Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani is a hot topic this off-season, and for good reason. The young star is one of the rarest breeds, a player who pitches and hits like an absolute dream. In fact, he’s so good that some baseball experts are speculating that a century later, Ohtani could do something that hasn’t really been done since Babe Ruth: do it all.
Last year, Ohtani hit .322 with 22 homers and posted a 1.86 ERA with 174 K’s in 140 innings. Many prospects and minor leaguers try to do both, but if they get called up, they end up choosing one or the other. For the amount of money most Major Leaguers get paid and the inherent risks involved in playing, it’s more practical to try to be great at one thing rather than average at two, so as to seem more valuable to their franchise. Currently, the only player in American baseball who comes close to being a two-way is San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, who occasionally hits a nice homer. But here in the American League, two-way players have been virtual anomalies since the days of George Herman Ruth, one-hundred years ago.
Babe Ruth is remembered first and foremost as a magnificent hitter. And the reason the Red Sox didn’t win a World Series for eighty-six years. But mostly the fact that even now, he holds some of the MLB records, including most 40+ home-run seasons: eleven, seven of them consecutively. He’s also still the record-holder for both all-time slugging % with .690 and all-time OPS with 1.164. Ruth had a casual 2,213 RBIs and 714 career homers, one of only three players ever to hit more than 700. Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds surpassed him decades later, though I discount any player who holds records due to PEDs usage – sorry, Mr. Bonds.
Ruth’s hitting is even more impressive when you factor in that he played in the dead-ball era, a time of strategy, bunting, and base-stealing, with far less power-hitting and more “small ball.” No other time in baseball had more stolen bases, many of them by Ruth himself. The man was the ultimate enigma: a power hitter in a time when no one was hitting, a pitcher who could also knock one out of the park, and a glutton who ate steak every night, drank like a fish, and still ran fast enough to steal 123 bases in his career.
But before Babe Ruth was hitting the original bombs, he was a star left-handed pitcher here in Boston. His career stats from the mound were a solid 2.28 ERA and 94-46 W/L record. Originally, he had a reputation as a pitcher who occasionally hit a home run. He twice won 23 games in a single season, and in his time in Boston, won three World Series championships.
But can Shohei Ohtani pull a “Babe Ruth?” Well, Babe Ruth didn’t even pull a “Babe Ruth” for long; his true two-way days ended when Harry Frazee sold him to New York. Ruth never hit more than 30 homers in the years that he pitched regularly, and he wanted to play every day, so he transitioned into playing the outfield. As his hitting improved in New York, his pitching days quickly came to an end. In 1919, he made 15 starts and hit 29 homers; in 1920, he made one start and hit 54 homers. When he gave up pitching, his OPS skyrocketed by almost 200 points.
Back in this modern era, hitting, fielding, and pitching would be too much, especially for a rookie. Ohtani could feasibly pitch and be a DH, but that limits him to the American League; he’s too valuable to risk injury or exhaustion trying to do all three. Two will probably even be stretching him too thin, at least while he adjusts to American baseball.
The Red Sox need a DH every game. But with Price, Sale, Porcello, and Rodriguez all underperforming last season, they also need some power on the mound. Current free agent Mitch Moreland was a standout lefty reliever at Mississippi State, but has only pitched as a reliever twice in his eight years in the MLB, acknowledging that the human body can only take so much stress. So while Otani would be fun to watch and has enormous potential, I don’t think he’s who Boston should spend money on.
100 years ago, Babe Ruth won 13 games for the Red Sox as a pitcher, played 95 games in the field, and hit 11 home runs. As a baseball lover, it would be cool to see even a semi-reincarnation of one of the greatest players in history. I’m sure Ohtani will be great entertainment, and yet another reason to count down the days to next season, but no one will ever be Babe Ruth.