Brian Butterfield has been around baseball players since he was a toddler watching his father, Jack, coach at the University of Maine in the early 1960s.
In the years since, Butterfield has spent 41 seasons in pro ball as a minor league player and manager and a major league coach with five organizations.
He’s never seen anybody like Shohei Ohtani.
“You hear people compare what he’s doing to Babe Ruth,” Butterfield said. “Your first reaction is, ‘Nobody is Babe Ruth.’ But this kid is Babe Ruth.”
Butterfield joined the Angels staff last season and has had a front-row seat for Ohtani’s historic season.
The statistics tell only part of the story. Ohtani, who turned 27 this past week, was hitting .279 with a 1.066 OPS through Friday. His 33 home runs and 55 extra-base hits were the most in the majors and he had 70 RBIs along with 12 stolen bases.
Shohei Ohtani has four 116+ MPH HR in 2021, the most in @MLB this season. pic.twitter.com/MDmLzXDqvZ— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) July 10, 2021
Only 12 players in history have had 100 extra-base hits in a season, none since 2001.
Ohtani also is 4-1 with a 3.49 ERA in 13 starts with 87 strikeouts over 67 innings. As you might expect, his 5.6 WAR leads the majors.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. could have a Triple Crown season and finish second in the Most Valuable Player voting. That’s how much of an impact Ohtani has made.
“If we weren’t concerned about beating his body up, he’d have 30 steals. That’s how well he runs,” Butterfield said. “He’s lightning fast.
“The other part is that he’s a great teammate. Last year he struggled offensively. We had no idea what we were going to get from him. The stark contrast has been amazing.”
Ohtani wanted this from the moment he signed with the Angels before the 2018 season. But Tommy John surgery limited him to 12 starts and only 53⅓ innings from 2018-20.
Ohtani hit .269 with 47 home runs and an .843 OPS his first three seasons. But 27 other players equaled or bettered those marks. Ohtani was an above-average hitter but not a great one.
Now Ohtani stands alone. It goes back to a spring training decision by Angels manager Joe Maddon and new general manager Perry Minasian to let Ohtani play as often as he wanted to, the caveat that he would be honest about when he needed a day off.
“I let him go play,” Maddon said. “When it comes to playing the game itself, I refrain from advising him on a lot of stuff. He knows what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. He has a great baseball mind, and you want to stay out of there. You never want to interfere with his greatness.”
As his arm healed, Ohtani prepared for this moment.
“I’m a student of the game, and this is my fourth year in the big leagues. I feel I do need to grow as a pitcher and a hitter every year. I feel like I’ve been able to do that,” he said via an interpreter.
Ohtani has become Major League Baseball’s version of the star high school player who can do everything — except he is doing it against the best competition in the world.
“You’ve got to go back to Mr. Ruth to draw any comparisons,” Maddon said. “There’s not been one name mentioned to compare Shohei with or to. That just screams what this is all about.”
The Red Sox saw everything Ohtani can do during their recent series in Anaheim.
They beat the Angels by a run Monday night when Ohtani ripped what would have been a game-tying single if not for second baseman Christian Arroyo being positioned in shallow right field to make the play.
Ohtani allowed two runs over seven innings the next day to earn a victory and doubled in a run.
On Wednesday, he went 2 for 4 with a home run and two runs as the Angels won the series.
Ohtani's 32nd was a rocket.— MLB (@MLB) July 8, 2021
(MLB x @GoogleCloud) pic.twitter.com/gSbSDJKKHr
“He’s a spectacular player,” Arroyo said. “He’s special. I think that’s the only way to describe him . . . He’s probably faster than anyone on the field, throws just as hard, and hits balls harder than anyone on the field.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora laughed when asked if Ohtani would be MVP.
“We should make a new award for him,” he said. “He’s just a different breed. He’s probably the best player in the game right now because he’s able to do both at a high level. He’s not the best hitter; he’s not the best pitcher. But you combine everything and he’s the best player.”
Ohtani smiled a bit when asked if he was having a historic season.
