YOU HAVE TO GO BACK A CENTURY—TO BABE RUTH—TO FIND A BALLPLAYER WHO MATCHED THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF SHOHEI OHTANI IN HIS ROOKIE YEAR
AS FATE and mathematicians would have it, the Venn diagram and the legend of the greatest Venn diagram of a ballplayer who ever lived were minted in the same year, 1918. A book published by philosopher Clarence Irving Lewis coined "Venn diagram" to honor mathematician John Venn, who decades earlier used those now-iconic overlapping circles to show relationships between sets of elements. Also in 1918, the Red Sox began using pitching star Babe Ruth at first base or in the outfield between starts so they could keep his big bat in the lineup.
For the next 100 years, baseball didn't see another Venn-diagram ballplayer like Ruth. One thousand five hundred thirty-nine men hit 15 home runs in a season, and 5,201 men pitched 50 innings, but only for Ruth did those two giant circles overlap—until Shohei Ohtani, a 23-year-old Angels rookie from Japan, joined him this year.
That Ohtani, while adjusting to a new league, a new baseball, a new language and a new culture, could even try the pitching/hitting Venn is remarkable. That he succeeded wildly, even while limited to 10 starts because of a torn right-elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery after the season, is the stuff of legend. In only 326 at bats Ohtani hit 22 home runs, the most ever by a rookie DH. He also stole 10 bases and posted an OPS+ of 152, seventh best among all hitters with as many at bats. On the mound he went 4--2 with a 3.21 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 512/3 innings.
That torn ligament and the mediocrity of the Angels muted the once-a-century wonder of it, but he was still baseball's biggest sensation. He hit the ball harder (92.6-mph average exit velocity) than 96% of all major leaguers, including the two MVPs, Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich (both 92.3). He ran as fast as Francisco Lindor (average sprint speed of 28.4 feet per second). He delivered the ball harder (96.7 mph) than every starter except Luis Severino, Noah Syndergaard and Nathan Eovaldi. And he threw the most bewildering pitch in baseball: Batters hit .036 against his splitter.
Ohtani's greatest exploit, though, happened just before the season began, with almost nobody watching. He batted terribly in spring training—.125 with no extra-base hits. Using the same leg kick he used to hit .286 over five seasons in Japan, Ohtani could not catch up to major league velocity. Pundits labeled him a bust. Privately, the Angels worried.
Just days before Opening Day, before a Freeway Series exhibition game, L.A. hitting coach Eric Hinske approached Ohtani in an indoor cage at Dodger Stadium and asked, "Have you ever hit without the leg kick?"
"No," Ohtani said.
"Would you like to try it?"
Just like that, on the eve of making his high-profile MLB debut, Ohtani adopted a new swing, then hit the first big league pitch he saw for a single. In his first home at bat he homered. By the time he returned to Japan for the offseason, the comparisons between Ohtani and Ruth were no longer based on conjecture. "I get compared to him often," he told reporters, "but to me he's like something from a myth."
Or a phenomenon you see once a century.