Why Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani is being compared to Babe Ruth

Fastballs over 100 mph and 500-foot home runs have MLB suitors flocking.

In this Nov. 19, 2015, file photo, Japan's starter Shohei Otani pitches against South Korea during the first inning of their semifinal game at the Premier12 world baseball tournament at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo.
In this Nov. 19, 2015, file photo, Japan's starter Shohei Otani pitches against South Korea during the first inning of their semifinal game at the Premier12 world baseball tournament at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo. –AP Photo/Toru Takahashi, File

Almost 100 years after Babe Ruth dominated baseball as both a hitter and pitcher, Major League Baseball might be on the verge of seeing another two-way superstar. His name is Shohei Ohtani, and MLB teams are lining up to sign him this offseason.

At 23, Ohtani is only beginning to enter his prime. Exactly what that will look like is unknown, but the Japanese star has the potential to be elite in multiple baseball disciplines.

Playing for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan, Ohtani essentially produced two great seasons in the same year. In 2016, he went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA as a starter, while simultaneously batting .322 and slugging .588 as an outfielder.

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His combination of both hitting and pitching has drawn numerous comparisons to a member of baseball royalty: Babe Ruth. Like Ruth, Ohtani has already established himself as a player capable of legendary feats. One of his pitches was clocked at 102.5 mph – the fastest in NPB in 2016 – and he’s also reportedly hit home runs spanning 500 feet.

Whether Ohtani can take the next step (as Ruth did when he joined the Yankees in 1920) remains to be seen. Facing MLB competition will be an increased challenge, while there will also be heightened scrutiny for Ohtani, especially if he persists in playing both as a pitcher and an outfielder.

Ruth’s time as a legitimate dual-threat player lasted only two seasons, both coming as a member of the Red Sox. In the 1918 and 1919 seasons, the “Great Bambino” hit a combined 40 home runs while batting .312. As a pitcher, he had a 2.55 ERA in 299.2 innings. Yet upon joining New York, Ruth all but abandoned his pitching duties. After throwing 1190.1 innings in six years in Boston, Ruth would pitch in just five games in his 15 seasons with the Yankees.

Ohtani, at least at the outset of his intended career in America, has a different goal. He wants to pursue both pitching and hitting. A memo from his agent, Nez Balelo, has told interested MLB teams to “evaluate Ohtani’s talent as a pitcher and as a hitter,” according to the Associated Press.

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Currently, Ohtani is waiting on the new posting agreement between MLB and NPB. If the vote on the new deal passes on Dec. 1, Ohtani will likely hit the market shortly afterward.

Teams can only offer Ohtani money from international signing pools due to current rules. Since he’s under 25 and has played fewer than six seasons professionally, Ohtani is designated as an “amateur international free agent.” The Texas Rangers can offer the most money ($3.535 million), as the team has spent less of their allotted international pool money. The Red Sox have far less remaining money to offer than rival bidders (especially the Yankees), but can try to recruit Ohtani nonetheless.

The expected entrance of Ohtani onto baseball’s biggest stage rekindles an ongoing debate of the best two-way players in MLB history. The story of the latest star from Japan – and his possible place in a discussion of two-way talents – begins this offseason.