Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s 23-year-old pitching and hitting phenom, is not the first athlete to woo the American public. Babe Ruth also once captured America’s collective hearts when he burst onto the scene for 14 years in the 20th century. In terms of the rules, the game of baseball has not changed much and because of those rules, Shoehei “ShoTime” Ohtani may soon be following Babe “The Great Bambino” Ruth into the batter’s box and off the pitching mound, or vice versa.
During Ohtani’s start on April 17, he was pulled from the mound after two innings due to of a reoccurring blister problem he says often happened in Japan, but he was able to make his next start. True to form, it was announced Sunday Ohtani would make his next scheduled start in Houston against their division rival, the Astros, on April 24. More concerning, however, might be the stressed ligament in his pitching arm elbow that was leaked during the offseason as Ohtani and his representation were seeking team offers. Whether the ligament is a similar issue like the one Los Angeles Dodgers Kenta Maeda has that’s workable, remains to be seen.
Ohtani is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, yet fans, experts and teams are having a hard time making the comparison to another famous player because it’s so rare. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders wooed us because they played two sports really well. Arguably, their careers also ended early in one sport because they played two sports. Babe Ruth was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball before picking one side of the game (hitting vs. pitching). What will be interesting to watch in the coming months and years is if Ohtani’s body can survive the 162-game season playing both sides of the ball. As fans, we all hope he can and capture the collective American heart while accomplishing it.
On the other hand, history tells us another thing. From 1914-1919, Babe Ruth pitched and hit. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, in each year during that time span, he decreased in pitching statistics and increased in hitting statistics. In 1919, he pitching 133.1 innings, the second lowest of any season to that point in his career besides his rookie season in 1914, yet he hit more home runs (29) than any time in his career to that point. In 1920, when he became a full-time hitter and outfielder, he mashed 54 home runs and knocked-in 137 runs while batting .376. From 1920, his first year in Yankee pinstripes after being traded from the Boston Red Sox until his last season in 1935, he pitched a total of 31 innings and hit 665 home runs with a lifetime batting average of .342.
Ohtani’s current batting average is .342 and he’s pitched 15 innings to date. He also hit 100 mph multiple times while pitching in his start before last. The talent is there and maybe with today’s improvements in health and training, days off, pitching every seventh day, etc., maybe, just maybe, he can be both the greatest hitter and greatest pitcher of this era. More than likely, he’ll need to lean on one over the other, or pick one side, because to this point in baseball history, it’s not been done. Regardless, Ohtani has started a new category of player who plays two sides of the same game (at least in baseball) and does so very well. However, whether he plays enough to qualify as the best, history will tell.