“I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, we’re just barely past halfway, we have a lot of baseball left,” he said via an interpreter. “The team is playing a lot better now recently. I just want to focus on the team winning.”
When Ohtani comes to the plate at Angel Stadium, thousands of fans hold up their cellphones in anticipation of recording a memorable moment. Just his emergence from the dugout brings applause.
“I feel all the cheers, I’m just simply thankful for all the fans that are cheering me on,” Ohtani said. “As a baseball player, the more cheers you get, the better you can perform. That goes for everybody.
“The fans being back this year, this makes me happy as a baseball player,” Ohtani added.
Maddon’s advice: Soak up every at-bat Ohtani has and every inning he pitches while you can. Maybe the comparison with Ruth will prove premature or even invalid. For now, just enjoy it.
“We have a tendency in the world today to just blow by situations and things — scenery or beautiful mountains or whatever,” Maddon said. “You miss it because you’re always locked up in your own thoughts.
“I’m just saying, ‘Don’t miss this.’ ”
GOT IT RIGHT
Barnes on time as an All-Star
Matt Barnes was emotional when he heard he made the All-Star team. The former first-round pick, now 31, overcame some bumps in the road to get to this point.
“A wild moment, honestly,” Barnes said. “I knew there was a chance I was going to make it, but you’re never certain.”
That the honor comes in his free agent season is a bonus.
“It obviously doesn’t hurt. But we’re still trying to win ballgames here,” Barnes said. “I’m just going to take in the All-Star Game and try and soak up as much of it as possible and enjoy it to the best of my ability.”
Barnes joined Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. as members of the 2011 Sox draft class to become All-Stars.
“The front office did such an incredible job,” Barnes said. “Not only of drafting, because drafting guys is only the start of the process, but to then develop and mold and help all of us not only get to the big leagues but to achieve success at this level.”
Other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Alex Verdugo had a 2.2 WAR over 53 games last season. It was 1.5 through 80 games this season. His defense in left field has been excellent, but his on-base and slugging percentages have dropped.
Verdugo’s strikeout rate also has gone down by nearly 7 percent, but the additional contact hasn’t helped him.
The difference is Verdugo had an unusually high .371 batting average on balls in play last season and it’s a more standard .298 this season.
If this is what he is, that’s a perfectly good player. But not the budding star last season suggested.
▪ Athletics manager Bob Melvin on the Red Sox turning it around from last season: “I’m not surprised. They have a terrific lineup; they have great leadership; and their bullpen has been fantastic this year. They have a deep roster and it’s used really well. On top of that they have some prime-time players in the middle of the lineup and it’s very tough to navigate around them.
“I saw the numbers last year; I know what happened. But I’m not surprised they bounced back. It’s one of the best teams in the big leagues.”
PRESSURE IS ON
Talking the draft with ex-GM O’Dowd
Former Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd has a prominent role in MLB Network’s coverage of the amateur draft, which starts Sunday.
During his time with Colorado, O’Dowd had some high picks that were perfect (Troy Tulowitzki, No. 7 overall in 2005) and others that were busts (righthander Greg Reynolds, No. 2 overall in 2006) for injuries and other reasons.
So he has a good sense of the pressure on Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and his staff as they prepare to pick fourth. Getting a high pick right is vital to an organization.
“If you whiff on the first-round pick, you’re screwed,” O’Dowd said. “The long-term WAR value out of the draft comes in the top 150 picks. It’s hard to sustain success if you don’t get those picks right.”
O’Dowd still regrets passing on Evan Longoria in 2006 to take Reynolds because the Rockies needed pitching. Reynolds injured his shoulder in the minors and Longoria became an All-Star.
“After that, we went with the best player on the board,” O’Dowd said. “With the Red Sox selection, there’s such an interesting group of players. They may be able to take the best player on their board and fill a need. That doesn’t happen very often.”
O’Dowd, who lives in Nashville, saw Vanderbilt righthander Jack Leiter pitch several times this season and views him, as many do, as a fit for the Sox.
O’Dowd said one big advantage of owning a high pick is the opportunity to do interviews with a small group of players and really dig into their background.
