In 1918, then-manager of the Boston Red Sox Ed Barrow found himself with a bit of a conundrum to deal with. He had a very talented Red Sox team at his disposal but he also had a player who was very unique in his skill set — a unicorn of sorts. This was a 23-year-old pitcher who had already led baseball with the lowest ERA in 1916 (1.75, which was good for an ERA- of 65 which was top five in baseball at the time) and was on track to have another fine season with an ERA of 2.22 and a FIP of 2.75. This pitcher was arguably the best left-hander in baseball and any team would’ve been happy to have them in their rotation at the time.
However, it was also becoming evident that pitching wasn’t this player’s only talent. He could hit as well as anybody in baseball as well, as he had proven in limited appearances that he was quite comfortably the best-hitting pitcher in baseball at that time. The conundrum that Barrow had was that this player had reached a personal crossroads in his professional career: He enjoyed hitting and pitching but he decided that he didn’t want to do both at the same time.
So this eventually led Ed Barrow to transition this player from being primarily a pitcher to an everyday outfielder. From 1919 onwards, this player would only make 22 pitching appearances until his career ended in 1935. Meanwhile, he’d go on to finish his career widely considered as the greatest hitter to ever live. Of course, we’re talking about the legendary Babe Ruth.
While Ruth’s career was undisputedly a wild, runaway success, one of the many what-ifs regarding his career includes what would happen if Ruth decided to stick with pitching throughout his career. While there’s no way to answer that question definitevely, we’re starting to get an idea of what would happen if one of the game’s best hitters was also one of the top pitchers and doing both jobs at the same time. This used to be a fantasy that you couldn’t even make happen in video games but here we are in 2023 and Shohei Ohtani has been doing his best to turn impossibilities into realities.
To make things very simple, we’re going to focus on two stats in particular: Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) and ERA Minus (ERA-). Heading into action on September 6, Shohei Ohtani had a wRC+ of 178, which was good for second place in all of MLB among qualified hitters. While Ohtani no longer qualifies for the starting pitching leaderboards, if he did then he’d slot in at fifth place with an ERA- of 71.
This is after last season where he was in the top 15 of wRC+ with a number of 142 and he finished his pitching season with an ERA- (59) that was tied for fifth-best in baseball and a FIP- (also 59) that ended up being the joint-best in all of baseball. It is genuinely not an exaggeration to say that Shohei Ohtani has not only been one of the most fearsome hitters in all of baseball, he’s also been one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball at the same time and he’s sustained it for multiple seasons now while also coming all the way from Japan to do so.
Calling Shohei Ohtani a marvel would actually be underselling just how incredible he’s been for the past couple of seasons. If you’ve been on Baseball Twitter long enough then you’ve either seen this legendary Tweet referenced or it’s been retweeted onto your timeline at some point:
every time I see an Angels highlight it’s like “Mike Trout hit three homes runs and raised his average to .528 while Shohei Ohtani did something that hasn’t been done since ‘Tungsten Arm’ O’Doyle of the 1921 Akron Groomsmen, as the Tigers defeated the Angels 8-3”
— ℳatt (@matttomic) May 18, 2021
Indeed, Shohei Ohtani’s feats of excellence both on the mound and in the batter’s box became nearly commonplace to the point where “Tungsten Arm’ O’Doyle” has just about become a permanent part of baseball lexicon. Last month, we got one of the strongest examples of just how much sway the fictional old-timey baseball player has on baseball culture at the moment thanks to baseball’s most phenomenal player right now.
On August 3, Shohei Ohtani had two hits and two walks as the DH, including a stolen base and a home run — his 40th homer of the season, mind you. He also pitched four scoreless innings and struck out four batters, to boot. This feat put Ohtani in a club of his own, as he became the first player in the live-ball era to do all of those things in the same game. It’s the type of thing that both players, fans and observers of the game could only dream of and yet it’s also the type of thing that Ohtani has made seem completely normal over the course of his career so far.
It also coincided with the Angels losing the game 5-3 after Carlos Estévez gave up a go-ahead grand slam in the very next frame after Ohtani’s 40th home run of the season. It can’t be verified but there’s no doubt that the spirit of ‘Tungsten Arm’ O’Doyle could be heard cackling and laughing maniacally at this turn of events. Still, unfortunate results like this aren’t detrimental to Ohtani’s legend in any way, shape or form. If anything, it actually boosts his legend — here’s this absolute monster of a baseball player who is doing everything he can to drag this team to victory. More often than not, he’s in defeat but it’s a valiant defeat as it’s abundantly clear that the Angels are losing despite him instead of because of him.
We’re also in a situation where for the first time in Ohtani’s big league career, there’s actually an extremely large amount of intrigue about what the future holds for him. Not only is Ohtani certainly going to test the market of free agency in the offseason, he’s doing so while facing the daunting task of recovering from tearing his UCL for the second time. Fortunately, it appears that that Ohtani may have gotten a little fortunate when it comes to this injury to where it may not require Tommy John surgery. If that’s the case and Ohtani doesn’t have to recover from Tommy John for a second time, then the possibility remains that he could keep up his unicorn routine going forward in the future — whether it’s with the Angels or not.
To Shohei Ohtani’s credit, it’s clear that this injury hasn’t scared him away from continuing to pitch. He still intends to push ahead as a two-way player and we should all be rooting for him to stay healthy enough to keep it up. As long as he does so, he has enough talent and wherewithal to keep on changing the game of baseball. The sport had a chance in the 1910s to see what this was like when Babe Ruth had the ability to hit and pitch at a high level. Ruth decided to focus on hitting and the rest is history.
If all goes well with both his recovery and any offseason decisions going forward, maybe we’ll even start to see him push the game forward in the postseason as well. It’s already good to have Ohtani even playing in the first place and one of these days he’ll get his chance to do it on the biggest stage that the game has to offer in October. Until then, Shohei Ohtani continue to change the game in ways that we could only dream of in the past.