Shohei Ohtani was making a case for running away with American League Rookie of the Year honors, defying the odds by living up to all the Babe-Ruth-of-Japan talk, at least until Gleyber Torres showed up and started making his own uber-prospect hype look conservative.
So now the Rookie of the Year race already feels like one for the ages, and at this point Ohtani still has to get an edge as the favorite, simply because he truly is the first to excel at both pitching and hitting in the big leagues since The Babe.
And yet Torres can’t be counted out, for almost nightly he is accomplishing feats that no Yankee has done at such a young age since Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio. Or in some cases no one ever.
This weekend we’ll get to see both of them at the Stadium as the Yankees host the Angels, and the shame of it, of course, is that they won’t get to match up, after Mike Scioscia announced Thursday that they’re pushing Ohtani’s scheduled Sunday start back as a way of managing his “workload.”
It seems a bit strange considering the Angels have been careful with Ohtani all season, starting him just once a week at the earliest, while giving him eight days between one start and then 12 between another start after he turned his ankle in the Yankees’ series in Anaheim.
However, much as I’d like to suggest the Angels somehow fear exposing him to Yankee Stadium against the Murderers’ Row lineup that is on a historic home-run tear, their decision probably is the result of Ohtani throwing a season-high 110 pitches over a season-high 7 2/3 innings last Sunday against the Rays.
Perhaps more to the point, you can’t forget that, because of a leg injury, Ohtani threw only 25 1/3 innings for his Japanese team last year.
And at age 23, his career high in innings pitched for any one season is 160, so as impressive as the righthander has been on the mound, 4-1 with a 3.35 ERA in seven starts with that wipeout splitter, the Angels are going to be very protective of his arm.
Too bad. It would have been great theater, Ohtani taking on the Yankees and their major league-leading 79 home runs. And while Aaron Judge, who hit a towering, 471-foot blast in Texas on Wednesday, and Giancarlo Stanton are the monsters who make the lineup particularly imposing, it’s Torres who actually has the best home run ratio, one in every 11.6 at-bats, on the team.
He’s also their hottest hitter, with five home runs over his last five games, and he continues to astonish observers not only with his talent but his instincts and smarts, offensively as well as defensively at second base.
As David Cone pointed out on the YES telecast Wednesday night, Torres seems to have a knack for making adjustments not only from game-to-game and at-bat to at-bat, but sometimes within a single at-bat.
When he hit his home run in the fifth inning, for example, Torres recognized that Doug Fister was pounding him inside, and with an 0-2 count, he pulled his hands in to get to a fastball inside off the plate, driving the ball over the left-field fence.
“He can do that,” an AL scout said Thursday, “because he’s so short and quick to the ball with his swing, and it looks like he does have a great idea of what the pitcher wants to do with him. He’s special.”
Yes, it’s becoming clear that Aaron Boone undersold his new second baseman when he said that Torres, upon his arrival a month or so ago, wouldn’t necessarily wow anyone with a particular skill as much as he’d impress everyone as a complete player.
Now the question is whether this power he’s showing will translate long-term. He’s not hitting any cheapies, but pitchers often want to find out if newcomers can handle their fastball, and since Torres is leaving no doubt about that, expect them to test him with more off-speed stuff pretty soon.
The same is largely true of Ohtani. Hitters in Japan don’t face nearly as much high velocity as they see in the big leagues, and in spring training he was mostly overmatched by fastballs.
But he ditched his leg kick at the end of spring training, and since then Ohtani has had no trouble catching up to high heat. In fact, he stunned Luis Severino during the Yankees’ series in Anaheim by launching a 97-mph fastball that was inside, off the plate by a few inches, for a home run to right.
Much as the case was with Torres’ home run in Texas Wednesday night, Ohtani pulled his hands in and got the barrel to a pitch that would have handcuffed most hitters in the big leagues.
“They’re both very gifted,” the scout said. “The guys I talked to who saw Ohtani in Japan had no doubt he could pitch over here. The stuff is the stuff. There were more questions about the hitting, because you’re facing a higher level of pitching here, but he’s proving he can do it.”
It’s the reason the Yankees were highly disappointed when told he wanted to play on the West Coast. Had they signed him, Ohtani would be their primary DH, as well one of their starting pitchers, which means they wouldn’t have traded for Giancarlo Stanton, and likely spent money elsewhere, maybe even on Yu Darvish.
On the other hand, only the perfect storm – the Cubs trying to win their first championship in 108 years – could have landed the Yankees a prospect as coveted as Torres for three months of Aroldis Chapman.
So now the only question is which player, Ohtani or Torres, will have more impact as they battle it out for the Rookie of the Year Award, and, who knows, perhaps MVP consideration as well.