By Ali Iveson |
Reading my colleague Mike Rowbottom’s recent blog post on sporting crossovers, my mind could not help but wander to Shohei Ohtani.
The Japanese star has been in my thoughts and no doubt the thoughts of countless others rather a lot of late, thanks to a historic start to the Major League Baseball (MLB) season. On this occasion I was wondering whether Ohtani may be sport’s most impressive crossover star at present.
First we should probably define what a crossover is. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition includes “an instance of breaking into another category” or “a broadening of the popular appeal of an artist (such as a musician) that is often the result of a change of the artist’s medium or style”. So while Ohtani is sticking one sport, baseball, a more narrow sphere than that of the athletes who dabble in multiple sports, chess or music as discussed in the previous blog post, I think he qualifies. And the results this season have been spectacular.
Ohtani, a 26-year-old superstar now in his fourth MLB season – although it does not feel as though it has been that long, thanks to a combination of needing the dreaded Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) and a coronavirus-shortened season – leads MLB with 14 home runs. A flashy statistic those with more detailed knowledge of baseball’s inner workings than this part-time fan may wish not to put much stock in.
But Ohtani is also a top-10 player in runs batted in, slugging percentage, runs scored, total bases, extra base hits and Baseball Reference’s wins above replacement (WAR) metric. We can agree he is good with a bat in hand.
That WAR stat is a product of the reason for this blog post, however. Ohtani does not just launch home runs, he also pitches – and pitches very well. Modern-era baseball players are not supposed to do both and to call Ohtani a once-in-a-generation talent would be hugely underselling it.
Earlier this season Ohtani became the first player in 100 years to start a game as a pitcher while leading MLB in home runs. In 2018, before the scale of the UCL injury was clear, Ohtani became the first player in 99 seasons simply to hit 15 home runs and pitch 50 innings in the same year.
On both occasions the last player to achieve the feat was Babe Ruth, and you do not need to be a baseball follower to know that matching any record of the “Bambino” – often regarded as the greatest player of all time – is some feat.
As a pitcher, Ohtani’s earned run average is 2.37 this season – more than 40 per cent better than league average. Ohtani records a strikeout almost every second batter – again considerably ahead of the league average – and another stat to demonstrate the esteemed, consigned-to-the-history-books company that he keeps comes from Sarah Langs.
Ohtani is only the fifth ever MLB player with 60 home runs as a hitter and 100 career strikeouts as a pitcher. Only one of the other five, Rick Ankiel, played after 1954, and Ankiel was not a two-way player in the same way Ohtani is. Ankiel was a pitcher who came back as a hitter after the yips effectively ended his pitching career – an incredible achievement and tale in its own right – but Ankiel was not balancing the two arts at the same time.
When you consider the odds one must overcome to be an above-average hitter or an above-average pitcher in the world’s leading baseball competition, to do both is remarkable.
No doubt some will be reading this wondering what the big deal is. It is all baseball, right? But throwing a ball and hitting a ball are two very different skills, with little overlap. Perhaps even less overlap than some of the crossovers covering multiple sports, like athletics and American football, or hockey and tennis.
Sure, cricket is awash with talented all-rounders, who can bowl and bat and also catch a ball without using a glove. But cricket and baseball comparisons are flawed, as anyone who has tried to explain one of them to a mystified fan of the other can likely attest.
The fact you need to go back a century, to the great Ruth, to find a suitable Ohtani comparison is an illustration of how impressive this athletic feat is.
And it is an athletic feat, for there is a certain beauty to the way Ohtani is capable of crushing a baseball – left-handed of course, which for whatever reason usually makes a hitter more easy on the eye. The flick of the plant foot, the fluid and beguilingly powerful uncorking of his arms, the nonchalance which so often seems to follow a baseball sailing over the fences.
As an English-based part-time baseball fan, waking up each day to see what outlandish pitch Ohtani threw or dispatched for a home run has been a pleasure and certainly kept me more abreast of a season that, at 162 games long before the playoffs even start, can often seem a slog.
Ohtani is doing something many thought was impossible, that practically nobody who is alive today has seen before. Those trying to downplay what Ohtani is doing will point to the small sample size – often conveniently ignoring his similar achievements in Nippon Professional Baseball or the first-ever World Baseball Softball Confederation Premier12 tournament – question his durability or shy away from the statistical categories where Ohtani’s numbers are most eye-catching.
But the joy of Ohtani is in the dream, succeeding in the face of early specialisation so prevalent in sport’s youth development. At times he seems to play as if in the imagination of a child who cannot decide what they want to be, so they are simply good at everything. In an era where athlete empowerment appears to be growing in all directions, you cannot help but wonder what impact Ohtani, who has refused to follow the status quo and make a choice between two disciplines he clearly loves, will have on those that follow.
Ohtani is a marvel and undoubtedly one of the most impressive athletes currently operating. Perhaps trying to emulate him, in whatever field, is foolish. But no doubt many wrote off his quest for two-way domination as foolish also.
If history says this will not last, all the more reason to enjoy the show, each crushed home run or devilish splitter at a time. But equally, what a shame that show will not be coming to a home Olympics later this year.
Ohtani will be 34 when Los Angeles, his current residence, holds the Olympics. Maybe if somebody tells Ohtani he cannot compete at those Games, he just might make it happen.
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.