Los Angeles Angels' two-way star Shohei Ohtani giving Babe Ruth a run for his money

By Ben Verlander
FOX Sports MLB Analyst

The Great Bambino. The Sultan of Swat. The Colossus of Clout. The Babe. 

Babe Ruth is a name known not just by baseball fans, but by absolutely everyone.

Ruth is arguably the greatest hitter of all time. He was the first batter to hit 50 home runs in a season, the first to hit 60 home runs in a season and the first to amass 500 career homers.

When he made his major-league debut in 1914, baseball was a game more about pitching and running. Ruth changed that. He turned baseball into a hitter-dominant sport in which the crowd marveled at the possibility of seeing someone blast the ball over the fence. He quite literally changed the game and shaped it into what it looks like today.

In every sense of the word, Ruth is a legend. He became a legend with his play on the field, and he was always a talking point off the field, thanks to his well-known drinking habits and feats that remain mythical to this day.

In Game 3 of the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field, Ruth stepped to the plate in a tie ballgame, lifted his bat and pointed out to center field. As the legend goes, he then homered to center to give the Yankees the lead. 

Also — and this is important — Ruth is the most famous baseball player to both hit and pitch at the major-league level. He is remembered most for his hitting, but he was no slouch on the mound. In 1916, he won 23 games, threw nine shutouts, recorded 23 complete games and finished the season with a 1.75 ERA, lowest in the American League that season. He did it all.

He was featured in movies such as "The Sandlot." His name was connected to a candy bar, the "Baby Ruth," which the company claimed had nothing to do with him, but because of the perceived connection, the candy bar became a huge success.

Ruth died in 1948, but in all the years since his playing days, we’ve never ventured to compare anyone to "The Great Bambino" and his legend has only grown. 

Since Ruth's time, we’ve seen great hitters come and go. We’ve watched dominant pitchers, considered among the greatest to ever grace the mound. There have even been some players who changed the game through both avenues.

But none of them has been compared to Babe Ruth. No one has ever seemed worthy – until now.

Now, we have someone who not only is doing things that haven't been done since Ruth did them a century ago, but also is arguably doing them better.

That someone is Shohei Ohtani

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Ohtani was already a huge name when he came to the United States from Japan, where he played in the Nippon Professional Baseball league for five years starting at age 18. 

He was a two-way superstar in Japan. He was a hitter and a pitcher, and he did both at a very high level, earning five All-Star appearances and being named MVP of the league for the 2016 season.

In 2018, Ohtani decided to bring his talents to the U.S. to play Major League Baseball. There were multiple rounds of meetings with teams to decide where he would end up. 

It was important to Ohtani to be close-ish to home and to play somewhere that made it easier for his home country to watch. With the time difference, a typical 7:05 p.m. start time on the West Coast would be 11:05 a.m. in Japan, as opposed to 8 a.m. if the game were on the East Coast. As such, all of the East Coast teams were eliminated in the first round of Ohtani's decision.

He ultimately signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and with that, his MLB career was off and running.

His rookie season was stellar. He went 4-2 on the mound with a 3.31 ERA in 51.2 innings pitched and batted .285 with 22 home runs. It was enough to earn him American League Rookie of the Year honors for the 2018 season. 

What we saw from Ohtani that season was unprecedented in the majors. We had never seen anyone both pitch and hit at a high level — at least not in our lifetimes.

Now, for American players, what typically happens is they work their way up the minor-league system, and as they do so, it becomes apparent where they are more valuable: as pitchers or as position players.

That wasn’t the process for Ohtani. He had established himself in Japan as a two-way player, and he made it very clear that he wanted to do the same in MLB. He also didn’t go through a minor-league system. He went straight to the major leagues for his shot at the highest level.

With that 2018 campaign, Ohtani showed right away that he could both hit and pitch, but the doubters were still plentiful, and they were adamant that eventually, he would need to pick one or the other.

Those doubters got even louder in October 2018, when it was announced Ohtani would undergo Tommy John surgery and wouldn’t be able to pitch in the 2019 season. As a result, he served as a DH only in 2019 and put up good numbers, to the tune of a .286 batting average and 18 home runs.

