OK, I need another reminder: Why is it that we don’t see two-way baseball players again?
Whatever the reasons, they sound like lame excuses and tired rationalizations after Shohei Ohtani’s performance thus far with the Los Angeles Angels. The 23-year-old who pitched and slugged his way to stardom in Japan is turning convention upside down in the States.
A couple of weeks ago, there were legitimate questions whether he should make the Opening Day roster. Beginning in the minors seemed logical for a youngster adapting to a new culture while struggling mightily on the mound and at the plate. The 27.00 ERA and .125 batting average during spring training couldn’t have done much for his confidence.
The lights at Triple-A Salt Lake City don’t shine nearly as brightly as they do at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Giving Ohtani time to adjust, before placing him under the big-league spotlight, seemed like the considerate thing to do, prudence and protection for his psyche as well as the Angels’ investment.
But Los Angeles ignored his spring, instead putting faith in his raw tools and five awesome seasons in Japan.
Through nine games, Ohtani is 2-0 as a starting pitcher with a 2.08 ERA. Following Sunday’s start against the Oakland Athletics, Angels manager Mike Scioscia told reporters “that was as good a game as you could ever see pitched.” Ohtani pitched seven innings, yielding one hit and one walk while recording 12 strikeouts.
His work on the mound is impressive enough because teams never have enough pitching. True joy is finding someone who can throw a perfect game for 6-1/3 innings with a fastball that touches 99 mph. Ohtani induced 25 swings and misses Sunday, the most in the majors so far.
But in-between his starts — except the day before and day after he pitches — Ohtani grabs a bat and serves as the Angels’ designated hitter. It’s the same routine he followed in Japan, making him a modern Babe Ruth and arguably the biggest free-agent prize last winter.
Ohtani’s hitting appears to be more than a novelty.
A single on the first pitch he saw on Opening Day. A three-run homer (and 3-for-4 overall) in his second game as a batter. Another home run — this one against AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber — the next day. Then, a third consecutive game with a homer.
Ohtani exited Sunday’s game as the Angels leader in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, batting average, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging. His three homers tied him with Mike Trout for team-high honors.
“(Ohtani) never looks like he’s out of place,” Angels catcher Martin Maldonado told reporters. “He looks like a hitter when he’s batting and looks like a pitcher when he’s pitching. It’s impressive. We haven’t seen that before.”
At least not since Ruth, who was converted into a full-time hitter 99 years ago. The notion of two-way major-leaguers has faded like his grainy black-and-white footage.
Pitch and hit in Little League? Absolutely. Do likewise in high school? Sure. Carry it out in college? Go for it.
John Olerud was a standout pitcher and slugger at Washington State University before the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in 1989. He went on to win a batting title, two World Series rings and thee Gold Gloves as a first baseman. But some scouts saw him as a pitcher first and a hitter second.
It has become an either/or decision for the most part, although Ohtani could accelerate “both” becoming an option.
Tampa Bay minor-leaguer Brendan McKay has pitched and played first base. Dodgers prospect Brett Eibner could be allowed to pitch and hit when he returns from Tommy John surgery. National League teams might have more incentive to find dual-threats who can save a roster spot in the DH-less circuit.
Yes, it’s way too early to predict Ohtani will win the MVP, Silver Slugger and Cy Young awards. Many a hot phenom have enjoyed torrid starts only to fizzle, flounder and, sometimes, flop. Even if he performs like this through the All-Star break, that leaves plenty of time to return to earth.
Still, he has a shot to land in the stratosphere.
“The big leagues is the top level and these guys can make adjustments,” A’s outfielder Matt Joyce told reporters Sunday. “Next time we see him, we’ll make some adjustments and hopefully have a little bit better of a game. But, no doubt, he’s going to have a lot of success. Obviously, he’s been doing it on both sides of the ball and he’s an exciting player for baseball to have.”
The reason we don’t see more two-way players in the majors? That’s simple. It’s incredibly difficult to be a great ONE-WAY player in the majors. Nothing about that fact has changed.
But Ohtani is changing our thoughts about the possibilities.
• Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.