By Douglas Farmer —
While the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the emergence of do-it-all “unicorns” changing the NBA’s paradigm, baseball has not seen such a tectonic shift.
Shohei Ohtani may change that this season. If the Japanese import manages to equal his production in the world’s second-best professional baseball league, then the only single player in history to compare him with will be … Babe Ruth.
Yes, that Babe Ruth. The one you know for calling his shot against the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series. The one who hit 59 home runs in a season before anyone else exceeded 27. The one who inspired both an 86-year curse and a candy bar.
Before all that, Ruth pitched nearly as well as he hit. In 1916, for example, he was the third-best pitcher in the league, behind only legendary Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Only one of Ruth’s skills was not overly- and adversely-affected by his excessive intake of hot dogs and beer. He could also bat every day, rather than every four or five days. Thus, the Sultan of Swat focused his efforts on making contact with the bat rather than throwing pitches to avoid it.
Obviously, long gone are the Ruthian days of, well, activities that led to “Ruthian” becoming a pejorative adjective as well as a description of a long home run. Ohtani will have a chance to become the Los Angeles Angels’ ace pitcher as well as their second-best hitter, behind only the best player in the world, Mike Trout.
It will be a steep order for Ohtani. The leap from Nippon Professional Baseball to Major League Baseball is a sizable one, but the best hitters and the best pitchers have made it with notable and relative success. The challenge of both hitting and pitching will set Ohtani apart from all of them, however, just as it will set him apart from every other player in the league. Hence, he may be baseball’s first “unicorn.”
Make no mistake about it: Ohtani is a better pitcher than he is a hitter, the inverse of Ruth, but his time at the plate is not a mere gimmick. San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner is currently the best hitter among pitchers. His approach at the plate is single-minded, though. He swings for the fences, hitting 17 home runs spread out across the last six seasons, while tallying a meager .185 batting average.
CC Sabathia relished his half-season with the Milwaukee Brewers back in 2008, partly because it allowed him to swing a bat. In 50 plate appearances, Sabathia managed 11 hits, one home run and six RBIs. It was a respectable showing, but respectable only for a pitcher.
In 2016, Ohtani had a .322 batting average with 22 home runs and 67 RBIs in 104 games with the Nippon Ham Fighters. (An ankle injury limited Ohtani in 2017.) If all those values were to drop by a quarter, projected over a 162-game season, Ohtani’s value at the plate would be comparable to Oakland Athletics infielder Ryon Healy, whom Oakland relied on in 149 games last season. Using historical Japan-to-MLB trends, it is more likely Ohtani compares to Minnesota Twins left fielder Eddie Rosario, increasingly a staple to the rising Twins lineup.
If that is the absolute floor for Ohtani’s second-best skill, it underscores the value the Angels landed in signing the 23-year-old. If nothing else, tuning in to see him attempt this unprecedented dual-task should give April baseball some semblance of entertainment value.
Douglas Farmer grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, before covering sports across the country with stops at The Los Angeles Times, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Dallas Morning News. He graduated from Aquinas High School in 2008 and from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now spends his professional time keeping an eye on the latter’s football team.