2021 AL MVP? Inside the year of Los Angeles Angels' two-way star Shohei Ohtani

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It was a performance unlike any we've witnessed in our lifetimes.

Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels -- who is expected to take home the American League Most Valuable Player trophy -- starred both on the mound and at the plate in 2021. As a starting pitcher, Ohtani posted a 9-2 record with 156 strikeouts and a 3.18 ERA in 23 appearances. As a hitter, he slugged 46 homers, drove in 100 runs and posted a .965 OPS.

On top of that, he changed the very rules of Major League Baseball, when the league allowed him to start the All-Star Game both as a pitcher and a designated hitter.

Here are a few of our favorite stories from The Year of Ohtani.

'The greatest thing we've seen in baseball history'

Ohtani, 27, is among the four or five best in the world at two of the most celebrated acts in sports, throwing a baseball fast and hitting one far. He seems to exist somewhere above the game, not in an arrogant sense but in an almost ethereal one, and this season, for all its historic volume, feels like an ongoing series of grace notes. There are numbers, of course, that both numb and blow the mind -- 45 homers, 24 stolen bases, 99 runs, 98 RBIs, 156 K's in 130⅓ innings on the mound -- but Ohtani's season will live most indelibly not in data but in memory and anecdote.

"I always thought this was the real version of him," said Angels second baseman David Fletcher, Ohtani's closest friend on the team. "It's taken a while to get to this point, but this is what me and a lot of other guys who have seen him over these last couple of years ... I mean, I wouldn't say expected, because how could you expect this? But we knew this was his potential."

READ MORE: Shohei Ohtani has expanded what's possible in baseball. Tim Keown, Sept. 29 »

Ranking Ohtani's greatest hits -- and pitches

On the mound

1. The 150th (Sept. 26)

Ohtani placed a 98-mph fastball perfectly on the outside corner to end the third inning -- exemplifying a command that seemed to continually improve as the season wore on -- and recorded his 150th strikeout of 2021. This probably goes without saying, but Ohtani became the first player in history to record 150 strikeouts and hit 45 home runs (not to mention add at least 20 stolen bases) in a season.

It was merely the fourth of 10 strikeouts in the Angels' home finale -- one that saw Ohtani pitch seven innings of one-run ball, lower his ERA to 3.18 and basically lock up the AL's MVP award. In an 11-start stretch since an ugly first inning at Yankee Stadium at the end of June, Ohtani has a 2.82 ERA with 73 strikeouts and nine walks in 70⅓ innings.

READ MORE: From 470-foot homers to 101 mph fastballs, our top-five lists of Ohtani's best moments of 2021. Alden Gonzalez, Sept. 29 (ESPN+)

Best. Season. Ever?

It feels like it should be impossible to be one of the best hitters in the game and one of the best pitchers. Even Babe Ruth, when he played both ways in 1918 and 1919 against a much different level of competition, didn't dominate like this on both sides of the ball:

Ohtani, 2021: 159 OPS+, 153 ERA+
Ruth, 1918: 192 OPS+, 122 ERA+
Ruth, 1919: 217 OPS+, 102 ERA+

It is a transcendent season, but is Ohtani having the greatest individual season ever?

READ MORE: How Ohtani's 2021 compares to the all-time greats. David Schoenfield, Aug. 30 (ESPN+)

Bringing the magic back

I played against the best; I played with the best. There are players who make you watch the replay for a second look, and then there are players who make you look up to the stars. Ohtani is that star, distant for his unimaginable and unreachable talent but our nearest star for the brilliance he shows on the field, reinvigorating our game. He has all the ingredients to make magic at any given moment.

I can tell you some mechanical truths to Ohtani to give you context. I can't recall a hitter being able to consistently take a pitch he was beat by and still hit it for a home run to the opposite field. He turns an emergency swing, a swing meant for defense and caution, into a weapon and reduces top-notch pitchers to space dust. But he also can defeat top-notch hitters with his arm, dealing scintillating splitters and teleporting rocket fastballs at 100 mph. That combination places him alone in the sky, a rare comet that reduces us all to Rosetta space probes trying to land on its surface.

Yet he chooses not to be alone, seeking instead to bring the game with him, challenging us to see that it can follow.

READ MORE: Ohtani in the Little League Classic? MLB could find no better ambassador. Doug Glanville, Aug. 22 »

Even the All-Stars were star-struck

Teoscar Hernandez, the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder, put a hand on Ohtani's and intercepted him in the dugout, asking him to share in a surprise. Hernandez's brothers are in the Dominican Republic, and because of visa issues, they were unable to attend the All-Star Game with him in the way they might have before the COVID-19 pandemic. Teoscar decided to bring the All-Star experience to them over his cellphone, and he brought Ohtani to his two brothers through FaceTime.

