Back in March, I called Shohei Ohtani “the most exciting baseball story of the year, or even the decade.” In the early days of baseball season, Ohtani certainly lived up to my characterization: He was hitting home runs like a slugger, and at one point, he took a perfect game into the seventh inning of a start against the Athletics. But then Ohtani felt something in his arm, and fulfilling critics’ prophesies that he would injure himself, tests showed that he had a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament and needed Tommy John surgery.
But wait — he didn’t! No, Ohtani just played on because of what makes him the most exciting player anyone’s seen in a long time: He’s not just a pitcher. He has also become the Angels’ primary designated hitter. And while he’s waiting until the end of the season to make a decision on Tommy John surgery, it seems only fair to reward him with a Rookie of the Year award for what has been by far the best — and most intriguing — season among American League rookies.
Just look at the numbers. At the plate so far, Ohtani has put together a .293/.371/.593 slash line, good for an .964 OPS (on-base plus slugging), along with 20 home runs and nine steals. At least in terms of raw statistics, that puts him far above the two other contenders for the award, the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andújar. Andújar is batting .299/.333/.522; his .855 OPS is more than 100 points below Ohtani’s. Torres, meanwhile, is batting .280/.349/.497, for an OPS of .846. I am a well-known Yankee hater, so I want to make it clear that both these players have had extremely impressive rookie seasons: Both, it seems, will contribute to the Yankees continuing to make the playoffs every season for years to come.
But we’re looking at very clear contrasts among offensive seasons: .964, .855 and .846 OPS marks. Although he doesn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the season-long leaderboards, Ohtani’s OPS would place fifth in the American League. Torres and Andújar do not even crack the top 10. And for good measure, Andújar has two stolen bases and Torres has five; Ohtani has nine.
Those against naming Ohtani MVP point to the relatively few appearances he’s made, compared to his two competitors for the award. Ohtani has played 91 games as a batter; Torres has played 110, and Andújar 136. But Ohtani hasn’t missed games for bad reasons: For months of the season, before his arm injury took him off the mound, Ohtani missed two to three games a week when the Angels held him out of the lineup before and after starts in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep his arm fresh.
But while he was on the mound, Ohtani was just as impressive as he was at the plate: In ten starts, Ohtani went 4-2 with a 3.31 Earned Run Average. In 51.2 innings pitched, he struck out 63 batters, which comes out to 11 strikeouts per nine. Ohtani’s potential on the mound was evident to anyone who saw him pitch: His breaking pitches were close to unhittable, and at times, his fastball approached 100 miles per hour. Obviously, whether he opts to undergo Tommy John surgery or not, Ohtani will not pitch for at least a year, but that doesn’t mean the starts he made this year didn’t count: This season, Ohtani was both a pitcher and a hitter, and he did both impressively.
Torres and Andújar both had good — almost great — seasons. But Ohtani was better. He was a better hitter than either competitor, and as if that wasn’t enough, he was also an elite starting pitcher. His arm troubles mean that he’s unlikely to repeat at least the pitching portion of his performance in the near future, but this year, it already happened. Shohei Ohtani may not have had the best rookie numbers of all time, but I don’t think I remember any other rookie season measuring up to his in terms of raw impressiveness.
For me, that’s the deciding factor. The two Yankees rookies vying for the award both had good seasons. But neither was a ridiculous, mind-blowing phenomenon whose very existence was thought to be almost impossible. Shohei Ohtani did something that, for decades, was something you just couldn’t do. For him to end the season without so much as an award for doing what no one has done since the early days of the 20th century? Unthinkable. Shohei Ohtani needs to be the American League Rookie of the Year.
James Schapiro ‘19 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.