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The Myth of Shohei Ohtani Is Proving to Be Real Once Again

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There was a point last year when it was easy to feel that Shohei Ohtani was simply a good baseball player.

Of course, “a good baseball player” is not a bad thing, no matter the context. But it could have felt like a bit of a letdown here. It was a revision of the old conventional wisdom on Ohtani—which was that he was a unicorn, a miracle, a revelation unto himself.

Angels pitcher and DH Shohei Ohtani

Ohtani’s early career had been perfectly suited to mythmaking. As he played in Japan, stories about him traveled stateside, growing into a particular sort of baseball legend. He was the type of player that was not supposed to exist anymore—equal parts ace and slugger. “Babe Ruth, only cooler, and maybe even better” was the sort of thing you might hear said about him with a straight face. And when he entered MLB with the Angels in 2018, he became Rookie of the Year, playing up to those high expectations. But the story gradually started to unravel from there. Ohtani underwent Tommy John surgery and did not pitch in 2019. Although he was supposed to return to the rotation in 2020, he unraveled in his first two outings and was soon diagnosed with an elbow injury that would keep him from pitching for the rest of the year, and his performance at the plate dipped, too.

This spring, then, Ohtani looked like a good baseball player coming off a bad year. Which is fine! But it shook the foundations of the original legend. Perhaps Ohtani is not a marvel after all, you might have thought quite reasonably. Perhaps he is simply a good baseball player.

But this season has been a delightful exercise in building the legend back up. Ohtani has used seemingly every game to remind you that he can do not just anything but everything.

On Wednesday against the Royals, Ohtani started the first inning by turning a routine groundout into a gasping, frenetic highlight of base hit:

That’s serious speed. (It’s the third-fastest home-to-first time recorded this season, by any player, per Daren Willman of Statcast.) But what’s perhaps most remarkable about it is that it isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for Ohtani. Just look at the leader board for sprint speed:

MLB sprint speed

That’s the collection of up-the-middle types you’d expect—speedy middle infielders and center fielders—and Ohtani. A DH in the top 10! That is not supposed to happen. And, of course, it only looks sillier when you sketch in the context around it. This speed-demon designated hitter is also a pitcher.

That was just the first inning. Naturally Ohtani had more to show. Here he is from later in the evening: the sort of home run that does not just sound like a home run but feels like a home run, true and fierce, demanding that everyone stand and bear witness.

Ohtani’s highlights from this season read like hyperbole, as if the lines are ripped from a baseball edition of the Most Interesting Man in the World, with him as the walking advertisement for MLB. He has pulled off one of the fastest sprints from home to first. He has thrown a 101-mph pitch. He has connected on a 119-mph hit. (At one point earlier this year, he boasted both the fastest pitch by a starting pitcher and the hardest hit by a hitter.) This is not to suggest that his season has been perfectly smooth: He missed his last start with a blister, a reminder of the fragility of two-way play, though he did throw a bullpen session on Monday. But, if nothing else, it has been a reminder of just how singular a player he is. Ohtani’s talents can still feel mythical—and at the same time prove themselves to be very, very real.

Quick Hits

• It’s hard to say that a pitching duel could exceed expectations when it’s between Lucas Giolito and Shane Bieber because, well, those are some high expectations. But Wednesday’s game between Chicago and Cleveland came awfully close. Neither pitcher allowed a run—Giolito threw seven innings of three-hit ball with eight Ks while Bieber threw nine innings with three hits and 11 Ks. While Cleveland ultimately won, 2–0, in 10 innings, it’s hard to argue that the real winner here wasn’t the viewer.

Just look at Giolito’s changeup …

... and Bieber’s knuckle-curve.

• The Mets took both games of a doubleheader from the Phillies—with a walk-off single in extras from Jonathan Villar in Game 1 and with six shutout innings from Marcus Stroman in Game 2. Meet the first-place Mets. (For now, at least, by one game.)

• That hot start from rookie Akil Baddoo? Still hot. He hit his fourth home run of the season in the Tigers’ 8–2 win over the Astros.

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Welcome to the Age of Learned Velocity
Jacob deGrom Isn't as Unlucky as You Think
Remembering the Best (and Worst) of Pitchers at the Plate