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Shohei Ohtani Is Hammering That Damn Baseball

KANSAS CITY, MO - JUNE 17: Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani (17) follows through as he hits a solo hoe run in the seventh inning of an MLB game between the Los Angeles Angles and Kansas City Royals on June 17, 2023 at Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City, MO.
Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

Shohei Ohtani's bat has always been there. He arrived in the United States with the kind of strength, bat speed, and eye-hand coordination that translates into sustained success in any league. Save for the down season he at the plate during the plague-shortened 2020 season, Ohtani's performance as a hitter has been reliably excellent. At this point it feels safe to pencil him in for at least 35 homers, an OPS well above .800, and loads of extra-base hits across a full season's worth of at-bats.

For that reason, or perhaps because it's just difficult to hold the full picture of an impossibility like Ohtani in my head, I've found myself more often fascinated by his presence on the mound than at the plate. Being a consistently great starting pitcher is one of the hardest things to accomplish in sports. It's an endless tightrope walk that can turn gruesome at any moment. How Ohtani has gone about staying on that rope accounts for the best ongoing show in baseball. He arrived in the league with a 100 mph fastball and an unhittable splitter, and since then he's continued to evolve into an even more deadly version of himself. Now he throws a cutter, a sinker, a curveball, a changeup, and a slider/sweeper that has supplanted his splitter as his primary out pitch. He's learned to pitch backwards, wrong-footing and confusing hitters with breaking balls in unexpected counts. He gets locked in. He modulates his velocity. He experiments, tweaks, and invents freely, turning each start into a riveting expression of his athletic genius.

So you can't blame me for occasionally overlooking him as a hitter. Yes, I watch every home run highlight that comes across my Twitter timeline, but I only make a point to tune into Angels games when Ohtani is on the mound, because that's where the real crazy stuff happens. Unfortunately, Ohtani has spent the month of June demonstrating what a buffoon I am for living this way. The crazy stuff is happening all the time.

Here is the homer that Ohtani hit during Sunday's game against the Royals. It was his 24th of the season:

And here's one from last week against the Rangers:

Ohtani has hit 12 dingers in his last 19 games, and currently leads the Angels in just about every offensive statistical category, which really means something when you are teammates with Mike Trout. He leads the league in home runs, RBI, and total bases; every number in his .300/.384/.632 slash line is a career high. This is the best he's ever looked as a hitter, and the Angels are currently in the playoff picture because of it.

What's funny is that Ohtani doesn't seem to be doing anything all that different than what he usually does at the plate. Take a spin through his Baseball Savant page and you'll see that his underlying metrics—hard hit rate, barrel percentage, line drive percentage, chase rate, etc.—are all pretty much right where they have been throughout his career: in the upper echelons of the league. Ohtani's just a consistent and ferocious hitter going through one of those hot streaks in which the ball flies a little farther and tends to find a little more space to land in.

The difference between Ohtani and any other great good going through a streak like this is in the toll it takes on the mind of a baseball fan. Every time you think you've finally gotten your mind around Ohtani, that you've finally seen the limits of his abilities and made sense of how spectacular he is and what he means to the game, he goes and makes another leap forward. He might hit 50 dingers this year? He's sending balls out via routes only previously accessed by Barry Bonds?? He could win the Cy Young and have an OPS over 1.000??? How many times are we puny-minded baseball fans expected to confront the sublime over the course of one player's career? It's just too much, man. Too much, I say!

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