“For me, it’s the seventh game of the World Series,” he said. “There’s not many moments in your baseball operations department when a large group of people collaborate to come to a decision. It’s really unifying.
“There may be some battles along the way because you want people to have different opinions. You get the better decision with a variety of opinions. When you reach that decision it’s a very gratifying feeling.”
O’Dowd was impressed that Sox amateur scouting director Paul Toboni took California high school infielder Nick Yorke last year, a player few projected for the first round.
A year later, Yorke is one of the best hitters in the Low A East league.
“[Toboni] had the courage to take the player he wanted knowing the industry would push back,” O’Dowd said. “That showed me something. To me, that shows they’ll take the guy they really believe in.”
The draft starts at 7 p.m. Sunday.
Dodgers should make a call
Trevor Bauer remains on administrative leave while MLB investigates allegations that he violently assaulted and injured a woman beyond the parameters of their consensual sex.
The team has pulled all Bauer-related merchandise from its website and the shops at Dodger Stadium and is moving forward with replacing him in their rotation. But the Dodgers seem content in leaving what happens next with Bauer’s career to the league.
MLB’s domestic violence policy has resulted in lengthy suspensions for a number of prominent players. In some cases, those suspensions were not contingent on criminal charges.
Bauer is in the first season of a three-year, $102 million deal. If he is suspended or charged with a crime, do the Dodgers just take Bauer back once he is eligible to return?
“I am mindful that there are a lot of people with very strong feelings about this,” Dodgers president Stan Kasten said this month.
Among them, presumably, are teammates, coaches, staff members, and fans.
It’s hard to imagine people of character such as Dave Roberts, Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, and Justin Turner happily welcoming Bauer back to the clubhouse.
MLB’s policy is a strong one and the punishments have been harsh. But at some point, a team is going to decide it would rather not employ somebody capable of such acts.
Maybe a few teams would sign Bauer if he were released, but the blowback would be fierce given society’s views on domestic violence.
Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have yet to make the All-Star team since signing their huge contracts before the 2019 season . . . It’s hard to get worked up about All-Star Game snubs. But Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen has a case. At the time the selections were made, Jansen had a 1.34 ERA with 21 saves in 23 chances and hadn’t allowed a run since May 28 . . . Jon Lester was 0 for 36 with one walk as a hitter during his time in the American League. He is 37 for 306 (.121) since going to the National League in 2015 with 8 doubles, 3 homers, 18 walks, and 27 RBIs. He’s actually been used as a pinch hitter six times since 2016 and driven in two runs with sacrifice flies . . . Adam Frazier would be the first Pirates second baseman to start the All-Star Game since Bill Mazeroski in 1967 . . . Starting with the All-Star Game, umpires will wear an advertisement patch on their uniform shirts. It will say FTX, which is a cryptocurrency exchange . . . Angels coach Brian Butterfield on rules changes meant to create more action: “It’s a tough one for me. We definitely need to see the ball in play more, but we can’t tinker with the game too much. It’s been a great game for a long time. But I do notice that you can go 2-3 innings sometimes and it’s too quiet in the ballpark. That’s not good for the game. I hope we can go back to the hit-and-runs, the bunting, and moving runners and putting the play in play.” . . . The Tigers have lost two of their coaches to college programs. In June, assistant hitting coach Jose Cruz Jr. became head coach at his alma mater, Rice. Last week, third base coach Chip Hale left to become the coach at Arizona, his alma mater. Wondering why? Hale has a five-year contract with base salaries ranging from $435,000 to $455,00 with an additional $65,000 a year from Nike, according to the Arizona Daily Star. A roughly $2.5-million package and a considerably better lifestyle is tough to turn down . . . Happy birthday to Javier López, who is 44. The lefthanded reliever pitched 14 seasons in the majors, including four with the Red Sox from 2006-09. Lopez earned World Series rings with the 2007 Sox and the ’10, ’12, and ’14 Giants. Only 19 players in history have four or more rings without at least one being with the Yankees. That group includes another former Sox reliever, Mike Timlin.
Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.