The popular narrative assigned to Shohei Ohtani centers around his attempt to do something that has not been done since the great Babe Ruth: excel as both a batter and pitcher. Last week, King Kaufman made the observation that this is actually a bit misleading. A gander at Ruth’s Baseball Reference page will show you he was really a full-time pitcher in those early seasons with the Red Sox, generally only hitting when he took his turn in the rotation.
Ohtani, of course, is working (roughly) as a full time starting pitcher, while taking regular at bats in between starts. Should he continue this pace, he could become the first true two-way player in the history of Major League Baseball.
Conveniently, Ruth began receiving regular plate appearances in 1918 at twenty-three years old, Ohtani’s current age. After averaging 35 games started in his first three full seasons, the Babe started only 19 times on the mound that year, while making 57 starts in the outfield and 13 starts at first base.
Should Ohtani continue his current pace of starting every Sunday and serving as DH three games a week, he will have started 27 games as a pitcher and another 81 games as a hitter, blowing past Ruth’s total of 89 games started. Even if we include a handful of pinch-hitting appearances and one relief outing, Ruth’s total of 95 games that season would still trail Ohtani’s current pace by plenty.
We are now 100 years removed from that season, so comparisons are nearly impossible to make. Ohtani has the advantage of appearing as DH, while Ruth was forced to take the field during his brief two-way stint. Of course, Ruth also threw complete games in 90% of his starts, so clearly the role of the starting pitcher was not nearly as taxing a century ago as it is today.
The following season, Ruth was mostly an outfielder, making only 15 starts as a pitcher. He never started more than one game in any season after that. If you follow Kaufman’s thread in the link above, you will learn that only two players besides Ruth played on both sides of the ball as much as he did after 1901, once in 1902 and again in 1914, Ruth’s rookie season.
While it would be disingenuous to say Ruth was not a true two-way player, Ohtani has a chance to raise the standard of what that title truly means. Should Ohtani still be holding down both roles in a year or two, would it be crazy to say that comparisons to Ruth would actually be under-selling his accomplishments?
Obviously, we do not want to get carried away when a guy’s big league career is only two weeks old. But the Angels clearly have mapped out his career to do something that is truly unprecedented.
After just two starts and 33 plate appearances, Fangraphs has already adjusted their projections for how Ohtani will fare the rest of the season. According to ZiPS, he will make another 21 starts and finish with 3.5 WAR on the mound, which aligns almost exactly with their pre-season projections. At the plate, they are convinced they underestimated him, as his projected WAR has gone from 0.8 to 1.5, or twice as valuable as he first appeared.
Keep in mind that the current sample is so small that these projections mostly still reflect their pre-season estimates, pulled mostly from his NPB numbers. Even with these very conservative estimates, they still project him as a 5-WAR player, comparable to the 2017 accomplishments of Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Upton, Carlos Correa, Stephen Strasburg, and Zack Greinke, among others.
Of course, each of those guys compiled those numbers strictly as pitchers or hitters. So what was Ruth’s WAR in 1918, his one true season as a two-way sensation? As a hitter, he posted an unbelievable 5.2 WAR over just 380 PA. While it is unlikely that Shohei reaches those Trout-ian heights with the bat, it is worth noting that Ruth’s 1.5 WAR as a pitcher that year should be surpassed by Ohtani rather quickly, having accumulated 0.5 WAR in his two starts this young season.
Given a clean bill of health, Ohtani looks poised to surpass his tepid pre-season hitting projections, with a chance to exceed his already very good pitching projections. One hundred years ago, 23 year-old Babe Ruth was worth a combined 6.7 WAR, pitching and hitting in pre-integrated baseball. Can 23 year-old Shohei Ohtani, facing the toughest competition in the world, cross that threshold and take his place as the one true two-way sensation in MLB history?
As if we needed another reason to watch the Sho.