Over the course of the 2021 MLB season, Shohei Ohtani has inspired the minds of baseball fans everywhere. No player since Babe Ruth has been able to do what Ohtani has done: pitch and hit at an elite level. However, even the Great Bambino failed to do what Ohtani is currently accomplishing. The ability hit and pitch at the same time.
We all know the story: Ruth started out as an elite southpaw before transitioning into a position-player role when he proved he could clobber the baseball like no other. But only briefly was Ruth ever really a “two-way” player. Only once, in 1918, did he have at least 150 innings pitched and 350 plate appearances. After that season, Ruth pitched in just 22 more games.
Plenty of ball-players have attempted to remain two-way players in MLB. Notably, Rick Ankiel attempted the task. He had a few successful pitching seasons early in his career (3.50 ERA in 2000) while hitting unspectacularly. Unfortunately, he developed a case of the yips and was unable to throw a strike, so he converted to a full-time outfielder where he had a fairly pedestrian career.
However, in 2021, Ohtani leads the majors with 31 home runs (on pace for 62, which would edge out Ruth’s best single season mark of 60) and a .705 slugging percentage. He can also run too, another thing the Babe couldn’t do. He leads the American League in triples with 4, and has 12 stolen bases.
In regards to his pitching, Ohtani throws a 100 mile-per-hour heater to accompany a devastating splitter. He’s got a 3.60 ERA (thanks to one blowup start in which he allowed 7 earned runs over just 0.2 innings pitched. Prior to that start his ERA was 2.58) and an elite strikeout rate (12.5 K/9).
It seems that Ohtani truly is one-of-a-kind. But he isn’t the first player to be able to be able to perform every aspect of baseball at an elite level.
I’ll allow Johnny Mize to introduce him.
“The greatest player I ever saw was a black man. He’s in the Hall of Fame, although not a lot of people have heard of him. His name is Martín Dihigo. I played with him in Santo Domingo in winter ball of 1943. He was the only guy I ever saw who could play all nine positions, run and was a switch-hitter. I thought I was havin’ a pretty good year myself down there and they were walkin’ him to get to me.” -Johnny Mize, Hall of Famer.
Now that MLB has officially recognized Negro League statistics, it would be incorrect to call Ohtani the only true two-way player. Because Martín Dihigo did it first.
A quick glance at his statistics will show that Dihigo was a fine ballplayer. A .307 lifetime batting average accompanied by a .918 career OPS are impressive enough. Throw in a couple home run titles and a batting champion as a member of the Cuban Stars East of the Eastern Colored League and you’ve got yourself a hall of famer.
Here’s where the Shohei Ohtani connection comes in. He could pitch too.
Dihigo posted a 3.34 ERA across 402 innings in three leagues. He was frequently used as both a started and a reliever. His career ERA+ sits at 141, 19% better than the Babe.
But those are just the official statistics now recognized by MLB. Every great Negro League ballplayer has a mysterious aura about them that derives from the unknown statistics accrued in unrecorded leagues.
As a Negro League ballplayer, Dihigo had to constantly play to earn a living. In addition to playing in the United States and his home country of Cuba, he pitched and hit in leagues in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela.
In Mexico, he allegedly authored an 18-2 record with a .90 ERA in 1938 as a member of the Veracruz Aguila, who ravaged the league with a 40-9 record.
Oh, he also won the batting title that year with a .387 mark.
He is credited with tossing the first no-hitter in Mexican League history.
His unofficial statistics place his career record at something close to 256 wins and 136 losses for a monstrous .653 winning percentage. If these stats were anywhere close to the truth, he’d place just below Sandy Koufax and just above Ron Guidry on the all time leaderboard in winning percentage.
Dihigo truly was the baseball Renaissance man. He finished his career as a player-manager before becoming a broadcaster and the Minister of Sport in Cuba.
Dihigo is the only person to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in all three of Cuba, Mexico and the United States.
If Ohtani is able to continue on his current career trajectory, he might be able to join Dihigo as the only two-way players in Cooperstown.
Similarly to another pitcher-hitter, Babe Ruth, Dihigo earned himself a fare share of nicknames due to his greatness. Most commonly, he is referred to as “El Maestro” in Mexico.
But I prefer his other nickname, the one bestowed upon him by the people of his homeland in Cuba.
Featured Photo: @Angels, baseballhall.org
Sources: baseball-reference.com mlb.com nlpba.com sabr.org statscrew.com “Cooperstown: Hall of Fame Players”; Publications International, Ltd. 2005