Sports | April 3, 2018 10:01 am

Just Like Babe Ruth, Divide Over Shohei Ohtani’s Future as Two-Way Player

Nearly 100 years, ago, Ruth went from an above-average two-way player to a one-way legend.

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitches.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty

“I don’t think a man can pitch in his regular turn and play some other position and keep the pace year after year. I can do it this season all right. I’m young and strong and don’t mind the work, but I wouldn’t guarantee to do it for many seasons.” – Babe Ruth, 1918

The year he gave that quote, Ruth went 13-7 in 19 starts with an ERA of just 2.22. The following year, Ruth made 15 starts and went 9-5 with a 2.97 ERA. Though he played in the major leagues through the 1935 season, 1919 was the last year Ruth was an everyday starter.

It’s probably no coincidence that he went on to hit 54 home runs in 1920 and followed that up by swatting another 59 in 1921, by far the highest two-year total of his career up until that point. There was opposition to the move off the mound at the time, but in hindsight the change clearly worked for the best.

In Los Angeles, about a century after Ruth went from a two-way player to a one-way star, the Angels may eventually consider making a similar transition with 23-year-old Shohei Ohtani.

In his brief MLB career, Ohtani has collected one hit as a batter (while hitting grounders of 95, 102 and 104 mph in the process) and one win as a pitcher (while topping out at 98 mph on the radar gun.) It’s not exactly a large enough sample size to make a case one way or another.

But, if Ohtani were to be transitioned to an exclusive role as a hitter or a pitcher, how would the Angels make the call? In order to give it some historical context, ESPN created an analytics department for the 1918 Red Sox and examined what sort of data was used in the Ruth decision.