Major League Baseball has a lot of problems right now. There are mundane issues that dominate the news briefly but will disappear in a few days, like the Mets’ thumbs-down scandal. Some are relatively short-term but extremely serious topics, like the Trevor Bauer sexual assault case. Then there’s existential threats to the league itself, like the issues of pay for minor leaguers, blackouts, poor viewership and the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations.
However, shining through all of these issues is Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way star who is having one of the greatest seasons an American professional athlete has ever enjoyed.
On Monday night, Ohtani hit his MLB-leading 42nd home run of the season, just five shy of the Angels’ single season record. Back on July 7, Ohtani hit his 32nd home run, which broke Hideki Matsui’s record for most home runs in a season by a Japanese player. On April 13, Ohtani hit a 119-mph double that was the hardest hit ball by a left-handed hitter since Statcast began tracking exit velocity in 2015.
In addition to leading the majors in homers, Ohtani also leads the American League in slugging percentage and extra-base hits. For good measure, he is also fourth in the AL in stolen bases. He has been the best left-handed hitter in the game and also one of its most-lethal power-speed threats this season. No matter how you look at it, he is one of the best offensive players in baseball today.
However, that is not what makes Ohtani so special. On top of everything he does at the plate, he has also started 19 games on the mound for the Angels. This is what truly sets his 2021 season apart.
In his first season in the majors, he took home the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year honors and looked every bit the two-way star that he was billed as, hitting 22 home runs and starting 10 games, finishing with a 4-2 record and a 3.31 ERA.
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse for Ohtani over the next two seasons, at least on the mound. Despite playing 106 games for the Angels in 2019, he did not pitch at all, mostly because of injuries. In 2020, he made two starts on the mound but struggled immensely and played as a designated hitter for the rest of the season.
Coming into this year, many fans wondered if they had seen the end of Ohtani as a pitcher. He had shown much more promise with his bat than he had with his arm, and it looked as if his future may lie as a designated hitter and part-time outfielder.
However, he proved every person who had even the slightest inkling of that thought wrong. In his 19 starts this season, he is 8-1 with a 3.00 ERA. When you add that level of starting pitching to the incredible offensive season he is having, he is a lock to win MVP. More than that, I believe his 2021 season is the greatest single season that an American professional athlete has ever had.
He is both pitching and hitting at an elite level this season, two things that only one other player has done over the course of their entire career. That player is Babe Ruth, who most people recognize as the greatest baseball player who has ever lived.
The bottom line is that this Ohtani season cannot be taken for granted, as we may never see anything like this from him, or anyone else, ever again. It also came at the perfect time for baseball. As the sport fades in popularity and faces multiple existential crises, Ohtani is exactly what it needed.
Will Cunningham is a junior studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk to Will? Tweet him @willocunningham.