The Japanese Babe Ruth. 15 comments


All sides have reached an agreement. Shohei Ohtani is cleared to come to the U.S. to play major league baseball.

He is being billed as the next Babe Ruth. That once in a century two-way player who can pitch, who can hit, who can do it all.

The legend of Babe Ruth is long and deep and about as pervasive as any American legend could be. It’s also not quite as accurate as you might believe.

Yes, Babe Ruth was an amazing pitcher. No denying that. And, yes, Babe Ruth was an amazing hitter. That is the understatement of all time.

But this legend that he was a two-way player, that he’d be a starting pitcher one day and then, the days he wasn’t pitching, he would play in the field, is only partially true.

He did that for only two seasons. In 1918 when he was mostly a pitcher, seeing what kind of a hitter he could really be if he were to play in the field. Then in 1919, when he was transforming from an occasional starter to a full-time position player.

Babe Ruth played twenty-two seasons. He was a two-way player in only two of them.

His first four seasons, with Boston, he was a pitcher. Because he could also hit, he would occasionally pinch hit, with the emphasis on occasionally.

His rookie season, 1914, he played in only five games total. Four as a pitcher. One as a pinch hitter. In 1915, he pitched in thirty-two games, and pinch hit ten times that season. In 1916, he pitched forty-four games, and pinch hit twenty-four times. And in 1917 he pitched forty-one games and pinch hit eleven times.

Ironically, he wasn’t that productive of a pinch hitter, going just 5-for-39, a .128 batting average. He batted .320 as a pitcher, though, over that four-year span.

Not one time in his first four seasons did he ever play in the field. He was a pitcher.

It wasn’t until 1918, his fifth season in the major leagues, that he played a position other than pitcher. That is when the experiment began to see if he should be a starter or a position player. That year, he played in ninety-five games, twenty as a pitcher. He started at first thirteen times, in left forty-six times, and in center twelve times, and pinch hit four times. In 1918, he led the league in home runs, with eleven.

In 1919, he was primarily an outfielder, pitching just nineteen games. As good of a pitcher as he was, and he was one of the best—his ERAs over that span were 2.44, 1.75, 2.22, and 2.97—the Red Sox wanted him to hit. That year he shattered the home run record, hitting twenty-nine.

He was traded to the Yankees for the 1920 season. Over the next sixteen glorious, historical, magical, legendary seasons, he pitched just five more games (going 5-0, by the way).

It’s hard to know whether the Red Sox would have continued allowing him to pitch had they not traded him. Giving Ruth only nineteen starts in 1919 suggests he wasn’t going to be in their regular rotation. And the trend from ’18 to ’19 suggested they were diminishing his role as a pitcher.

No matter, the Yankees wanted him as a hitter. A guy can do more damage, affect more wins, help a team win more championships, being in the lineup day in and day out, than he can every fourth day.

Even more so now considering a starter goes every fifth day, and only six innings a game at that.

So, as the legend of Shohei Ohtani is beginning, as the hype and the anticipation of baseball’s next two-way superstar builds, as the Japanese Babe Ruth prepares his assault on this continent, it’s worth taking a look at the legend that was the American Babe Ruth.

Babe Ruth was a two-way player for just two seasons. He was far too valuable as a hitter to mess with success.

Ohtani will probably be allowed to try it for a season or two as well until they decide where his skill level is with each, and where he is more likely to make the most impact. Either as a full-time starter. Or as a full-time hitter (and, I predict, an occasional relief pitcher).

I also predict he will, like Babe Ruth, be a Yankee