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THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE

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ALWAYS PLAYING AWAY • The Mike Carlson Column

Ohtani - the Next Babe Ruth?

By Mike Carlson
Published on June 17, 2021

Shohei Ohtani Shohei Ohtani, pitching for the Angels at the Mariners, 2018. PHOTO © HJ WEST

Are we watching the next Babe Ruth? You might have missed a small milestone on April 26th, when Shohei Ohtani took the mound for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (or vice versa; I can never remember!) against the Texas Rangers. It marked the first time since June 13th 1921 that a starting pitcher in Major League Baseball was also the league leader in home runs.

That player, of course was Babe Ruth, making (as it turned out) his last start as a pitcher, for the New York Yankees. Ohtani had earlier become the first player since Ruth to have homered while hitting at any spot except 8 or 9 in the batting order (there have been times when managers have batted pitchers eighth in order to use the nine spot for what amounted to a second lead-off batter). Ohtani has brought two fascinating questions into play: one involving the comparison to Ruth and the other on the nature of pitchers who hit, and their value.

Babe Ruth Babe Ruth PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Ruth remains the greatest hitter of all time, and was a dominant pitcher for the Red Sox when they were the dominant team in baseball, so his conversion to a full-time outfielder by the Yankees has always engendered debate. One old saw says that a pitcher cannot be the Most Valuable Player of a season because he doesn't play every day. In Ruth's time, a pitcher's influence extended to every fourth day, upwards for 40 starts a season for the best ones. So obviously, there would be 114 games in which he didn't figure. But looked at statistically, there is an interesting parallel. In 1927 when Ruth hit 60 home runs, he made 691 plate appearances. But in what was arguably his best pitching season, for the 1916 Sox, when he went 23-12 with a 1.75 ERA, started 40 times, pitched 23 complete games, threw nine shutouts and made 4 relief appearances (getting one retroactive save), Ruth faced 1,272 batters. He was only 21 years old. Fielding is something pitchers and outfielders both do, but the overall influence is only slightly weighted against the hurlers, so you could argue Ruth's impact was greater as a pitcher.

That was the dead ball era, so pitchers threw more innings, but by 1918 the Sox were using Ruth both ways. He made 19 starts, threw 18 complete games, and went 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA, while hitting .300 with 11 home runs and 61 RBI in 317 plate appearances. The following year he hit an unheard-of 29 home runs, hitting .322 and driving in 113 runs, while pitching in only 15g and going 9-5. His conversion to full-time outfield began in New York in 1920 (54 home runs, and only one start) and in 1921 he pitched in only two games, with one start, while hitting .378 59-166! In that start he hit two homers, but got shelled in the fifth inning, giving up four runs.

In high school, your best hitters are often your best pitchers too. By the time you reach college they've already begun to split, but players like Dave Winfield, John Olerud and Ken Brett were guys about whom decisions needed to be made. Olerud did pitch a few innings; Brett occasionally pinch-hit, but no one looked at them as both way guys. Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams both threw a few times in relief and their stats look good. Great pitchers like Bob Lemon started out as hitters, while Smoky Joe Wood was a great pitcher, whose career was ended by a thumb injury; he came back as a pretty good outfielder. You may remember Rick Ankiel, drafted by the Cardinals out of high school in 1997, who was on his way to a successful career as a pitcher before he suffered a Steve Blass-like unexplained loss of control in his first playoff start. After struggling for a couple of seasons, he hurt his arm, had Tommy John surgery and came back as an outfielder.

The book says that the wear and tear of playing in the field can affect a pitcher's strength and his throwing mechanics. Given the way pitching arms are coddled, you'd expect that. Obviously the use of the designated hitter helps Ohtani: he doesn't have to stand around in the field getting weakened by the sun, nor throw the ball around. He has played both first base and the outfield, so it's not a question of where you'd prefer him, but how do you save his arm. The other problem is that as the game becomes more and more specialized, both pitchers and hitters are supposed to spend more time preparing: studying tape and opponents, working out every minute detail of both swing or pitch. But it hasn't always been that way, especially outside MLB.

You could look at the career of Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, who got his nickname when Damon Runyon went to Yankee Stadium to see the Black Yankees take on the Pittsburgh Crawfords in a doubleheader. In the first game, Radcliffe hit a grand slam home run as Satchel Paige shut out the Yankees. In the second game, Radcliffe shut out the Yankees again. I wrote Radcliffe's obituary when he died in 2005 aged 103; he played in six all-star games: three as a pitcher and three as a catcher.

