's first 10 games of a season, and the first to do so since 1919.. What the hell are we supposed to do with that? In 1919, there were 16 MLB teams. Gavvy Cravath (hell of a name) finished second in the league in home runs...with 12. Chicago White Sox pitcher Ed Cicotte led the league with 29 wins and 30 complete games. There was no such thing as a night game, teams traveled by train, and a hot dog was 10 cents at Wrigley.
What Ohanti did is unprecedented in the modern era of baseball. Just like no one today is pitching 30 complete games (Cleveland Indians pitcher Corey Kluber led the league with 5 last year), no one playing the pitching position and hitting on their days off. If this scenario were to even play out in my wildest dreams, this create-a-player may be decent at one discipline and good at another. But a monster at both? Not possible. The guy was throwing a perfect game into the 7th inning of his 2nd career start. He has struck out 18 batters and is batting .364 and has 8 RBIs. You know who else has 8 RBIs this season? Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant (batting .348), who happens to be our best hitter, but isn’t coming out of the bullpen anytime soon. It is like Tom Brady coming off the sidelines after a touchdown pass and then heading out to play free safety on the next possession at an all-pro level. Crazy right? That is what this is.
According to FanGraphs, Ohtani had a 1.0 WAR (wins above replacement) last week (0.5 WAR as a pitcher and 0.5 WAR as a hitter). For those of you who aren’t baseball nerds, you may be thinking, “Is that good?”. Well, to put it in perspective, only 10 Angels players built up a 1.0 WAR over the course of THE ENTIRE SEASON last year. As a complete simplification of the statistic, Ohanti’s first week in the majors was worth more to the Angels team than 15 players entire seasons last year.
Now it was just a week and there is still a strong chance this two-way game Ohanti is running doesn’t last more than a season or two. Over time, pitchers will figure out how to pitch to him and batters will figure out how to hit him. Maybe he will eventually need to choose one discipline to focus on; maybe an injury on the base paths will scare the Angels into playing him at just pitcher; maybe he will hurt his arm and become a permanent fixture at DH; or maybe, just maybe, he is the second coming of a young Babe Ruth. Maybe he was developed in a lab and is capable of pitching and hitting on the major league level. Maybe he is primed to be the biggest star in the MLB. Maybe Ohanti is what baseball, a sport that consistently is knocked for not having enough superstar personalities, needs. All I know is that I wasn’t watching the Angels, who have the best player in the game in Mike Trout, before Ohanti and now I am staying up past my bedtime to watch him pitch…..and hit.