It is noteworthy enough that Shohei Ohtani is the first frontline starter in generations to do double duty as an everyday player. But he not only casts both roles for the Los Angeles Angels, he distinguishes them. His numbers make him one of the best hitters in the game and have been very solid on the pitching side.
His double act has quickly made him a fan favorite on almost every team. This week he took his show to Yankee Stadium for a home game 5-3 win on Monday and should start against Domingo German on Wednesday on the hill.
“That definitely sent a message,” manager Joe Maddon told reporters for Ohtani’s 26th homer of the season, who set the tone for Monday’s win. “It’s so easy to talk to him during the game. He never gets upset. He never loses focus. He can turn the page to the next. But yeah, that was exactly the right way to start his trip to New York, where he did a home run. “
Although there is no question that Ohtani really made it, as a starter he is quickly approaching uncharted territory. How he handles the biggest workload of his major league career will go a long way in revealing whether he’s really a shoo-in for the Most Valuable Player Award.
Ohtani entered the majors in 2018. Although he played well straight away, his pitching resulted in a number of severe work restrictions and an elbow injury limited him to 10 starts. Even so, he beat Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres of the Yankees to win the Rookie of the Year award.
Ohtani had Tommy John operate on his elbow and did not appear at all in 2019. In the shortened 2020 season, he pitched a total of one and two-thirds innings as concerns grew over whether he could hold out on the field.
Many traditionalists, who did not believe that a player could defy history, welcomed the decision to treat them with care and advised Ohtani to take a lead and stick with it.
But the Angels and Ohtani decided that 2021 would be the season when he put it all together and became a complete two-way superstar. The various restrictions on his workload – the so-called Ohtani rules – were lifted and he was finally allowed to really play every day.
Ahead of Wednesday’s start, Ohtani is 3-1 in 11 starts while leading the Angels with a 2.58 ERA. His most recent appearance, a June 23 loss to the Giants in which he allowed a run in six innings while striking out nine, was the first of the season – and only the third of his major league career – that he was was allowed to exceed 100 places.
“I came here to do the two-way thing,” he said last month. “That is a great motivation for me to prove to everyone that I am capable of it.”
The questions are whether Ohtani can keep that double life without detracting from his clout as he takes the Major League lead with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays with 26 homers through Monday. His 1,030 on base plus slugging percentage is only behind Guerrero and Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres.
An indication of Ohtani’s future can be found in his numbers at the Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan.
He started pitching there in his rookie season, and in his second season, 2014, he was a full-time starter, making 20 or more starts for three years. In the 2017 season, his last in Japan, he was reduced to five starts due to injuries.
In Japan, it peaked at 162⅔ innings served in one season. He’s on the right track for around 125 this season, which isn’t because of that peak workload, but the best thing he’s thrown in five seasons would be and raised some eyebrows at believing that pitchers are only incrementally increasing their innings can.
The reality is that injury and workload management have always been part of the Ohtani experience. He never played in more than 104 games of Japan’s 143-game season, largely because he usually wasn’t on the field the day before or after a start.
The repeal of the Ohtani rules changed that. He has appeared in 73 of the 78 Angels games so far this year.
However, there are still some concessions to its uniqueness. The angels gave him six or more days of rest between most of his starts instead of getting the four or five most starters. And Ohtani mostly plays the designated hitter when he’s not pitching, only showing up in the outfield for a handful of innings.
That formula has worked so far, but its success hasn’t stopped some naysayers from suggesting that he has yet to choose a role.
“Ohtani is a special player that I think everyone is cheering for,” said Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz said on ESPN. “But I think the reality is, how long can that not take away every great talent he has?”
Smoltz suggested that giving up hitting could unlock Ohtani’s pitching.
“If he just pitched, he’d be on the trail of a Jacob deGrom,” said Smoltz, comparing Ohtani to the Mets’ ace, who has an eye opening of 0.69 for the year.
But the Angels and Ohtani seem determined to keep him where no player has been in decades. There are a lot of question marks, but based on his time in Japan, if the team continues to pay attention, it seems like he will make it.