There was an interesting piece at MLB.com about double duty players in the Negro Leagues; they had smaller rosters and did more travelling as they barnstormed between league games. Bullet Joe Rogan was a great pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs, who, as his nickname might indicate, threw hard. He also hit over .330 for his career and led the Negro Leagues in stolen bases when he was 38. Leon Day was another great pitcher, who played center field when he wasn't throwing. Monty Irvin would give up his position and move to right when the two played for the Newark Eagles. Oddly enough, I met him when I worked for MLB, a year before he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1995, and died just five days later. And of course there was Martín Dihigo, the Cuban who pitched and played seven of the other eight positions (he did catch six innings once, just to prove he could). He's the only player in five Halls of Fame: Cooperstown as well as those of his native Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic - all countries where he starred in their winter leagues. But in terms of Ruth and Ohtani, none of these guys was ever a threat to lead the league in home runs, especially in the days when Josh Gibson was playing.

Shohei Ohtani Shohei Ohtani, batting on August 8, 2019 PHOTO: ERIK DROST

Japanese baseball is more willing to use top talent both ways; they also abuse (by MLB standards) their pitchers' arms. Ohtani was a high school star; in Japan the national high school tournament is, along with the sumo grand finals and the Japan Series, one of the three biggest sporting events; its TV coverage in August is the equivalent of March Madness in the US. Ironically, the popularity of the game owes a lot to Babe Ruth; he hit 13 home runs in an 18 game tour of Japan by American League stars in 1934, and was treated like a visiting king. The all-star team the Americans played became Japan's first professional team. You can see film of that tour taken by Jimmy Foxx; the catcher Moe Berg also filmed Japanese naval installations in his second function as a spy (he certainly wasn't the second-best catcher in the American League!).

Today Japanese baseball has two big leagues and two minor leagues, as well as Industrial Leagues, the best of which are like AAU basketball teams in the pre-ABA era - like the Phillips 66ers or Peoria Caterpillars. Expectations for Ohtani were a lot like Rick Ankiel's, but when he signed at 18 with Sapporo's Nippon-Ham Fighters he got nine games in the minor league before being brought up to the big club. The following year he went 11-4 2.21 for the Fighters and hit .274 10-31.

But it wouldn't be until two years later, at 21, that Ohtani made his mark. The comparisons to Ruth's career are fascinating: Ruth was signed at 19 by Jack Dunn's Baltimore Orioles in the International League, who were often better than some big league teams, but he was so good he was sold on to Boston almost immediately because Dunn needed the money to rebuild after the challenge from the Federal League in his city. It wouldn't be until he was 21 that Ruth had the 1916 season as a pitcher outlined above; his 1917 year was arguably even better. When Ohtani turned 21, he played in 104 games for Nippon-Ham, hitting .322 22-67; he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA, striking out 174 batters in 146 innings. In 2017 he hit even better, but he pitched in only five games.

Ohtani was sold to the Angels for $20 million dollars, and was a bargain signing because he was committed to the major league minimum salary (though he got a $2.3 million signing bonus). In 104 games in 2018 he hit .285 22-61. In ten starts he went 4-2 3.31, then was shutdown and had Tommy John surgery in the off-season. In 2019 he turned in an almost identical hitting season (106g .286 18-62) but didn't pitch at all. In the abbreviated Covid season last year, he hit only .190 and pitched ineffectively in two games.

So this year has been a revival for Ohtani, answering many of the question marks about his ability to both hit and pitch at the big league level. In that start he gave up four runs in the first inning; he hadn't pitched in 16 days. He settled down for the next four innings and wound up pitching five, allowing four runs on three hits but striking out nine and walking only two. He threw only 75 pitches, but developed a blister on a finger; Ohtani's never going to pitch lots of innings, with his history of arm trouble, and things like blisters have more trouble healing when you're also hitting! But he went 2 for 3 at the plate, including a pretty bunt single, plus a walk - scoring three runs and driving in two as the Angels won.

As I write this Ohtani still is tied for the league lead in homers, with 10; he's hitting .266. He missed his next scheduled start because he'd been hit on the elbow by a pitch while batting the day before, but he DH'd in that game and went 2 for 4 with a homer. I don't think there's any question Ohtani can both hit and pitch at the big league level. I might consider playing him every day and using him in the bullpen.

But the big questions remain unanswered. Would Shohei Ohtani be a better hitter if he didn't pitch? Or a better pitcher if he didn't hit? And which way would he be more valuable to the team?

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