Monday, September 26

‘Beyond Unbelievable’: Shohei Ohtani constantly amazed his MLB teammates during the historic 2021 season

Thunderstorms tore through Boston early in the evening on June 30, causing the first pitch of the contest between the Royals and Red Sox, originally scheduled for 7:05 p.m. local time, to be delayed by about 30 minutes.

For the players, the delay offered an opportunity.

“We were about to hit the field,” Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield told Sporting News, “but everyone stopped and went on TV, because it was their first at-bat.”

Who was on the plate? Shohei Ohtani.

MORE: Complete List of Sporting News 2021 MLB Awards

The Angels star, finally healthy and empowered by the franchise to fully pursue his dream role as a superstar hitter and pitcher in the Major Leagues, was in the midst of his best stretch of the season heading into the final three-game game. set in New York. He hit 11 home runs in his previous 13 games, including three in the first two games at Yankee Stadium. And Ohtani was pitching that night too. He had allowed two runs in 12 innings with 14 strikeouts in his two previous starts.

So heck yeah, the Royals were watching, seizing the rush opportunity.

“We were hoping he would hit a home run,” Merrifield said. “You just don’t see 20 major leaguers stop and watch a guy hit a random at-bat in June. But we looked because he was awake. The eyes that are on him, the pressure that is on him day after day, to keep doing what he’s doing is beyond incredible. “

Of all the words that we in the media have written and said, few speak louder than the real life story of Merrifield, one of Ohtani’s teammates in the little MLB player fraternity. And Merrifield is certainly not alone.

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“As a baseball fan,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, 2020 National League MVP, told Sporting News, “to see what he’s accomplishing and doing day after day, you just have to give a Step back and Look and realize how great Shoehei Ohtani is. What he’s doing, I don’t think will ever happen again. ”

And those kinds of stories and applause are one of the main reasons Ohtani was voted the 2021 Sporting News MLB Player of the Year, an award that dates back to 1936 and has always been voted exclusively by MLB players.

Players know special and look special at Ohtani.

“Unless you’ve played, I don’t know if you can appreciate the scope of what he’s doing,” Angels manager Joe Maddon told Sporting News. “A group of his peers voted for this award and they fully understand what it takes and what he has done, how important, how incredible it is.”

Ohtani got 56 percent of the vote; Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who authored a season that would have made him a worthy winner any other year, was second at 29.3 percent. He was the only other player above 4.3 percent.

Shopping comparison

Finding context for Ohtani as a two-way gamer has always been a challenge, because there are no comparisons that are relatively close to what he achieved in 2021.

In the modern era, Rick Ankiel struck out 194 batters in 2000 and hit 25 home runs in 2008, but he was never a hitter and pitcher in the same year. Michael Lorenzen and Brooks Kieschnick have served double duty as outfielders and relief pitchers in the same seasons, but neither had Ohtani’s level of success in either discipline.

You know the name that always comes up in conversations about Ohtani: Babe Ruth.

“Whenever you hear your name mentioned alongside Babe Ruth in whatever we believe in with baseball, it’s pretty impressive,” Maddon said.

Ruth joined the Red Sox in 1914 at age 19, and by 1915 he had established himself as an elite pitcher. From 1915 to 1917, Ruth had a 2.02 ERA in 867 2/3 innings, but it was clear he could hit, too. In 1918, he made 19 starts as a pitcher and 70 as a position player, leading the league with 11 home runs. In 1919, the only one with nearly a full-time double duty, Ruth started 15 games on the mound and 111 on the field. The Red Sox sold Ruth to the Yankees in the offseason, something about a curse? – and New York ended his pitching days. He made just five pitcher appearances for the rest of his career.

Compare Ruth’s 1919 with Ohtani’s 2021.

