A 2-way and a 2-time MVP in Ohtani, Bryce

November 19th, 2021

Theirs were among the most anticipated arrivals in MLB history. Shohei Ohtani was dubbed the “Japanese Babe Ruth” when he brought his two-way talent to the United States from Nippon Professional Baseball in 2018. Bryce Harper was christened “Baseball’s Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated when he was only 16 years old, and he signed the biggest free-agent contract in history in 2019.

So the Angels’ Ohtani and the Phillies’ Harper know a bit about hype.

And having been named the winners of 2021’s Most Valuable Player Awards in the American League and National League, respectively, by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on Thursday night on MLB Network, they know a bit about living up to it.

This MVP honor -- a first for Ohtani, who was the unanimous selection in the AL, and the second for Harper, who also won the NL prize with the Nationals in 2015 -- backs up the bold print so often attached to the names of two of baseball’s biggest superstars.

The 27-year-old Ohtani’s 2021 was one of the most extraordinary athletic achievements in history. And as has been the case with his teammate Mike Trout twice in the recent past, the MVP voters didn’t let his Angels’ sub-.500 record get in the way of recognizing his enormous -- and unprecedented -- value. Ohtani finished ahead of the Blue Jays’ Vlad Guerrero Jr. (who received 29 of 30 second-place votes) and Marcus Semien to become the 19th unanimous selection in history and first since -- coincidentally enough -- Harper in 2015.

“I’m extremely happy,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “I just want to say thank you to all the writers of the BBWAA that voted for me. My teammates, coaches, manager, everybody that was involved, including the training staff. And all the fans that supported me through thick and thin. And also my doctor that performed [Tommy John] surgery on me.”

Harper’s case was more complex. He wound up receiving 17 of 30 first-place votes and 348 voting points, trailed relatively closely by the Nationals’ Juan Soto (six first-place votes, 274 points) and the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. (two first-place votes, 244 points). The Giants’ Brandon Crawford (four) and the Nationals/Dodgers’ Trea Turner (one) also received first-place support and finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

Ultimately, in a year in which none of the MVP finalists were on clubs that reached October, the 29-year-old Harper’s late-season surge for a Phillies team whose contention hopes were hanging by a thread won out over Soto’s outlandish .465 on-base percentage.

“I’m overwhelmed, for sure,” an emotional Harper said. “This year was tough. It started out getting hit in the face [by a 97 mph fastball on April 28]. It was definitely a tough couple days for me, tough couple of weeks for me trying to get back. My teammates were incredible through the whole process of trying to get me back.”

The end result is that Ohtani and Harper became just the ninth pair of MVPs since the award was first handed out in 1931 to come from non-playoff teams and the first since George Bell (Blue Jays) and Andre Dawson (Cubs) in 1987.

Ohtani is the Angels’ sixth MVP and only the second Japanese-born MVP after Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. While it is technically true that he is the first designated hitter in history to win the MVP, it is also technically true that he is the 23rd pitcher to win this BBWAA honor.

But because Ohtani did both -- and did it exceptionally well -- he is in a category all his own.

One month after Commissioner Rob Manfred made Ohtani the first recipient of the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award since 2014, Ohtani has the MVP credentials to show for a season in which he batted .257/.372/.592 with 46 homers, 26 doubles, eight triples (an MLB-high), 100 RBIs, 103 runs and 26 stolen bases while also going 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 130 1/3 innings in 23 starts.

It all added up to a 9.1 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement and 8.1 FanGraphs WAR, both of which were the best in MLB.

Ohtani’s 158 OPS+ in 639 plate appearances ranked fifth in the Majors among qualified batters, and his 141 ERA+ in 130 1/3 innings ranked 17th among those with at least 100 innings. To put that in further context, third-place AL MVP finisher Marcus Semien had a lower OPS+ (133) and second-place AL Cy Young finisher Gerrit Cole had a lower ERA+ (133).

But what meant the most to Ohtani was merely being in the lineup enough to achieve those absurd stats.

“I feel like the fact that I was able to play in as many games as I did,” Ohtani said. “That’s the most proud part about this season. I really want to thank the trainers and medical staff that allowed me to get through and play as many games as I did.”

When Ohtani came to the States, it was an open question whether he’d be able to handle the physical and mental toll of playing both ways. Those questions became more pronounced when he suffered an elbow tear that required Tommy John surgery in his first year with the Angels.

But in 2021, with the reins loosened, Ohtani was the first player ever selected to the All-Star Game as both a pitcher and a position player. He was the first AL/NL player to make at least 10 starts and hit at least 30 home runs and the first to hit 10 or more home runs while striking out 100 batters.

So not even the great Ruth had a two-way turnout quite like Ohtani’s 2021.

“MVP is something I was shooting for, obviously,” Ohtani said. “I think any player is, as long as they are playing baseball professionally. But I was more appreciative of the fact that American fans, the whole U.S.A. baseball, was more accepting and welcoming of the whole two-way idea, compared to when I first started in Japan. It made the transition a lot easier for me, so I’m very thankful for that.”

Harper, meanwhile, is in the rare category of players to win the MVP with two different teams, joining Jimmie Foxx (Athletics and Red Sox), Frank Robinson (Reds and Orioles), Barry Bonds (Pirates and Giants) and Alex Rodriguez (Rangers and Yankees). He is just the 15th player to win two MVPs prior to his age-29 season, joining Ernie Banks, Johnny Bench, Bonds, Joe DiMaggio, Foxx, Juan Gonzalez, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Dale Murphy, Stan Musial, Hal Newhouser, Albert Pujols, Frank Thomas and Mike Trout.

In the third year of his mammoth 13-year, $330 million pact with the Phillies -- a free-agent record in both years and dollars -- Harper batted .309/.429/.615 with 35 homers, 84 RBIs and a 179 OPS+ that was the best in MLB. He was just the fourth outfielder in history with at least 100 runs, 100 walks, 40 doubles and 35 homers in a season.

The others? Ruth, Stan Musial and Bonds.

After the fastball to the face momentarily derailed his first half, Harper used the All-Star break to reset, then played like a man possessed in a second half in which he cranked out 49 extra-base hits with 65 walks for a Phillies team trying to claw its way to the top of the NL East.

“Being able to play every day in the second half, I was ready to go,” Harper said. “I wanted to play every single day for my city, Philadelphia, and the fanbase and my teammates and the organization.”

The Phillies ultimately fell 6 1/2 games shy of the eventual World Series champion Braves, but Harper’s 6.6 fWAR, which ranked second in the NL this season, was a big reason they were even relevant in September.

Harper came to the “City of Brotherly Love” wearing Phillie Phanatic cleats and embracing the pressure that comes with signing a high-profile deal in a sports-crazed region. Now, he is the Phillies’ eighth MVP and first since Jimmy Rollins in 2007.

Ohtani came to MLB trying to do what no AL or NL player had done in a century. Now, he’s the most original MVP of them all.

For both players, the hype was real. And in 2021, the hype was met.