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  • Forget the risk of blowing up a small sample size at the beginning of the season. Shohei Ohtani already looks like he belongs among baseball's best hitters and pitchers.
By Jon Tayler
April 08, 2018

The month of April in baseball is full of performances that can’t be trusted. Hot starts and early-season slumps invite us to issue definitive takes on who’s figured it out and who’s washed up, on your MVP favorites and your next Cy Young winner. April invites you to fall into its small-sample-size traps, with every at-bat and inning another chance for an overreaction built on the most precarious foundation. As such, you tend to spend games telling yourself not to get too excited or down on whatever’s happening; there’s a lot of season left, and no matter how good or bad a player looks, regression to the mean is coming.

This is the wise and prudent course for any baseball fan. It also doesn’t stand a chance against Shohei Ohtani. How can you stay calm or rational in the face of what he’s already done? On Sunday afternoon in Anaheim, the Angels’ 23-year-old righthander was perfect through six innings against the Athletics and ultimately allowed only one hit and one walk in seven shutout frames, striking out 12. If that weren’t enough, in the week between his MLB pitching debut on April 1 and Sunday’s tilt, he homered three times and drove in seven runs in three games as the Angels’ designated hitter. For the season, Ohtani is hitting .389/.421/.889 in 19 plate appearances and has whiffed 18 batters in 13 innings while giving up just three runs.

To put those numbers into context: He’s hit more home runs than Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Manny Machado and Aaron Judge, and he’s struck out more batters than Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber.

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But right, it’s April: Those numbers, while impressive, don’t necessarily mean that Ohtani can already see the code of MLB’s matrix. Ozzie Albies also has three home runs on the year, but you’re not going to see many thousand-word paeans to his first two weeks. But it’s the underlying stats that make you realize just how special Ohtani is. His three home runs have gone an average of 415 feet, including a 450-foot bomb off A’s righty Daniel Gossett on Friday night. His fastball, meanwhile, sits at 98 mph and routinely touches 100, and his split-finger fastball tumbles out of the strike zone like a drunken acrobat.

You saw that whole absurd array on display against Oakland. Ohtani needed just 91 pitches to get through seven innings, and he got an astonishing 25 swings and misses on those offerings—16 of them on 22 splitters. He didn’t just dominate A’s hitters; he made them look like Little Leaguers going up against the kid who says he’s 13 but stands six feet tall and already shaves. The hit that broke up Ohtani’s perfect game bid—a single to left by Marcus Semien—was just about the only hard contact he allowed all day. Every other at-bat was a parade of empty swings against his hard fastball and diving splitter. Here, watch this highlight video, and put a bib on to catch the drool that’s going to spill out of your mouth.

It’s crazy to think about any rookie coming up and hitting for those numbers or pitching like that. It’s even wilder to think about a rookie doing that while also adjusting to a new league in a foreign country against the best players on earth. And it’s positively brain-shattering to realize that Ohtani is accomplishing both of those things at once, making it look frighteningly easy to boot. What he’s doing hasn’t been attempted in decades or pulled off in nearly a century. Want proof? The last player to pick up two wins as a pitcher and homer three times as a hitter in his team’s first 10 games: Washington Senators righty Jim Shaw, who did it all the way back in 1919.

The early 20th-century star that Ohtani will invariably draw the most comparisons too, though, isn’t the man rather rudely known as “Grunting Jim,” but the player whose sobriquet was simply “Babe.” A hundred years ago, 23-year-old Red Sox lefty George Herman Ruth led the majors in home runs with 11, hit .300/.411/.555 in 382 plate appearances, and posted a 2.22 ERA in 166 1/3 innings over 19 starts. A year later, he broke MLB’s single-season home run record with 29 dingers and finished with a 2.97 ERA in 133 1/3 innings. That was the last season in which he was a regular starter. Wanting to play full-time, Ruth became an outfielder upon joining the Yankees in 1920, when he ascended to true superstardom. No one has reached those heights as a two-way player since then.

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Ruth is the easy comparison for Ohtani, and understandably, it’s also heavy and fraught. No one, no matter the numbers, should be measured against one of the greatest players of all-time. And yet this is the company Ohtani already finds himself in because of what he seems capable of. As a hitter, he’s blessed with plus power, and as a pitcher, he features easy velocity and that wipeout splitter. This is the version of Ohtani we were promised when scouts filed rave reports from Japan of the man who threw 100 mph and hit 500-foot home runs. Spring training—when that same Ohtani was battered by B-lineups and looked as if he’d never seen a breaking pitch in his life—left some thinking that he needed time in Triple A, or that those scouting reports must have been fueled by too many Sapporos. The truth, as always, is that spring training doesn’t matter: Once the games counted, the real Ohtani showed up, and he looks even better than advertised.

The biggest question with Ohtani was whether reality could match the hype, but after Sunday’s start and the week he put together, we’re now left to wonder if the bar wasn’t raised high enough. The tools Ohtani has put on display are those of an MVP-level player on both sides of the ball. No one could have imagined this start or these results, or how easy he’s made it look. In the second outing of his major league career, Ohtani was eight outs away from a perfect game, and the craziest thing about it is that it’s doubtful anyone would’ve been surprised if he’d finished it, given how good his stuff is. Ohtani hasn’t just met the expectations; he’s blown right by them.

Every April stat should be taken with a pillar of salt, and every early-season performance should invite skepticism and restraint, regardless of how good or bad it is. But that’s a tough task when presented with someone as jaw-dropping as Ohtani, who in just two starts and four games’ worth of at-bats already promises to be something truly special. Maybe this all blows up and we look back on this first week of April not as the beginning of something but a fleeting glimpse of unfulfilled brilliance. Or maybe this terrific start keeps going, and Ohtani becomes the player who takes those Ruth comparisons and makes them reality. The truth will likely be somewhere in between, but for now, disregard that April advice and let your imagination run wild. In Ohtani, MLB may have found its next game-changing superstar. Let’s all hope that’s the case.

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