Sunday night was a rollercoaster of emotions for the Los Angeles Angels, getting to see the full extent of Shohei Ohtani’s considerable talents on display, but also reminded of the fragility and rarity of fully realizing his potential.
The gloves are off with Ohtani this year, in that the Angels are letting him fully explore his two-way abilities. Gone was the off day as a hitter before his pitching start, and on Sunday he was in the lineup in a game he pitched for the first time since joining the Angels in 2018.
Ohtani batted second against the White Sox, which the Angels noted was the first time a starting pitcher did so since Jack Dunleavy for the Cardinals in 1903. There are plenty of numbers to be in awe of regarding Ohtani, and we’ll get to a few in a moment. Ohtani’s allure though can be better captured in a single, glorious sound:
But can your pitcher do... THIS? pic.twitter.com/vW7nesRyZ6— Los Angeles Angels (@Angels) April 5, 2021
That majestic noise off Ohtani’s bat produced a home run that traveled 451 feet, thanks to Ohtani scorching the ball 115.2 mph off the bat, per Statcast.
If Ohtani was a one-dimensional player who could only hit home runs like that, that alone would be worth watching. That kind of sound off a bat makes the heart flutter. But couple this with the fact that only a few minutes before, Ohtani pitched a scoreless inning, including a strikeout of Adam Eaton that saw Ohtani top 100 mph, and we’ve reached sublime territory.
I mean, just look at the highlights on Baseball Savant’s game page for Angels-White Sox:
Ohtani the hitter had the top exit velocity of the game, and the longest home run. Ohtani the pitcher had the highest velocities, throwing at least 100 mph nine different times.
But Ohtani’s superlative skills weren’t limited to only the locality of this game. Doing what he did while both hitting and pitching just isn’t done. Ohtani is literally the best of both worlds.
Shohei Ohtani has thrown the fastest pitch of any starting pitcher so far in this early season (100.6 MPH) and has the hardest-hit HR of the season by any player (115.2 MPH exit velocity). pic.twitter.com/P3GmsQoJmK— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 5, 2021
We saw a glimpse of Ohtani’s talents in his first major league season in 2018, when he had a 127 ERA+ and 30-percent strikeout rate in 10 starts on the mound, plus a 151 OPS+ and 22 home runs as a batter. That was enough to win American League Rookie of the Year in a runaway vote, but it also came at a cost.
An elbow injury limited Ohtani to just 10 starts as a rookie, and he had Tommy John surgery that took pitching off the table in 2019. He was still productive as a hitter in his second year — .286/.343/.505 with 18 home runs, a 119 OPS+ — but that made him just an ordinary, albeit above-average player. Two-way Ohtani was back in 2020, but only briefly, as his two starts on the mound were disastrous before getting shut down as a pitcher with another elbow injury.
After a winter of hard work and refinement, Ohtani looked great during the spring, hitting majestic drives over the batters eye while also striking people out and hitting triple digits on the radar gun. More importantly he was healthy, which is really what we all want for Ohtani. Just let him get through a season without getting hurt, so the world can see him fully blossom.
ESPN Sunday Night Baseball provided a perfect venue for Ohtani to shine, with a national audience watching the line remaining MLB game of the day. He didn’t disappoint.
In addition to hitting the home run, Ohtani struck out seven while allowing only two singles. He entered the fifth inning with a 3-0 lead and three walks to that point. With Nick Madrigal on base and two outs, Ohtani started to fade in what was pretty clearly going to be his last inning. He walked two to load the bases, but still held a 3-0 lead.
Joe Maddon left Ohtani in the game, which from afar looked like an attempt to get Ohtani one more out so he’d have the requisite five innings to qualify for a win. Whether that is the case or not is unknown, but it should have worked. Ohtani did throw a wild pitch to bring in the first run, but then struck out Yoan Moncada for what should have been the last out of the inning.
But instead, chaos ensued.
After his passed ball, catcher Max Stassi threw wild to first base, so not only did the final out of the inning not get recorded on Ohtani’s watch, but the tying runs scored, including José Abreu sliding into Ohtani, toppling him at home plate.
As loud as the home run was earlier, the sound of the collective gasp from Angels fans was likely louder as Ohtani went down.
He walked off the field with a trainer, though the team said he wasn’t removed from the game because of injury. But it was still too close for comfort, and a cruel reminder that perhaps we weren’t meant to have nice things.
I don’t know the proper blueprint for how to proceed with Ohtani, whether to treat him with kid gloves or not. But I know that not many people can do what he can do as a hitter, and few can do what he can as a pitcher. If there’s a way for him to do both, I’m all for it.
But mostly, I just want Ohtani to be healthy. Is that too much to ask?