Briefing

Shohei Ohtani's magnificent season

Los Angeles Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani is having an incredible season, both as a pitcher and a hitter. Just how unique are Ohtani's accomplishments? The Angels are having another lackluster season, but Ohtani's numbers this year might be the most impressive athletic accomplishment in the history of North American sports. Here's everything you need to know about the baseball superstar's extraordinary 2022:

What has Ohtani done this year?

Despite his team dropping out of the pennant race by June, Shohei Ohtani continues to sizzle. A true rarity, Ohtani signed with the Angels in late 2017 after playing 5 outstanding seasons in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league with the intention of hitting and pitching full time. Most amateur prospects, even those with significant skills as pitchers and hitters, are tracked onto one path or another by team management. In recent years, only Tampa Bay Rays prospect Brendon McKay has made a real go of the effort to compete on both sides of the ball, and he's dealing with a potentially significant elbow injury after years of battling other physical woes. 

Somehow, Ohtani is managing to do something that no one else in the sport can do, which is to star as a batter and a pitcher. As a pitcher, Ohtani has made 23 starts, posting an 11-8 win-loss record with a 2.58 Earned Run Average and 181 strikeouts in 136 innings pitched. Advanced metrics like FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) confirm that Ohtani has been good rather than just lucky. As a pitcher, his 4.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a widely-used measure of player value, is 6th among all hurlers in the sport. Those numbers are particularly impressive given that the Angels rarely let him pitch past the 6th inning. When he's not pitching, Ohtani serves as the team's Designated Hitter, and has smashed 33 home runs and driven in 86 runs while posting a .892 OPS (On-base percentage plus slugging percentage), good for another 3.2 WAR. He is likely to total around 10 WAR between his pitching and hitting, a superstar showing. 

How does Ohtani's season compare to past two-way players?

But WAR alone cannot really capture the essence of his incredible 2022. While there have been pitchers who can hit, like Madison Bumgarner, the two-way player almost completely disappeared from Major League Baseball early in the 20th century. While baseball players are sometimes mocked for their athleticism compared to soccer or basketball athletes, the 162-game regular season is an extraordinary grind to begin with, a punishing, daily slog that has deterred almost everyone from trying to pitch and hit full-time. The sport's skills are also so specialized that most executives probably believed that what Ohtani is doing is impossible. 

The sport's most famous two-way player, Hall of Fame pitcher/outfielder Babe Ruth, gave up pitching early in his career to focus on his prodigious home run hitting skills, which transformed the way the sport was played altogether. Ruth tossed just 31 innings after 1919, when he registered 9.1 WAR as a batter and 0.8 as a pitcher. While Ohtani may or may not exceed Ruth's composite WAR from that season, there's no question that if he gets to 4 WAR as a hitter, he will be the only player in baseball history to put up all-star value (defined by Fangraphs as at least 4 WAR) as both a pitcher and hitter in the same season. Ruth never did it. The closest anyone has ever come is Bob Caruthers of the 19th-century St. Louis Browns, who fell just short in 1886 and 1887 when he complemented his MVP-level pitching with 3.9 WAR as a batter in both seasons. 

What about other sports?

In basketball and hockey, most players play both offense and defense. So while there are players, like the NBA's Michael Jordan, who have excelled at both offensive scoring and defensive play, there's really no comparison since they are expected to at least play on both sides of the court or the rink. The National Hockey League hands out the Frank J. Selke Trophy each year to the best "two-way forward" in the sport, who contributes at elite levels on offense and defense. But the fact that there is a long list of potential winners of that award each year speaks to how common it is for hockey players to do both things well all the time. 

The closest comparison to the position of pitcher in baseball is the quarterback in American football. Sammy Baugh, a Hall of Fame quarterback, also served as a defensive back on occasion and logged some interceptions, but returned nearly all of his value on one side of the line. And there is simply no player in the modern, post-merger history of the sport who put up stud numbers as a QB and also played defense. Deion Sanders was primarily a star defensive player at cornerback who also performed simultaneously at a high level as a kick and punt returner and logged time as a wide receiver. New England Patriots' wide receiver Troy Brown also moonlit as a cornerback in 2004, logging 3 interceptions, but he wasn't elite at either position that year. And that's about it in terms of comps among the four major North American pro sports leagues. 

What's the bottom line?

Interestingly, Ohtani might not even win the Most Valuable Player award in the American League this year. As of this writing, his 7.9 total WAR is second to New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, who is having a legendary season. Judge is on pace to hit 67 home runs and drive in 145 runs, and has spent most of the year threatening to challenge baseball's single-season home run record of 73, set by Barry Bonds in 2001. But Ohtani is quickly earning himself a hallowed place in sports history, as well as setting himself up for an enormous payday when he becomes a free agent after the 2023 season. And it's worth noting that Ohtani isn't just a bunch of numbers on a stat sheet — he's a joy to watch play the game, someone who should be at the forefront of baseball's global effort to market itself to the next generation of fans and whose magical season should be appreciated by die-hard and casual fans alike. 

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