Ohtani doesn't speak Spanish or English, and Hernandez doesn't speak Japanese, but Ohtani knew exactly what Hernandez needed: He looked into the phone, at Hernandez's brothers, then made the sort of funny, goofy faces you might see at class picture day for fourth-graders. He and the Hernandezes laughed out loud.

A few days later, Hernandez expressed how much he appreciated Ohtani's buy-in for that moment, for the sake of Teoscar's brothers.

"Ohtani is a great guy," Hernandez said over the phone. "He was trying to be great for everybody."

READ MORE:: Ohtani turned professionals into fans at the Midsummer Classic. Buster Olney, July 23 (ESPN+)

'I don't want to miss Shohei'

If Ohtani's ability to hit and throw with equal eminence is the most impressive thing about him, his demeanor isn't far behind. As he struggled during his first major league spring training in 2018 and scouts picked apart his swing and writers -- yours truly, misguidedly, at the forefront -- wondered whether he could actually play both ways, Ohtani never lost faith, never lost sight of who he is, how he operates, why he believes. His is a legend of excellence, yes, but it's also one of perseverance. It's no wonder, then, that as Mancini led off the derby, Ohtani rested on a Gatorade cooler, his bat between his legs, talking and laughing with Ippei Mizuhara, his interpreter and confidant. The entire stadium came to see Ohtani. The world tuned in to watch him. And he just cracked jokes, like the weight of a few million eyeballs was featherlight.

READ MORE: How Ohtani won the night without winning the Home Run Derby. Jeff Passan, July 13 »

The new faces of baseball

What makes him bigger than baseball: It's the joy with which he plays. Remember Little League? What did the best player on your team do? He pitched, and he hit in the middle of the lineup. That's basically what Ohtani does, and he navigates through it with this palpable sort of glee that easily resonates with those who watch him. MLB is doing everything it can -- enlarging bases, banning shifts, cracking down on foreign substances -- to create more action and thus appeal to the casual fan. But there might not be anything else that accomplishes the latter goal better than someone like Ohtani, a 27-year-old international superstar excelling at a near-unprecedented task and doing it with childlike wonder.

READ MORE: Why have one face of your sport when you can have three? We break down what makes this trio transcendent. Gonzalez, Lee, Passan, July 13 »

'Everybody's jaw dropped'

Everybody seems to be able to identify their favorite Ohtani homers.

For La Stella, Shoemaker and Jared Walsh, the Angels first baseman who will join Ohtani in the All-Star Game, they are the BP moon shots that cleared the center-field batter's eye at Target Field in Minneapolis, RingCentral Coliseum in Oakland, California, and Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, respectively. For several other people with the Angels, they are the balls that Ohtani routinely hits into the tunnels that are tucked within the first section of Angel Stadium seats in deep right field -- in the area where Barry Bonds deposited a mesmerizing home run during the 2002 World Series.

For those who followed him in Japan, one moment sticks out above the rest: Nov. 13, 2016, during an exhibition game for the World Baseball Classic, when Ohtani hit a baseball so high and so far that it disappeared inside the Tokyo Dome roof. The ball is now displayed at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, which resides within the stadium itself. It traveled an estimated 150 meters (492 feet) and was scored a ground-rule double.

READ MORE: Ohtani's teammates share their best stories about his legendary power. Alden Gonzalez, July 8 (ESPN+)

The epic debut of Ohtani, the two-way player

Ohtani came from Japan with the promise of becoming the sport's first two-way player since Babe Ruth stopped pitching, then teased us with two exhilarating months in 2018. What followed was Tommy John surgery, a rare knee procedure, and a nightmare 2020 season that included a 37.80 ERA and a .190 batting average. Ohtani attacked the ensuing offseason with purpose. He trained at Driveline, revamped his diet, altered his weight-training regimen and got into more game-like situations in an effort to fix a delivery that had become inconsistent and a swing that had grown erratic.

When he took the field for his pitching debut on Sunday, the excitement had reached a fever pitch. Maddon's aggressive approach promoted it, Ohtani's dynamic spring fueled it -- and MLB could benefit from it. The industry has become obsessed with a desire to create more excitement, and Ohtani can create that potentially more than any other player. It's why the response to whether the Angels should try to use Ohtani as a two-way player was always "of course" -- so long as he can remain healthy.

READ MORE: Ohtani's start to 2021 was a success -- and there needs to be more of it. Alden Gonzalez, April 5 »