HOUSTON -- It will be another couple weeks until we find out if Shohei Ohtani wins the American League Most Valuable Player Award presented by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. But Ohtani’s 2021 season was so extraordinary, so sensational, so unprecedented that Commissioner Rob Manfred has formally recognized it as historically significant.
Prior to Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, Manfred presented Ohtani with the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award. Commissioner Bud Selig created the honor in 1998, but this marked the first time Manfred has selected a recipient since succeeding Selig in 2015.
The award aims to salute those who, either with a particular feat in a particular year or within a longer career arc, make a major impact on the sport of baseball. And in becoming the sport’s first two-way All-Star -- starting for the AL as both a pitcher and a designated hitter -- Ohtani certainly did that.
“Over the next few years, I know that there are going to be many, many awards and accolades that come your way,” Manfred told Ohtani at a press conference announcing the award. “But I felt that 2021 was so special that it was important to recognize the historic achievement that took place in 2021 with an award just about 2021.”
Ohtani became the 16th recipient of the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award, which was crafted by Tiffany & Co. and features a sterling silver base with a gold baseball mounted at the top.
“This award is not given out every year, so I know how special it is,” Ohtani said through an interpreter. “I'm not fully sure if I really deserve it, but since Mr. Manfred's going to give it to me, I'm going to accept it.”
The past winners include:
• 1998: Cal Ripken Jr., in commemoration of the end of his legendary “Iron Man” streak of 2,632 consecutive games played
• 1998: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, for their record-breaking single-season home run record chase
• 2001: Barry Bonds, for setting a new single-season home run record with 73
• 2001: Rickey Henderson, for his all-time career records in stolen bases (1,406), walks (2,190, since broken by Bonds) and runs (2,295)
• 2001: Tony Gwynn, for his record-tying eight NL batting titles
• 2001: The Seattle Mariners, for their record-tying 116-win regular season
• 2004: Roger Clemens, for his 300th win and record seven Cy Young Awards
• 2005: Ichiro Suzuki, for his record-breaking single-season hit total in 2004 (262)
• 2006: Roberto Clemente, posthumously, during the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, for his outstanding career on the field and humanitarian contributions off it
• 2007: Rachel Robinson, on the 60th anniversary of her husband Jackie’s breaking of the color barrier and for her advancement of his legacy
• 2011: Ken Griffey Jr., for his great career and enormous popularity
• 2013: Mariano Rivera, who retired as the all-time saves leader (652)
• 2014: Vin Scully, for his 65 years as a baseball broadcaster
• 2014: Derek Jeter, for his postseason records for hits (200), runs (111) and total bases (302)
Throughout the 2021 season, statisticians scrambled to come up with past precedents for his various feats, such as when he became the first pitcher since Babe Ruth in 1921 to make a start while leading the Majors in home runs or the first pitcher since César Tovar in 1968 to start on the mound and in the leadoff spot.
But the truth is, Ohtani’s season was without precedent.
As a hitter, he had 46 home runs, 26 doubles, eight triples, 100 RBIs, 26 stolen bases, a .965 OPS and 103 runs scored. As a pitcher, he went 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 130 1/3 innings.
No American or National League player had previously made 10 starts and hit 30 home runs. And none had hit 10 or more home runs while striking out 100 batters.
“It's really extraordinary to find a human being who can perform at the highest level in Major League Baseball as both a pitcher and a position player,” Manfred said. “It takes courage and fortitude not to make the choice that players traditionally make, and it takes tremendous endurance to do both over the course of what is a grueling 162-game schedule.”
To put Ohtani’s season in proper context, consider how it stood up against two of the most recognizable stars on one of the most recognizable teams: Ohtani’s 158 OPS+ in 639 plate appearances ranked fifth in the Majors, ahead of Yankees slugger Aaron Judge (149). His 141 ERA+ in 130 1/3 innings ranked 17th among those with at least 100 innings, and it was better than that of AL Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole (133).
So with all due respect to Ruth, who had a brief tenure as a true two-way player in 1918-19, there had never been a season like Ohtani’s. It was a season made all the more impressive by the modern caliber of play and schedule demands. At the All-Star festivities, Ohtani participated in the Home Run Derby one night, then started on the mound and in the leadoff spot the next.
That was part of a trend in which Ohtani embraced all the attention that came with his unique skill set and, as such, served as one of the game’s greatest ambassadors. The Commissioner took notice.
“I think it was a huge timing benefit for us,” Manfred said. “Obviously, we had a very extensive effort directed at the internationalization of the game, things like [the London Game in 2019], that was truncated by the pandemic. And to have an international star like Shohei emerge this year was kind of perfect timing for us, because it helped us continue to grow the game internationally, which is one of our foremost goals.”
Ohtani hopes his season inspired the next generation of stars -- perhaps even two-way stars.
“I want to tell the kids to love the sport and have passion for it,” he said. “I played at the Little League [Classic] this year, and I met some of the Little League kids, and I really felt their passion and love for the sport. As long as they can keep that love and passion for the game, it will take them a long ways.”