All-Star first: Ohtani starting on hill, as DH

July 13th, 2021

has been doing unprecedented things all year, and now he’s set to do it on the big stage, as the two-way star will start on the mound and bat leadoff for the American League team in the 2021 All-Star Game on Tuesday at Colorado’s Coors Field.

Ohtani, who leads the Majors in homers with 33, participated in the T-Mobile Home Run Derby on Monday night. He was ousted by the Nationals’ Juan Soto, 31-28, in the second swing-off of their first-round matchup.

Ohtani made history by becoming the first player in the history of the Midsummer Classic to be selected as an All-Star as both a position player and a pitcher, as he was voted in as the starting designated hitter by the fans and as a pitcher by the players.

“I was actually not expecting to be chosen as a pitcher at all,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “But to be named the starter, I was really not expecting that at all. But it's a huge honor and I'm going to try my best.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash, who will manage the AL squad, told Angels manager Joe Maddon last week that Ohtani would play both ways in the game but wasn’t sure what inning he would pitch. But it became official on Monday, as Cash announced that Ohtani will lead off the game and take the mound in the bottom of the first. The designated-hitter rule has been changed for the first time ever specifically to allow the American League to keep the DH after Ohtani exits.

“This is what the fans want to see,” Cash said. “It's personally what I want to see. And to have the opportunity to do something [involving] a generational talent is pretty special. I begged Major League Baseball to tweak the rule for [the] game, because if they didn't, I know I'd screw it up the rest of the way, pulling pinch-hitters and DHs.”

Normally, if the DH plays the field, the team forfeits the right to use the DH and the pitcher must then hit in that spot in the lineup. However, the rules have been adjusted for the All-Star Game so that even if Ohtani is taken out of the game as a pitcher, he can remain in the game as a DH, and also be replaced in that role. The only way the AL will lose the DH is if Ohtani (or one of his replacements at DH) were to play a position in the field other than pitcher, which is unlikely. The DH has been used in every All-Star Game -- even if the game is played at an NL ballpark like it will be this year -- going back to the 2011 contest in Arizona.

Beyond the fun factor, practical matters played into Cash’s decision to start Ohtani on the mound. Starting him only as a DH and possibly bringing him in the game later as a reliever would have been a routine Ohtani has not followed this season. But starting a game as both a pitcher and DH is something Ohtani has done previously.

“This is something that he has done for his team in Anaheim,” said Cash, “and I felt most comfortable that that's the right way to treat it.”

Ohtani, who follows Hideo Nomo (1995, NL) as the second Japanese pitcher to start an All-Star Game, is also looking forward to the opportunity, as it’s the first Midsummer Classic selection for the 27-year-old star.

“It’s my first time so I just want to enjoy everything,” Ohtani said. “There’s also the Home Run Derby, so I’m looking forward to taking it all in and enjoying everything.”

Ohtani’s talent has been on full display this season, as he’s seemingly setting new records every day and has been on an absolute tear over the past three weeks. He set an American League record with his 15th homer over his last 21 games on Friday, and it was a moonshot that went a Statcast-projected 463 feet into the top deck at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park. And it also tied the Japanese-born sensation for the most homers by a foreign-born player before the All-Star break, joining Sammy Sosa in 1998.

His play has Maddon conjuring up images of Babe Ruth, who was the last player to have this kind of success as a two-way player roughly 100 years ago. Ohtani and Ruth in 1921 are the only two players to make multiple starts on the mound while also leading the Majors in homers.

"You have to go back to Mr. Ruth to draw any comparisons,” Maddon said. “That just screams what this is all about. “We all romanticize what it would have been like to watch Babe Ruth play. He pitched, really? I mean, you hear this stuff and it’s a larger-than-life thought or concept. Now we’re living it. So don’t underestimate what we’re seeing.”

But showing off that kind of power isn’t unusual for Ohtani, who leads the Majors with five homers hit a projected 450 feet and four with an exit velocity of at least 116 mph. His 119-mph double off Royals right-hander Scott Barlow on April 12 remains the hardest-hit ball by any left-handed hitter since Statcast was introduced in 2015.

And on the mound, Ohtani is 4-1 with a 3.49 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 67 innings over 13 starts. He's reached 101.1 mph with his fastball -- Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole are the only starters to throw a harder fastball this year -- while possessing a dominant splitter that ranks among the game’s best pitches.

“The physical drain it would take to do both of those things is pretty incredible,” Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler said. "For him to do it for even 90 games is incredible.”

Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who will make his fourth career Midsummer Classic start opposite Ohtani on Tuesday, is amazed by Ohtani's athleticism.

"The demands that are on your body to be a pitcher are intense, to say the least," Scherzer said. "I could definitely speak to that. So to be able to shoulder those workloads and then also be able to hit as well, that’s just absolutely incredible. It takes an unbelievable athlete to be able to accomplish that, and obviously that’s what he is. He’s an incredible athlete, and I feel like that’s why you’re seeing some historic things come out of him and his first half and what he was able to do. It’s must-watch baseball anytime he’s on the field.”

If that’s not enough, Ohtani also has 12 stolen bases and ranks in the 92nd percentile in Statcast's sprint speed metric. He’s the only player in AL or NL history to have at least 33 homers and 12 stolen bases before the All-Star break.

“I personally think he's the most physically gifted baseball player that we've ever seen,” said Red Sox All-Star closer Matt Barnes. “I don't know that you're ever going to see somebody who can throw 101 and hit the ball 600 feet. So, I mean, he's a special player. He's incredibly talented, and hopefully he stays healthy and has a long career.”

Ohtani will be joined at the All-Star Game by Angels first baseman Jared Walsh, who has had an up-close view of Ohtani’s at-bats this season, while fellow superstar Mike Trout will miss the game with a right calf strain. But Walsh is excited to see what Ohtani can do this week.

"I don't think people realize how special he is,” Walsh said. “Once you see him in person, I mean, the ball comes off his bat like no one I've ever seen."