The number one fun fact endlessly bandied about by baseball-loving children is that
Babe Ruth, the famed, fearsome slugger of our pastime, the ruthian Babe Ruth…was actually originally a pitcher.
Ruth wasn’t just any pitcher. He won 20 games twice for the Boston Red Sox. The larger- than-life Bronx Bomber was, it turns out, a reliable hurler for the Sox.
Ruth achieved that pinnacle feat of pitching success for a second time in the year of 1917. At the time, many players were overseas for military service in World War I.
Since then, no Major League Baseball player has made a serious pass at performing on the highest level as both a hitter and a pitcher. The idea is borderline laughable, as it takes unique skill sets and physical aptitudes to either pitch or to hit—and field. Many chalk up Ruth’s ability to perform on both sides of the ball to the notion that the level of physical prowess back then was not nearly as high, not nearly as professionally optimized as it is today in the days of diligent body engineering.
It is within this context that “Sho” has absolutely taken “The Big Show” by storm in his rookie season, having arrived this winter from the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, a Japanese professional team. Through two starts, Shohei Ohtani has 18 strikeouts and a pair of wins. That would be enough to fuel the hype-train of a young Japanese import, but pitching isn’t Ohtani’s only trade.
The new Los Angeles Angel also blasted three homeruns in his first 10 Major League games. From this vantage point, it seems the stories about Ohtani being a professional-caliber pitcher and hitter aren’t just true, but they actually may be somewhat understated.
This did not all come out of nowhere, however. In Japan, Ohtani debuted as a double-duty professional at the tender age of 18. In one game a season ago, the sensation hit first in the batting order and started the game on the mound. He launched a homerun to start proceedings, and held down a 2-0 lead for eight shutout innings (ESPN, “The one baseball’s been waiting for,” 04.06.18).
Much has been made of Ohtani’s iron-will to take on these sorts of unprecedented challenges. Testament to his ambitious attitude is the decision to come play in the United States. By leaving Japan at the age of 23, Ohtani forwent his right to a market-dictated free agent contract. The slugging ace did not want to wait another two years to challenge himself, even if it meant the loss of a potential nine-figure contract in his mid-twenties.
Ohtani’s club, the Los Angeles Angels, play in the American League, where a ninth hitter can be put into the lineup in place of the pitcher. This allows the Angels both to use him as a hitter when he pitches, and to use him as a hitter without putting him in a potentially arm-strenuous fielding position.
But the aforementioned single-game heroics will probably not be the norm for Ohtani in the Major League. The team does not intend to play him every game. Though baseball is commonly chided for being a largely sedentary sport, the immense repetition involved in a 162 game schedule means that most players are seriously worn down by the season’s end.
Ohtani is taking on two times the normal physical load that a professional player in the Major Leagues does. For reference, even Ruth did most of his career hitting and pitching in separate seasons. In each the two seasons that Ruth graced the plate and the mound for the Red Sox, he pitched less than 20 games. With this simple math in mind, the Angels are being prudent by limiting their rare commodity to one or two fewer games in the batter’s box per Week.
Though these are only early returns, and though Ohtani has undoubtedly had a distinctly successful start that will almost certainly not carry on in the same manner, it is becoming increasingly hard to deny that Ruth’s mantle is being taken up.
For baseball fans everywhere, the “Sho” is a must-watch.