As a launcher:

Piety: 17 G, 2.97 ERA, 133 1/3 IP, 148 H, 58 BB, 30 K, 3.58 FIP, 1.545 WHIP, 0.8 bWAR
Ohtani: 23 G, 3.18 ERA, 130 1/3 IP, 98 H, 44 BB, 156 K, 3.52 ERA, 1.090 WHIP, 4.1 bWAR

As a hitter:

Piety: 543 PA, 29 HR, 113 RBI, 12 3B, .322 / .456 / .657, 217 OPS + 7 SB, 9.1 bWAR
Ohtani: 639 PA, 46 HR, 100 RBI, 8 3B, .257 / .372 / .592, 158 OPS +, 26 SB, 4.9 bWAR

Different eras, but quite similar seasons, right? Ohtani hit more home runs, but it should also be noted that Ruth’s 29 home runs set an MLB record in a single season, which he quickly destroyed in 1920 as a full-time position player with 54 home runs.

But apart from Ruth? There are no comparisons.

Well, not at the major league level.

“This is like a little league, a high school or a varsity team, the best player on the team does it all,” Maddon said. “He’s the best player in the big leagues, doing the same things that we normally did in little league, high school, or even college. And even when they did that there, it wasn’t every day. It was a couple of days a week, with time to recover. He has no time to recover. “

The durability component cannot be overlooked. In his debut season in 2018, Ohtani made 10 starts as a pitcher and did not hit in those games. He also typically took days off before and after his pitching outings, not necessarily because he wanted to, but that’s how the Angels approached him. Because, again, there is no manual on how to properly handle a player who is both a star pitcher and a star hitter. He didn’t release anything in 2019 after Tommy John’s surgery and only made two starts in 2020.

The Angels let it be known early that 2021 would be different. Maddon and general manager Perry Minasian said they would take the reins from him, let Ohtani hit when he pitched, and basically the designated hitter every other day. The only thing they didn’t do was open it up on the field when they were playing an interleague game in a National League stadium, without the designated one. However, he pinch-hitted in several of them, ending the season playing in 155 of the team’s 162 games.

“When we talked to him in spring training, I didn’t anticipate that he would have played so many games without needing a break. I thought there was going to be a break, ”Maddon said with a smile. “The number of games he played, the level of durability and resistance is incredible. We can’t tell either of them that it would look like this by the end of the year. There is no way.”

There was no rest, because no rest was needed. However, there was a fastball command that was missing in 2018.

“From the beginning, when I first met him and spoke of him as his manager, I kept insisting, ‘Once I get command of the fastball, this guy is absolutely going to take off,'” Maddon said. “His other pitches are so good, but they won’t be as honorable unless he knows where his fastball is going. Boom, he hit the fastball command, and here we are. “

Oh, and there was also speed. I’m not sure anyone expected him to steal 26 bases, the fifth-highest total in the American League.

“The speed,” Maddon said, “you heard about his speed, but he makes even the grounders to first base interesting, where he can beat a first baseman in the bag. Base theft, this is part of their driven nature. He wants to be able to do that.

“He really believes that when he does those things he is contributing to the victory. He likes to hit and pitch on the same day because he thinks he can help the team. He always talks about the team. Always. I don’t think I’ve heard him talk about himself when it comes to personal achievement, although I’m sure it’s there and I’m sure it’s part of the drive. But he is so humble and sincere that I think his first motivation is the team ”.

‘Simply incredible’

The events of the 2021 All-Star Game were basically the Shohei Ohtani Show. He was chosen as the starting pitcher for the American League team by Rays manager Kevin Cash, and was the first batter for the American League team. Oh, and he also participated in the Home Run Derby.

And it was during those days in Denver that it became clear how his teammates saw him.

“I hope people realize what they are doing, because it is incredibly difficult. I don’t know how he can pitch and hit, ”Freeman said. “I get tired of just swinging the bat and he’s trying to do both and do it at a very high level. It’s pretty amazing. “

Nationals star Juan Soto said: “He can do anything. What he’s been doing this year is just amazing. “

Spend enough time with professional athletes, and it’s clear when they say nice things because they feel obligated. That was not the case in Colorado.

“You are usually in awe of the heroes who were there before you arrived. It’s rare to be amazed by a contemporary, ”Maddon said. “It is unique and deserves all the accolades. You deserve this award. He deserves a lot of awards this year. “

It shouldn’t be surprising that he won this one, considering he was voted on by teammates who stopped what they were doing to see him on clubhouse television and were eager to meet him at the All-Star Game.

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