Many believed Ohtani's days as a two-way player were over. But he was still determined to do both.

Once Ohtani was back on the mound in 2020, however, it didn’t take long to figure out that he was not the same pitcher. He started just two games that season, totaling 1.2 innings of work and recording an ERA of 37.80. His arm just wasn’t there. A pitcher known for touching triple digits with his fastball was topping out close to 90 mph.

He also struggled offensively in 2020, making it by far the worst year of his professional career, in Japan or the U.S.

The doubters appeared to be right. It was just too difficult to be both a position player and a pitcher at the major-league level. Any hope of seeing a player of Babe Ruth’s caliber was gone.

Or was it?

Heading into 2021, Ohtani still wanted to prove that he could do both. Fortunately for him — and baseball fans everywhere — Angels manager Joe Maddon was on board, and as the season began, it quickly became clear that Ohtani’s electric arm was back and, two-plus years after Tommy John surgery, he was good to go. 

Well, he was more than good to go.

At the halfway mark of this 2021 season, Shohei Ohtani is the front-runner for the AL MVP Award. He is doing things this season that haven’t been done since — you guessed it — Babe Ruth. 

On April 4, Ohtani took the mound for the Angels, but for the first time, he was going to hit as well. To that point, Ohtani hadn’t been batting on nights he pitched, but he was hitting so well that he forced the hand of Maddon, who put him second in the lineup.

Ohtani proceeded to hit a home run on the first pitch he saw.

On April 26, Ohtani became the first player in almost 100 years to start a game on the mound while leading the league in home runs. That hadn’t been done since June 13, 1921, when Ruth took the mound while leading the majors with 19 homers. 

Ohtani batted 2-for-3 with a double that night and pitched five innings, striking out nine batters and earning the win. 

On Friday in Anaheim, Ohtani hit two home runs, upping his season total to 30. 

That not only makes him the new franchise leader in home runs before the All-Star break, passing one Mike Trout, but also breaks the MLB record for home runs in a season with 10-plus games started as a pitcher.

The previous record? It of course belonged to Ruth, who hit 29 homers in the 1919 season. Ohtani has passed that, and we aren’t even a full week into July.

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At this point, the only useful comparison for Ohtani is Ruth. 

Just like Ruth did so long ago, Ohtani is now changing the game of baseball, and he's doing so with more than just his play on the field.

More eyes are on the game because of him. Fans are traveling to baseball stadiums to watch him play. After Ohtani hit two home runs at Yankee Stadium the other night, videos surfaced of Yankees fans cheering as he rounded the bases.

This is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetime.

Shohei Ohtani is becoming an American superstar. He’s pitching. He’s hitting. He’s bringing the baseball world together. 

And let's not forget that he is doing it all at an All-Star level, as was confirmed when he became the first player in MLB history to be named an All-Star as a pitcher and position player.

Right now, in 2021, we are witnessing perhaps the most remarkable season in the history of the game. As it stands, Ohtani is on pace for 60 home runs, 132 RBIs and 166 strikeouts on the mound. If he ends up with numbers anywhere near those, he is a lock for MVP.

Also, one thing Ohtani has that The Babe didn't is elite speed. Ohtani is the first player in AL history to record 30 home runs and 10 stolen bases in the first half of a season.

I could go on and on about the things Ohtani is doing, but what is equally impressive is the way he is growing and changing the game in front of our eyes.

Growing up, I always wanted to be a two-way star. Even after I got to college, that was my goal. But eventually, I had to pick one. Why? "Because you’ll never make it professionally as a two-way player," I was told. "That just doesn’t happen." 

Well, now it does.

Ohtani is paving the way for kids who want to both pitch and hit at the highest level. He has brought the baseball world together so we can all watch in awe as he puts together arguably the greatest season of our time.

The only comparable we have for this season came a century ago.

The difference, though?

Ohtani is doing it better than Ruth.

Ben Verlander is an MLB Analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the "Flippin' Bats" podcast. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Verlander was an All-American at Old Dominion University before he joined his brother, Justin, in Detroit as a 14th-round pick of the Tigers in 2013. He spent five years in the Tigers organization. Follow him on Twitter @Verly32.