Only two years in age separate Ohtani and Judge, but in terms of public perception, they are of different generations.
S'pose you owned a Big League baseball team; and s'pose you had enough dough to acquire any player available, no matter the price. I realize that's a whole lot of s'posing to swallow in just one gulp, but just s'pose that were the case.
Which player would you rather have on your team, Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, or Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees? Ohtani is the first two-way threat in baseball since Babe Ruth of a century ago, and he's even more of a two-way threat than the Bambino was. Ruth was the best left-handed pitcher in the American League before transitioning into a full-time hitter, while Ohtani does both his hitting and his pitching at the same time, often in the same game. Of course, in the Babe's day the Designated Hitter Rule didn't exist, and all hitters had to play a defensive position in the field, not getting a chance to rest their legs. No one's legs, either back then or nowadays, could last very long under the strain of being a starting pitcher and playing every day in the field. This is not to diminish in any way what Ohtani has accomplished. No one else has ever done it. This year, he had a won-lost record of 15 and nine, with an ERA of 2.33 while batting .273 with 32 homers and 95 RBI. In 2021, he went nine and two with an ERA of 3.18 and he hit .257 with 46 round-trippers and 100 RBI, unanimously winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award, so he's not just a one-year wonder.
Meanwhile, Aaron Judge of the Yankees is coming off one of the greatest seasons that anyone has ever had. He set a record for most home runs ever in the American League with 62. He also led the league in runs batted in, runs scored, extra base hits, total bases, bases on balls, and on-base percentage. And he came within a whisker of winning the triple crown. Babe Ruth hit 60 homers in 1927, and Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961. Both were left-handed pull hitters who took full advantage of Yankee Stadium's short right field porch, whereas Judge is a right-handed batsman. Granted, he hit a few homers to right, but the vast majority of them were to the much more spacious left and center fields. No one suspects him of using performance enhancing drugs, as was the case with Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa when they broke home run records more than two decades ago. As a result, many consider Judge to be the real home run king.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Judge's record-breaking season is that he did it while in the glaring spotlight of Yankee Stadium. That isn't something to be taken lightly. For example, his teammate, Giancarlo Stanton, appeared to be a Goliath when playing with the Marlins and hitting 59 home runs before mostly empty seats, but he seems to have shrunken in size since joining the Yankees in 2018 and becoming just a supporting player to Judge. Ohtani is a big man at 6'4" and 210 pounds but not nearly as imposing as Judge, who is 6'7" and tips the scales at 280.
Only two years in age separate Ohtani and Judge, but in terms of public perception, they are of different generations. Ohtani is only 28, still considered young, but Judge has crossed the threshold into age 30, and is perceived as a middle-aged player. It makes a difference when calculating the length of contracts. Ohtani would still be in his 30s at the end of a 10-year deal while Judge would be 40 and perhaps all washed up. But maybe not. Everyone ages differently. JD Martinez seemed suddenly old this year at the age of 35, while Ted Williams turned 39 in 1957, the year he hit .388. Babe Ruth was 32 in 1927, when he had his greatest year.
For the sake of this discussion let's just s'pose you were going to sign one or the other -- or perhaps both -- of them (after all, money is no object) to a one-year deal. How high would you be willing to go? 40 million? 50? Higher? A hundred million for the two of them? All that dough for just one year? In the real world, of course, they are not both available at the same time. Judge is a free agent now and Ohtani is under contract until after 2023.
A word of warning: Do not assume that just because you sign a great player or two to a big contract you'll be guaranteed success. The Los Angeles Angels have not had a winning season for seven years, longer than any other team in the major leagues. During that time, they have had Mike Trout, who is considered by many, if not most, to be the best all-around player in the game, in their lineup. Now they have Shohei Ohtani, the two-way wonder who is rewriting baseball history, playing for them, too. And they still can't make the playoffs. The reason is simple -- they just aren't good enough as a team. They need a staff of good pitchers, not just one guy who is lights out. They need a lineup of good hitters, not just one good bat. The Dodgers, just across town in LA, have won their division in nine out of 10 years. Oh sure, they have Mookie Betts, but, like it or not, they also have one of the best teams in baseball.
Despite all of his in-season heroics this year, Judge, when he went hitless with seven whiffs in the first two playoff games against Cleveland, was lustily booed in Yankee Stadium. That's New York for ya: "What have you done for us lately?"
The Red Sox used to have the best team in baseball, remember? But that was four long years ago. Oh, how far the mighty have fallen.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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