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THOMA COLUMN | Two-way Shohei: A trend that ain’t happening

Jul. 19—Shohei Ohtani has pretty much been granted the MVP Award by acclamation, and it’s hard to argue.

Certainly what he’s doing this year is nothing any of us have ever seen. He’s leading the majors in home runs and pitching well enough to start the All-Star game.

Which is not to claim that he’s the best starter in the American League. He isn’t close to that status.

He won’t, at his current pace, work enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.

Still, this is pretty much what he and the Angels hoped for when he came to American baseball. Well, the Angels probably hoped (and expected) that he would be more dominant on the mound than at the plate.

But he is a star both ways, and that’s impressive.

The general consensus is that you have to go back more than a century to find somebody doing this in the majors — Babe Ruth in 1918 and 1919, his last two seasons with the Red Sox.

In 1918 — a season halted early because of World War I — Ruth led the major leagues in homers (11) and went 13-7 with a 2.22 ERA in 167 innings. Then he won two games in the World Series as the Red Sox beat the Cubs. The Babe started 19 games as a pitcher, 13 at first base, 11 in center field and 46 in left.

The next season, he started 106 games in left and just 15 on the mound, with 133 innings pitched. He hit a then-record 29 homers and led the AL in runs scored and RBIs. As a pitcher, he was 9-5 with a 2.97 ERA.

And then he was traded to New York, where he became a full-time outfielder. He hit 54 homers in 1920 and never seriously pitched again.

Ruth was justly proud of his pitching exploits, but he (or his ghost writers) said repeatedly over the years that doing both in the majors was just too difficult to do for very long.

And when one looks at how strong his pitching lines were before he started playing in the field, and how well he did at the plate after abandoning pitching, it’s easy to believe that splitting the chores meant he couldn’t do either at full strength.

There were also some notable two-way stars in the Negro Leagues. Bullet Joe Rogan and Martin Dihigo both have plaques in Cooperstown.

And then there’s Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, not in the Hall of Fame but renowned for pitching one game of doubleheaders and catching the other.

But in the past half-century plus, the two-way players in pro ball have been rare and insignificant.

There are rumblings of others aiming to do what Ohtani is doing. Michael Lorenzen of the Reds, primarily a relief pitcher, has played some outfield in recent seasons, including six starts in 2019. Tampa Bay has been grooming Brendan McKay as both a pitcher and hitter, although McKay has only pitched so far in the majors.

But both Lorenzen and McKay have had injury issues — as has Ohtani.

It’s easy to believe that what Ohtani does, others can do. It’s also easy to assume that, having done this for half a season, Ohtani can keep doing this.

Neither is a safe bet. Ruth’s warning about the strain of pulling double duty is realistic.

We should treasure the remarkable spectacle of Ohtani doing double duty — and we should not take it for granted.

Edward Thoma is at Twitter: @bboutsider.

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