Choosing an Athlete of the Year is often a daunting task. There’s just so much to consider: Which criteria do you use? Stats? Leadership? Off-field accomplishments? All? None? A subjective mix? And then, which stats matter most? Which ones are most impressive? Which sport presents the toughest challenges for its participants?
Those are among the questions that require scrutiny most years, and they often produce hours of intense thought and debate. But other times, the answer is so clear that it seems silly to keep talking.
2021 was one of those years, and it’s all because of Shohei Ohtani.
What the norm-slaying, jaw-dropping, quasi-superhero unanimous AL MVP did this year for the Angels, and for baseball at large, was so amazing that it makes the debate over which athletes had the best season barely worth having. That’s why he’s the easy choice for The Sporting News’ 2021 Athlete of the Year.
Before we go on, we should point out that Ohtani’s season was so special and so unusual that we also chose it as the greatest individual season in the history of sports.
FAGAN: “Beyond incredible”: Ohtani left peers in awe in 2021
But in case you doubt, or just weren’t paying attention during the 2021 MLB season, let’s break down his unique greatness one more time to show why we should never, ever normalize Shohei Ohtani.
We’ll start with the basics: Ohtani hit 46 home runs, drove in 100 runs and scored 103 runs. He also had a league-leading eight triples. But dig deeper and the picture becomes even more clear and shows how much Ohtani separated himself from his competition. Consider:
— He hit a homer every 11.7 at-bats, the best in the American League.
— Nearly 33 percent of his fly balls end up as home runs, the best in all of baseball.
— He barreled the ball 78 times, also more than anyone else, and his 22.3 percent barrel percentage was also the best in MLB.
— His 20 intentional walks were easily most in the American League.
— Then there’s his “power-speed number,” a metric that attempts to measure the potency of a player’s combination of power and speed. Ohtani’s was 33.2 — of course, the best in all of baseball.
He also finished in the top five in a slew of offensive categories, including wRC+ (152), OPS (.965), hard-hit percentage (45.1) and total bases (318).
Still not convinced? OK, but it’s important to remember this: HE ALSO PITCHES!
Some people still don’t comprehend the enormity of this trait when discussing Ohtani’s prowess. It’s not just that he pitches, it’s that he pitches at an elite level to match his elite skills with the bat. As TSN’s Ryan Fagan put it in our 50 Greatest Seasons project, “Imagine Patrick Mahomes picking off passes as a safety or Alex Ovechkin putting on the big pads and posting shutouts as a goalie once a week. It’s silly to even think about.” Exactly.
The talent Ohtani displayed in 2021 wasn’t just rare, or even a once-a-generation thing. It was on a level beyond even that.
MLB hadn’t seen an elite two-way player since Babe Ruth more than 100 years ago. And though comparisons to Ruth remain common in discussions about Ohtani, it’s probably time to put the comparison to rest — because Ruth never had a season as good as Ohtani did in 2021.
His offense exploits aside, Ohtani was 9-2 on the mound, with a 3.18 ERA. He also struck out 156 batters in just over 130 innings. That’s a good year for anyone, but it’s extraordinary for a part-time pitcher. And he wasn’t just getting lucky outs. He was dominant and nasty.
He had four effective pitches, including a fastball that hit 101 mph. His most effective put-away pitch was his split-finger fastball, which generated a nearly 49 percent whiff rate and held opponents to an .087 average. The average exit velocity against him was around 88 mph, which means he consistently held batters to weak contact.
Overall, he held opponents to a .207 batting average and a .286 on-base percentage, meaning he kept hitters off base all season, which is literally the No. 1 job for a pitcher.
The total package added up to a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 9.0, according to Baseball Reference — you guessed it, better than anyone else in baseball.
While it’s fair to argue that Ohtani’s output as a hitter wasn’t the best in the American League, or that his performance as a pitcher wasn’t top-shelf compared with some other players, these arguments miss the point. Ohtani doesn’t need to produce best-in-the-league numbers in either place to have tremendous value.
Even a league-average pitcher who also hit double-digit homers would be a tremendous talent. Likewise, a league-average hitter with a triple-digit fastball and nasty breaking stuff would have an elite skill set.
But Ohtani is not league average on the mound or at the plate. He’s exceptionally above average, which makes him not historically unique — and makes awards such as AL MVP, Sporting News MLB Player of the Year and Sporting News Athlete of the Year no-brainers.
And none of this is lost on Ohtani’s fellow big leaguers. They’re constantly amazed by him too. Pitcher Marcus Stroman even called Ohtani “a mythical legend in human form.”
No lies detected, Stro.
By answer measurable metric, Ohtani’s 2021 season was not just historically good, but unprecedented — not just in baseball, but across all sports.
He was the best of the year. He was the best of any year.
The only question now is how much better he could get.
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