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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 4: Shohei Ohtani, two-way threat

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Shoehi Ohtani’s posting and signing late in 2017 was a big story last year, but it paled compared to the impact he had in 2018.

The hope was that Ohtani would be a fine major league pitcher who would spot in at DH once between starts and provide some occasional pop. In the event, the fine pitching was more than fine and the hitting was far better than anyone expected. He was a true two-way threat, the likes of which baseball has not seen in a century when Babe Ruth played both ways for the Boston Red Sox.

At the outset it didn’t look like it’d be that way. Ohtani struggled early in spring training, looking lost at the plate in Arizona. Once the season began, however, he turned it on, hitting .341/.383/.682 with four homers as the Angels’ DH in the first month of the season. He likewise turned heads as a pitcher early, striking out 12 in seven one-hit shutout innings against the Oakland Athletics on April 8, showcasing electric stuff. Not all of his outings were that good, of course, but the mere fact that he was making them while hitting a high level was unprecedented in living memory.

As the season wore on, the hitting continued to be exceptional and, actually, improved and, overall, his rookie year was tremendous. He posted a batting line of .285/.361/.564 (152 OPS+) with 22 home runs — 13 of them coming in August and September — 61 RBI, 59 runs scored, and 10 stolen bases in 367 plate appearances. On the mound, he went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA (126 ERA+) and a 63/22 K/BB ratio in 51.2 innings. Was that Babe Ruth? No, not exactly. But some argued that it was the equivalent of stapling Boog Powell to a young Tim Lincecum and turning them into one player. Which, eww, but that’s pretty cool!

You know by now, of course, that Ohtani’s season wasn’t all beer and Skittles. He was diagnosed with a sprained UCL in early June and that put his pitching on ice for a couple of months. With the exception of a single two-inning outing in September he simply stopped pitching and worked mostly full-time as a DH. Ohtani finally underwent Tommy John surgery after the season and will not pitch again until 2020. He is expected, however, to be able to hit more or less full time in the coming year.

The second coming of Babe Ruth? Not exactly, but that was always an unreasonable ask. He was something just as rare, though, and that made Shohei Ohtani‘s debut season a big, big story.

The Giants are winning but they’re still gonna sell

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The state of baseball in general, the state of the National League in particular and the state of the San Francisco Giants as a competitor are conspiring to create what seems like at least a mildly absurd situation.

The Giants, a veteran-laden team that, as recently as this past offseason but definitely within the past couple of years, were at least talking about being on a win-now footing, just swept a four-game series, have won five straight games and have won 12 of 14 to pull themselves to within two and a half games of a playoff spot.

Yet, that’s all for temporary show, because they’re about to sell off. At least according to Jeff Passan at ESPN. Giants president Farhan Zaidi tried to push back on that in a radio interview yesterday, denying that the club has foreclosed the possibility of a postseason push, but I’m not really buying that and I don’t think most people are.

On one level it makes sense to ignore the recent surge and forge on with a rebuild. Sure, the Giants are winning but they’re not exactly good. They’re two and a half out of the Wild Card, but there are many teams ahead of them. There’s a lot of reason to think that they’re playing in good fortune right now and that that, rather than finding some extra gear of sustainable better play, is what’s to credit. Hot streaks can happen at any time but the trade deadline only comes once a year. When you have the best starter available in Madison Bumgarner and the best reliever available in Will Smith, you gotta make those deals. That’s what I’d probably do if I ran the Giants and I think that that’s, wisely, what Zaidi will do.

Still, it’s an odd look, less for the Giants specifically than for baseball as a whole. We may in an era of cheap front offices who don’t like to contend if it means spending money, but it’s unfair to paint the Giants with that brush. They’ve spent money and acquired talent and have done whatever they can to extend their 2010-2014 mini-dynasty a few more years and in doing so they’ve made a lot of fans happy. That team has pretty much reached the end and, even in an earlier, more competitive era, they’d not be properly criticized for starting in on a rebuild. Heck, they’d be excused if they had done it a year or two earlier, frankly.

But, because so many teams have punted on improving themselves, these aging Giants are at least superficially competitive. As such, when they do sell off in the coming days, it’ll look to some like they’re waving a white flag or something when they’re not really doing that. I mean, the Rockies and the Pirates, among other teams, should be much better than they are but didn’t seem all that interested in improving, thereby helping the Giants look better, right? It’s less a knock on the Giants for rebuilding when they’re within striking distance of the playoffs than it is on the rest of the league for allowing a team like the Giants to be within striking distance of a playoff spot.

But that’s where we are right now. An insanely competitive Wild Card race from teams that, on the whole, are rather unconcerned with being competitive. What a time to be a baseball fan.