With a pair of home runs against the New York Yankees in the Bronx on Tuesday night, Shohei Ohtani continued what has been nothing less than a remarkable 2021 season. Ohtani’s homers — Nos. 27 and 28 on the year — vaulted him into the MLB lead ahead of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and gave him four in his past three games. Since June 15, the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way sensation has 11 home runs in 13 games, to go with two starts (and a 1.50 ERA) as a pitcher over that span. Whether at the plate or on the mound, everything Ohtani does is impressive.
As I wrote in May, this is a modern Babe Ruth season. But that might be understating what Ohtani has been doing. According to Baseball-Reference.com’s wins above replacement, Ohtani is on pace for 11.7 total WAR per 162 games this year, including 6.7 as a position player and 5.0 as a pitcher. That would be an astronomical tally — none of teammate Mike Trout’s seasons have reached that level; in fact, it hasn’t been done since Barry Bonds in 2002. But even more remarkably, no player in AL or NL history has even come close to producing 5 WAR on both sides of the ball in the same season. Ruth’s best two-way year saw him put up 6.0 WAR as a batter and 3.0 WAR as a pitcher in 1918, one of his last seasons before becoming a full-time outfielder.
When even the canonical example of a two-way baseball superstar fails to measure up, that means it’s pretty hard to find parallels for Ohtani’s 2021 performance. But it’s not impossible. After Baseball-Reference officially added statistics from the Negro Leagues to its major league records earlier this month, it opened up a lot of new comparisons in the data that weren’t possible before. Because of that, we have a chance to highlight another player that essentially did what Ohtani is doing right now — Bullet Rogan of the Kansas City Monarchs in the 1920s and ’30s.
We’ve talked about Rogan’s two-way prowess before, and we found that his most similar current comparison would be if a single player was like Ronald Acuña Jr. at the plate and Gerrit Cole on the mound. (Which is basically a description of Ohtani, too, if you think about it.) But that was before Baseball-Reference incorporated data from the Seamheads Negro Leagues database into its canon. The numbers now on the site make Rogan’s career look just as impressive: Despite playing in leagues with schedule lengths that usually ranged from 60 to 100 games per season, he produced 23.7 WAR as a batter and 37.8 as a pitcher, for a grand total of 61.5 career WAR — or more than 99.3 percent of all MLB players since 1901. (He and Ruth are also the only players with at least 20 career WAR as both a batter and a pitcher.)
If we account for the shorter schedules he played, Rogan’s numbers get really extraordinary. On a per-162-game basis, he had six seasons with a pace of 10 or more WAR, including five straight from 1921 through 1925. Rogan produced at an average pace of 14.9 WAR per season over the first three of those seasons, then had a “down” year of 10.4 WAR per 162 (also known as 0.1 less than Trout’s best-ever season) and bounced back in 1925 to generate a staggering 18.8 WAR per 162 games, helping the Monarchs win the Negro National League title for the third year in a row. (They would lose the Negro Leagues’ World Series that year because Rogan was injured — he didn’t play after his young son accidentally stabbed him in the knee with a sewing needle.)
That 1925 campaign was the high point of Rogan’s career -- and one of the best seasons of any player in baseball history. However, while Rogan had a strong 3.9 WAR per 162 as a batter (to go with an exceptional 14.9 as a pitcher), it was not his finest two-way performance. Instead, that would have been 1922, when Rogan put up 8.7 WAR per 162 as a batter and 8.8 WAR per 162 as a pitcher -- an almost perfectly balanced season of all-time greatness.
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Ohtani’s 2021 -- again, with 6.7 WAR per 162 as a batter and 5.0 as a pitcher -- can’t quite touch Rogan’s performance from nearly a century ago. But Ohtani is tracking to join a Rogan-like club. If he finishes with even 4 WAR on both sides of the ball, his 2021 would become just the sixth season to meet that criteria since 1901. One of the others would be by Ed Rile, another great Negro Leaguer who excelled as both a batter and pitcher at various times in his long career; the remaining four were all Bullet Rogan’s.
|WAR per 162 Team Games|
|Player||Season||Team||As Batter||As Pitcher||Total|
It’s fair to call Ohtani the best player in baseball so far this season; his 5.7 combined WAR between batting and pitching is nearly one full win better than anyone else’s total. (Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler is second at 4.8.) He’s hitting so many home runs right now that it’s becoming impossible to keep track of which ones were hit which night. If he can stay healthy -- knock on wood! -- Ohtani’s 2021 will almost certainly go down as the best two-way season in the NL or AL since Babe Ruth, if not rank even higher. But as we watch Ohtani run roughshod over the league, we should also remember that Bullet Rogan did the same thing nearly 100 years earlier -- and now we have the stats to measure just how great he was in every phase of the game, too.
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CORRECTION (July 2, 2021, 7:35 a.m.): An earlier version of this article attributed the new Negro Leagues research to Baseball-Reference.com instead of Seamheads.com, which includes the work of many historians who studied and compiled Negro Leagues statistics. Baseball-Reference is publishing this data.