Shohei Ohtani’s historic 2021 season can be summed up in one home run call from a May night in Anaheim, California.

Sam Hentges, a 198-cm Cleveland Indians left-hander, threw Ohtani a 151 kph (94 mph) fastball that was right down the middle, but far above the strike zone. As Indians catcher Rene Rivera reached up for it, Ohtani swung at a nearly neck-high pitch and somehow sent the ball high into the night sky for a home run to deep right.

In the broadcast booth, Matt Vasgersian made a call that essentially summed up what anyone who watched Ohtani this year has thought at some point or another.

“Oh my goodness, oh, my goodness!” Vasgersian shouted. “Shohei Ohtani, what can’t he do?”

After a year spent captivating fans and even fellow players as MLB’s first truly two-way player in nearly a century, Ohtani was unanimously named American League MVP for the 2021 season on Thursday.

“An MVP is something I was shooting for, I think any player is as long as they’re playing baseball professionally,” Ohtani said during the award announcement on MLB Network. “I was more appreciative that the fans, that all of baseball in the U.S. was more accepting and welcoming of the whole two-way idea compared to when I first started in Japan. So it made the transition a lot easier for me, so I’m very thankful for that.”

The 27-year-old is the 19th player to win the award unanimously and the first since Bryce Harper, then with the Washington Nationals, in the National League in 2015. Ohtani’s teammate Mike Trout was the last unanimous selection in the AL, winning in 2014.

“It was like watching Little League all over again,” Trout said in a congratulatory video posted to the Angels’ Twitter account. “Pitching, hitting, moving to the outfield late in games, what an incredible season to watch.”

Harper, now with the Philadelphia Phillies, is this season’s NL MVP.

Ohtani joins Seattle Mariners great Ichiro Suzuki, the AL MVP in 2001, as the only Japanese players to win an MVP award in the majors. He’s the first pitcher to be named MVP in the AL since Justin Verlander, then with the Detroit Tigers, in 2011.

The award is voted on by 30 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Ohtani was one of three finalists and beat out Toronto Blue Jays infielders Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien.

“I’m extremely happy,” Ohtani said. “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.”

In an era when two-way players are virtually unheard of, Ohtani made it look almost like second nature.

“It was definitely challenging, but I had a lot of fun with it,” Ohtani told MLB.com. “I felt like the expectations were high and I wanted to match those expectations.”

Ohtani, who was usually in the lineup as the Angels’ designated hitter, finished third in the majors with 46 home runs and fifth with a .965 on-base plus slugging percentage while also finishing with 100 RBIs and 26 stolen bases. He broke the record for home runs by a Japanese player in a single season, surpassing Hideki Matsui’s mark of 31, which had stood since 2004.

He also finished with eight triples, making him the first player in MLB history with at least 45 home runs, 25 stolen bases and five triples in a single season.

Shohei Ohtani was 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 23 starts on the mound this season. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Shohei Ohtani was 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 23 starts on the mound this season. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

Ohtani was 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA, 156 strikeouts and a 1.09 walks plus hits per innings pitched in 23 starts as a pitcher. He also possessed one of MLB’s most feared pitches, a splitter opponents only managed an MLB-low .087 against.

Ohtani had a strong finish on the mound, going 5-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 10 starts after the All-Star break. After walking 35 batters in 13 starts over the first half of the season, Ohtani walked just nine in the second half.

He led MLB with a 9.1 WAR, per Baseball Reference, far higher than Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler, who was second at 7.7. Semien’s 7.3 was the next best for a hitter.

Ohtani had the type of season fans have been dreaming about since he began his career in Japan with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in 2013 with the dream of being a two-way player.

Ohtani’s success in Japan, where he was the Pacific League MVP in 2016 and made that year’s Best Nine team as both pitcher and DH, gave him the leverage to convince an MLB team to let him try it in the majors when he went through the posting system during the 2017 offseason.

Ohtani was given days off before and after he pitched to compensate for the physical demands of his ambitious undertaking while with the Fighters and in his first three seasons in North America. This year, Angels manager Joe Maddon and the club removed those restrictions and unleashed Ohtani fully.

“He signed on to do exactly what he’s doing,” Maddon said during an NHK special about Ohtani that aired in October. “He came here for a specific reason: to do two things, not one. It’s his career. It’s not me, it’s him, and it’s not the Angels.

“He needed everybody to get out of the way. ‘Let me just go do what I came here for.’ And that’s what we’ve done.”

Rather than taking days off, Ohtani was a constant presence in the lineup even on days he pitched — he hit for himself in 20 of his 23 starts and played in 158 out of 162 games.

He became the first player in MLB history with at least 10 home runs and 100 strikeouts as a pitcher in the same season and the first to steal 20 bases and make at least 10 appearances on the mound in a single year.

Ohtani was also the first pitcher since Babe Ruth in 1919 to make multiple starts while also leading MLB in home runs — something he did 14 times in 2021.

“I’ve never seen a pitcher do what he’s done in my lifetime,” Barry Bonds, MLB’s all-time home run leader, said during an interview with Fuji TV last month.

He shone so brightly his exploits not only drew comparisons to Ruth, but also shined a light on some of the two-way stars from the Negro Leagues.

The Angels' Shohei Ohtani smiles during a game against the Mariners in Anaheim, California, on Sept. 26. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
The Angels’ Shohei Ohtani smiles during a game against the Mariners in Anaheim, California, on Sept. 26. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

Ohtani was named to the All-Star team in July, becoming the first player in history to be selected at two positions — pitcher and DH.

Ohtani was the Angels’ best hitter and top pitcher. His numbers at the plate are even more impressive when considering he did it in a lineup that was without Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon for most of the season due to injuries.

He moved the needle like few players have in recent memory. He brought casual fans into the game and there were times when boos would even ring out on the road when an opposing team walked him.

He charmed fans with the way he played the game and little things he did, such as picking up trash on the field and handing off bats to the ballboys and ball girls and quickly became one of the leagues most popular players. During the Home Run Derby, even other MLB players approached him for photos.

In September, Time Magazine named him one of The 100 Most Influential People of 2021 and earlier this month he became the first recipient of MLB’s Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award, in recognition of his historic season, since 2014.

The MVP award just adds to a busy awards season for Ohtani, who also won his first Silver Slugger Award, among other honors.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.