The ball had not left the pitcher’s glove when ESPN announcer Matt Vasgersian murmured “first pitch swinging,” as if he knew that Shohei Ohtani—having just left the mound himself—would be eager to demonstrate his two-way skills without delay. Swing Ohtani did; at a chest-high fastball that required the 26-year-old to stand nearly all of his 6-feet-4-inches tall, slicing his bat horizontal through the zone. Normally when you hear this sound it means you’re about to be crushed beneath a falling tree:
That’s the sound of Shohei Ohtani smashing a baseball, and maybe smashing a big baseball idea as well: That players should hit or pitch, and not both. It’s a principle more fundamental to baseball than any other, one older than almost every ballpark.
Ohtani is the first starting pitcher to bat second since 1903. He’s the third to hit for himself in the American League since the introduction of the designated hitter in 1976. Even Babe Ruth, the sport’s most famous “two-way” player, gave up regular pitching starts when he started to belt home runs every other game. Ohtani is trying to turn a full century of baseball wisdom on its head. How could you not root for the guy?
His 451-foot home run left the bat at 115.2 mph, good enough to not only mark it as the hardest-hit home run of this young season but also as the hardest-hit home run by a Los Angeles Angels player since 2015. Reminder: This is a team that has the best player in baseball, Mike Trout, as well as sluggers Anthony Rendon, Justin Upton, oh, and an older fellow named Albert Pujols.
Then again, we knew Ohtani could hit home runs. Based on his stats since he debuted as AL Rookie of the Year in 2018, he ought to manage about 30 if he can stay healthy all year.
It’s on the mound that the Japanese phenom is the subject of the most scrutiny. He missed all of 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery and pitched just 1.2 innings in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
Well, here too Ohtaniheads have good news to report: In addition to hitting the hardest home run of the season, he also threw the league’s fastest pitch of the season for a starter, at 100.6 mph.* He hit trips a few times, and generally overpowered a strong Chicago White Sox lineup, with seven strikeouts in 4.2 innings. His command was shaky—he walked five—and his debut was blemished by a freak play on what should have been a night-capping strikeout to end the fifth. Instead the swinging Strike 3 turned into an error-strewn two-run nightmare that culminated in reigning AL MVP José Abreu taking out Ohtani at the plate. (He’s fine, thank God.)
So, one game. Just one two-way game. We’re only 4.2 innings and 16 at-bats into Ohtani’s season. But even the hint of a season no one alive has seen before has baseball fans in a state of excitement. On the one hand, it’s a comeback story: Ohtani’s unprecedented promise as a pitcher-slugger appeared to be threatened by injuries; he hasn’t thrown 100 innings since he was a 21-year-old in Hokkaido with the Nippon-Ham Fighters. Sunday night, he showed his stuff still has league-leading nastiness.
On the other hand, he’s already doing something much greater than that: Ohtani is sticking it to baseball’s old gods, the constellation of cranky fans, staff, announcers, and players who believe in a way of doing things. The people who don’t like the chains, the bat flips, or the spirit of exuberance that has accompanied the arrival of so many young Latino stars and invigorated the sport. It’s not that anyone would ever accuse the modest Ohtani of disrespecting the game by doing something no one has done in a hundred years, but you know they didn’t think he could, or should, do it.
It’s already clear that Ohtani is one of a murderer’s row of Southern California baseball superstars—Trout, Fernando Tatis Jr., Mookie Betts—who feel like must-watch TV, at bat and in the field. Or they would be, anyway, if their games weren’t played after most of America’s kids have gone to bed.
Is Ohtani a once-in-a-century talent? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, we can just say that he’s a product of a Japanese baseball culture that permitted his two-way gambit to flourish. I don’t know that it could have happened here. Maybe it can now.
Correction, April 5, 2021: This piece originally misstated that Ohtani threw the fastest pitch this season among all pitchers. He threw the fastest pitch among starting pitchers.