NYT - Sports

With Shohei Ohtani, Baseball Embraces ‘Why Not?’

DENVER — Every All-Star knows the stress and the sacrifice that brought them here. Rising to the peak of a sport tends to require every bit of effort, mental and physical. None of them will say it came easily.

So when the members of the American and National League All-Star teams consider Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, they are awe-struck. They think of their own journeys and routines, and then double it.

“This is the top level of baseball, and he’s performing at the highest level on both sides,” said Matt Olson, the first baseman for the Oakland Athletics. “It’s crazy. Everybody that’s here, he’s doing both — pitchers and hitters. It is cool.”

Cool and crazy, incredible and improbable — but not impossible. That is what makes Ohtani so captivating. He will serve as the A.L.’s starting pitcher in Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Coors Field, and also as the leadoff hitter. At a time when the grand old game is often reduced to risk-averse equations, Ohtani lets us dream.

All of us — players, perhaps, most of all.

“Why not?” said the Mets’ Pete Alonso, who won his second Home Run Derby in a row Monday night, romping past Salvador Perez, Juan Soto and Trey Mancini. “That’s the thing in baseball. I think baseball needs the ‘Why not?’”

In the sport’s last national showcase, the final game of the World Series last fall, the Tampa Bay Rays pulled their starter, Blake Snell, from a shutout in the sixth inning. The Los Angeles Dodgers immediately pounced on the bullpen and soon clinched the title.

The Rays could not conceive of the possibility that Snell, who rarely pitched deep into games, might author the performance of a lifetime. They did not have faith in the unseen. Ohtani is demanding we believe in something that has never been done before.

“He’s creating the wave, right?” said Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole. “He’s in the front of the wake. I don’t see why not. I’m a dreamer, so I guess anything’s possible. We would have to get past that risk-reward in terms of hedging your bet or not. But people looking up to Shohei and seeing how he’s been able to do it and blow past expectations proves that it’s possible.”

Major League Baseball will fudge the rules a bit on Tuesday, allowing Ohtani to effectively serve as two players; even after he leaves the game as a pitcher, he could still get more at-bats as a hitter. His first plate appearance will come against Max Scherzer, who said his Washington Nationals teammates use Ohtani to tease him.

“I still haven’t gotten a hit,” said Scherzer, who is 0 for 30 this season. “This guy’s got 30 tanks and I don’t have a hit.”

Ohtani has actually ripped 33 homers, the most in the majors, to go with a 4-1 record, a 3.49 earned run average and 87 strikeouts in 67 innings. The Atlanta Braves’ Freddie Freeman, last year’s winner of the N.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award, said Ohtani could be the A.L. M.V.P. even if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays wins the Triple Crown.

Guerrero leads the league in batting average (.332) and runs batted in (73), to go with 28 home runs. But Ohtani’s overall contributions are astounding.

“I don’t know how you measure that,” Freeman said. “We’ve never seen that before in our lives.”

He’s right about that. While Ohtani is frequently compared to Babe Ruth as a world-class hitter and pitcher, Ruth never made 20 starts and had at least 200 plate appearances in the same season. With 13 starts this season — and almost 350 turns at bat — Ohtani could be the first to ever shoulder two such burdens.

“Babe didn’t do it like this all the time,” said Colorado Rockies Manager Bud Black, an All-Star coach. “To be that talented, this is like the high school shortstop who’s a great defender and then pitches the second game of the doubleheader — at the highest level possible, and statistically doing it better than anybody.”

As a pitcher, Ohtani’s splitter makes him especially hard to hit. Only one starter on a current major league roster, the All-Star Kevin Gausman of the San Francisco Giants, throws that pitch more often than Ohtani, who uses it 18.6 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs. He pitches aggressively with the splitter, putting it on the same plane as his elite fastball.

“The splitter is the biggest thing,” said Olson, who is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts against Ohtani. “He’s got the fastball in the upper 90s with a lot of ride, but to be able to have the splitter that comes straight down off of it and the ride that plays up, it gets halfway and you’ve got to decide which way it’s going. That combined with, he’s just got a fluid, flick-it motion.”

As a hitter, Ohtani has so much power and swings so hard that he does not have to hit a ball squarely to do damage. He offers few safe zones for pitchers.

“If you look at his scatter chart in terms of hard-hit balls, he’s got them littered up and away, up and in, down and away, down and in, from velocity to maybe more movement-accentuated pitches,” said Cole, who has faced Ohtani 12 times, allowing three hits and a walk. “It just forces you to be adjusting and executing at the same time, which is one of the toughest things to do.”

Olson does not have to pitch, and Cole very rarely hits. As a two-way player, Ohtani handles all of the challenges they describe — “He’s facing himself on both sides of the ball,” as Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler put it — and in Denver he will do it all, plus the Home Run Derby.

A body and mind can only take so much, but Ohtani is a showman with a sense of duty.

“I’m expecting to be pretty fatigued and exhausted after these two days,” he said through an interpreter on Monday afternoon. “But there’s a lot of people that want to watch it, and I want to make those guys happy, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

Alas, Ohtani sputtered on Monday night, needing 45 seconds for his first homer before rallying to tie the Nationals’ Soto in the first round. He matched Soto again in a tiebreaker but lost in a three-swing blitz, with Soto mashing three homers and Ohtani pulling a grounder to end his All-Star Game prelude.

“I’m going to get a lot of sleep,” Ohtani said. “As much sleep as I can.”

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