SHOHEI OHTANI, JACOB deGROM, AND THE BABE

As has been duly noted on these pages many times, baseball’s history is a rich one, indeed.

The Cincinnati Red Stockings played the first professional baseball game 152 years ago.

Led by another pair of Wright brothers — Harry and George, not Orville and Wilbur — the Red Stockings, precursors to Cincinnati’s Redlegs or the Reds, played baseball’s first pro game on May 4, 1869 against the Queen City’s amateur pack, Great Westerns.

The Red Stockings prevailed 45–9 and then kicked off pro ball’s first road trip, touring the country for 57 games and winning every single one.

George Wright was the professional game’s first superstar.

Batting out of the leadoff spot, he was otherworldly during that first season in 1869, belting 49 HRs among 304 hits (an average of nearly six per game), scoring 339 runs and boasting a .629 BA, while leading the Red Stockings to that perfect 58–0 record.

And he was a premier shortstop, a fact not lost on Deacon White, one of the real stars of the day, and the oldest player elected to the Hall of Fame, having a birthday — December 2, 1847 — that predates any other inductee, enshrined as a player.

“There isn’t an infielder in the game today who had anything on George Wright when it came to playing shortstop, and certainly there was none during his time,” White later said.

“George fielded hard-hit balls bare-handed, gathered them up or speared them when in the air with either hand. He was an expert and accurate thrower, being able to throw with either hand.”

It is unfathomable to imagine the template for a more prolific all-around player.

But those folks existed, in the Negro Leagues and elsewhere.

Oscar Charleston, whose career spanned from 1915-’41, was one.

The CF/1B’s play drew comparisons to Tris Speaker and Willie Mays — not bad company to keep.

Said former Negro Leagues player, major league coach and scout Buck O’Neil, of Charleston,

“Charlie was a tremendous left-handed hitter who could also bunt, steal a hundred bases a year and cover center field as well as anyone before him or since…He was like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker rolled into one.”

He was compared to Speaker for the way he played a shallow center field and ran everything down.

He was compared to Ruth for his power, and to Mays because he was a five-tool player.

Pundits and sabermetricians alike, within an historical abstract, have rated him the fourth-greatest all-around player ever, behind Ruth, Honus Wagner and Mays — better than Cobb or Speaker.

Like George Wright before him — who knew?

There were others…

Satchel Paige.

Josh Gibson.

John Henry “Pop” Lloyd.

Buck Leonard.

Turkey Stearnes.

Mule Suttles.

Ray Dandridge.

James “Cool Papa” Bell.

Willie Wells.

Smokey Joe Williams.

Christobel Torriente.

Martin Dihigo.

Judy Johnson.

Biz Mackey.

Monte Irvin.

Leon Day.

Negro Leagues legends represent an integral part of baseball’s history, as do its earliest professional players.

Over time there has been dramatic change, stark evolution between the white lines and beyond.

And in a game bursting at the seams with stats — aimed at defining greatness — subjectivity rules.

Who are today’s best all-around players?

Can a pitcher ever be considered a candidate?

Or, is the quest to find the answer reduced to a positional debate?

ESPN’s 2021 Top 25 MLB player rankings include one starting pitcher in the first five and six in all.

The starters so honored are #5 — Gerritt Cole; #6 — Jacob deGrom; #14 — Shane Bieber; #16 — Trevor Bauer; #18 — Walker Buehler; and #21 — Max Scherzer.

Their next grouping (#s 26–50) features Stephen Strasburg @ #30; Lucas Giolito @ #31; Clayton Kershaw @ #32; Blake Snell @ #36; Yu Darvish @ #37; Jack Flaherty @ #38; Tyler Glasnow @ #39; Luis Castillo @ #46; and Hyun-Jin Ryu @#50.

Nine starting pitchers of those 25 players selected.

Of #s 51–100, ESPN cites 17 starters.

That makes thirty-two starting pitchers in ESPN’s MLB Rank 2021 Top 100.

Shohei Ohtani, a SP/DH for the Los Angeles Angels checked in @ #73.

“Sho Time.”

In a way, Ohtani is the essence of a genuine “all-around” player; he is a pitcher who can hit and a hitter who can pitch.

Sound familiar?

Conjure an image of Ruth, perhaps?

The ever-proliferating industry of obscure baseball statistics has a godsend in Ohtani, who is — as we live and breathe — accomplishing the magnificent: achieving baroque baseball feats that haven’t been seen in the major leagues in decades, if ever.

Recently, he became the first player since 1900 to record 30 strikeouts and hit ten home runs in his team’s first thirty games.

Ohtani and Ruth are the only players in baseball history to post seasons with 30 strikeouts and 10 homers — and both did it twice, roughly 100 years apart.

Last month, Ohtani also became the first major league home run leader to make a pitching start since the Babe did it on June 13, 1921.

And at one point last month, Sho Time had delivered the unthinkable: he threw the hardest pitch of the season and hit a baseball with the highest exit velocity of the season.

WHAAT???

True.

Ohtani is hitting so well that manager Joe Maddon is encouraging him to swing the bat on the days he pitches, thereby relinquishing the Angels’ designated hitter option for the entire game.

And why not?

He hit for the cycle on June 13, 2019.

The 26-year-old even played an inning in left field in late-April, assuming a position on defense in a game, for the first time since 2014 in Japan.

Maddon has not ruled out using him in the field once in a while because “he can do anything.”

The only weakness in Shohei Ohtani’s incredible two-way portfolio these days, is his control, and it annoys him.

In his first four mound appearances, he has walked 19 batters; he’s issued eight of those bases-on-balls in the first inning.

“I think I’m just trying to rush everything and get out of the inning as quick as I can,” he said earlier this week through his translator.

“I need to slow down and not rush everything as much.”

In the meantime, on the mound, Ohtani features a 100-mph fastball, a slider and a nasty hook, all of which set up another pitch — the splitter — which is gaining a fearsome rep.

His splitter is nearly unhittable, generating 17 whiffs, five foul balls and a weak grounder on 23 swings this season.

With a 2.41 ERA complemented by some of the major leagues’ most prodigious power numbers at the plate — .276 BA; 10HRs; 26 RBI; .952 OPS — he is becoming a transcendent player, baseball’s most consistent two-way performer in many, many decades.

Homer # 10 surpassed his entire total in 44 games last season, and tied him with Boston’s J.D. Martinez and Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. for the MLB lead.

Also, he was 14th in the majors in top sprint speed last week, and his six stolen bases rank among the top ten.

If he can escape the injury bug’s stranglehold — nearly three years ago, his remarkable 2018 AL Rookie of the Year campaign ended with a torn elbow ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery — which would allow him to achieve consistency and longevity, only the sky and beyond will limit him.

Jacob deGrom — he of the 2021 0.68 ERA, 0.60 WHIP and .128 BAA — can hit too.

This season, he’s batting .467 with a 1.000 OPS, albeit over just 15 ABs.

He knows what he’s doing at the plate and indubitably on the hill.

But when you think of deGrom — as talented as he is — George Herman Ruth may not immediately come to mind.

With Ohtani?

Quite another story.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in May 2021.]

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Peter J. Kaplan

Peter J. Kaplan

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