There is only one achievement in baseball more amazing than Shohei Ohtani succeeding at an elite level as a hitter and pitcher: that he has done it for this long. He blows away Babe Ruth in two-way longevity.
But even Ohtani has slumps. And when he does, as he has over the past few weeks, the question is inevitable: How long can he keep up this pace excelling as a two-way player? Angels manager Phil Nevin promises to lighten Ohtani’s workload this year, but only by a bit.
“What did he play, 158 games last year?” Nevin says. It was 157. “It won't be that many, that’s for sure. I do plan on giving him a few more days here and there. But right now, he says he feels great. I know he’s in what people would term as a little bit of a slump offensively, but it hasn’t been [that long] and I’m not really counting.”
This is the third consecutive season Ohtani, 28, has pulled full-time double duty, covering 380 team games entering Wednesday night. Ruth never was a full two-way player over one complete season. He began 18 games into the 1918 season and abandoned regular turns on the mound with 45 games left in the ’19 season. Ruth’s full-time two-way duty covered 202 team games. He yielded because he loved hitting more and because he was wearing down.
Jack Egan, a minor league manager and former umpire, said in 1920 that Red Sox players told him Ruth hurt his arm “making several hurried throws from the outfield.” Said Egan, “I am inclined to believe that one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived was ruined when Ruth was converted into an outfielder. However, his remarkable hitting power may have justified such action. … No human being can do two or three important things and do all of them equally well.”
Ohtani is disproving that theory longer than anyone in the history of the game, the Babe included.
Ohtani is as rigorous as any player in baseball when it comes to his nutrition, fitness and recovery. He has been supremely dedicated to physical conditioning since his second year of high school, when a hip injury sidelined him from pitching for six months and he grew more serious about his diet.
Nevin and Ohtani are in regular communication about Ohtani’s energy level. They typically arrive collaboratively at giving him a rare off day.
“We have those conversations quite a bit,” Nevin says. “It's always ‘we.’ I did one time do it where it was, ‘You’ve got a day off. You have two days.’ I gave him a day off before an off day. If it's looking like an off day coming up or a day where I think he might need one, I will [give him one]. You know, maybe a tough lefty is on the mound the night before an off day. Or I may give him a day just before a [pitching] start day to keep him fresh.
“The one thing he really does not want to do is pitch only on his pitch day. He feels more comfortable while he’s hitting and pitching. He likes to hit when he pitches for us.”
On Wednesday, Ohtani was hit with a pitch for the first time this year: a 95-mph fastball from Michael Kopech that clocked him directly on his right knee. It was a hold-your-breath moment. After a hobble, a grimace and a brief check from the training staff, Ohtani remained in the game. He went 0-for-4, with two strikeouts and two pop-ups.
He rebounded Tuesday night with his 13th home run, keeping him on pace for a third straight season of at least 34 homers, 95 RBIs and 10 stolen bases—something no Angels player has ever done—and while pitching like an ace. This season he is striking out a career-best 12.5 batters per nine innings, a league-leading rate for a second straight year.
How amazing is Ohtani? He is on pace to hit 38 home runs and allow the fewest hits per nine innings (4.7) of any qualified pitcher in history. Think of him as a combination of Ruth and Whitey Ford at the same point in their careers:
First 620 Games As Hitter
First 74 Games As Pitcher
Now think about the wear and tear he endures while hitting and pitching like two Hall of Famers combined. Over these past three seasons, Ohtani has played in 366 of 380 games, or 96%. He has been on base more times over the past three seasons than all but eight players—while rolling up more strikeouts than all but seven pitchers. To put that volume into perspective, he gets on base more than Trea Turner while striking out more batters than Max Scherzer. That’s bonkers.
Recently, though, Ohtani has struggled. Over his past 14 games entering Wednesday, Ohtani was slashing .148/.220/.370 with 18 strikeouts in 59 plate appearances. His chase rate is a career high and his sprint speed is down, but his overall hard-hit rate is still elite, and he has excelled with runners in scoring position (.321) and in high leverage (.425).
“I think he’s been taking some good passes,” Nevin says. “So, I'm not real worried about that.”
Ohtani is playing in the most closely watched walk year in the history of free agency, not only because he is a two-way unicorn but also because he will command the richest contract in the history of the sport. (For comparative purposes, Turner and Scherzer make a combined $70 million a year.)
Forget about Ohtani being traded. Angels owner Arte Moreno told me in spring training he personally guaranteed Ohtani will not be traded as long as the Angels remain in contention for a wild-card berth. The Angels (29–26) could go 24–28 from now through the end of July and still sit a game under .500, which last year would have put them within 3½ games of a playoff spot. It doesn’t take much to hang in a wild-card race.
Baseball Reference gives them a 5.9% chance of reaching the postseason, but just having a chance at the postseason is where the bar is set. Los Angeles is all in on trying to push for the postseason in what may be the last season of Mike Trout and Ohtani as teammates. The Angels have aggressively promoted recent draft picks Zach Neto, Sam Bachman and Ben Joyce. They will hunt for more pitching depth before the deadline, particularly to support the six-man rotation needed to keep Ohtani on his usual five days of rest.
The Angels are good enough to convince Moreno to play out this season with Ohtani. And then he will have to compete with the Dodgers, Padres, Yankees and Mets in an auction environment for the most valuable asset in baseball: an international superstar and the most amazing and durable two-way player the sport has ever seen.