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Baseball Player Shohei Ohtani Is The Talk Of Fans As MLB Season Gets Started

Apr 12, 2018
Originally published on April 12, 2018 9:42 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To baseball news now and Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, who is the talk of this young baseball season. The 23-year-old Japanese phenom is winning as a pitcher and smashing home runs as a designated hitter. He has electrified fans and drawn comparisons to baseball's most famous so called two-way player Babe Ruth. NPR's Tom Goldman looks at whether Ohtani's success could lead to making the two-way player a more common sight in the game.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In fact, it's quite common at lower levels of baseball. You can still go to any high school around the country and see players pitching one day, then playing a position and hitting the next. Although less common, you can find it in college, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL CATCH)

GOLDMAN: With a hiss and a pop, Kenyon Yovan delivers one of his 90-plus mile an hour fastballs. It's a practice day this week at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Yovan is a 20-year-old sophomore starting pitcher and designated hitter. So after he finishes throwing, Yovan heads to batting practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT CRACKING)

GOLDMAN: After this, he goes back to pitching, working on arm care and conditioning. Yovan says the extra time he spends focusing on two different essential baseball skills is worth the effort.

KENYON YOVAN: Being able to help my team in both aspects of the game are definitely the key that I always look for when I play. And the feeling of always being on the field is amazing.

GOLDMAN: He has a receptive head coach at Oregon in George Horton, who also has another full-time, two-way player - a shortstop who pitches. Horton, a baseball lifer who's coached for 40 years, says in many college programs, there are practical advantages to having two-way players like his.

GEORGE HORTON: And so if we can double up - having them both hit, play positions and pitch - then it stretches our scholarship dollar out and our quality of depth out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOEY MCMURRY: One ball, two strikes.

GOLDMAN: Yovan has made his coach's decision easier by performing well on the mound and at the plate, as heard on the Oregon IMG Sports Network with announcer Joey Mac.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCMURRY: One-zero to Yovan.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAT CRACKING)

MCMURRY: He belts it into left field - at the wall, out of here.

GOLDMAN: Kenyon Yovan wants to be a major leaguer. From college through the minors to the majors, it's a long shot. Coach George Horton says at the beginning of that process, big league teams traditionally have made the decision to turn two-way players into either-or.

HORTON: Asking them to do two things makes the odds probably more astronomical. And so they really want to protect their interest by investing in what side of the ball they think that young man has the best chance to succeed.

GOLDMAN: Horton thinks Ohtani's success with the Angels in the major leagues might make teams take a closer look at two-way players. He doesn't think there will be a lot because it's so hard to master the dual role. But former major leaguer Rick Ankiel is bullish on a potential Ohtani effect. Ankiel pitched and played outfield during his career, although not at the same time. He says it should be a great moment for two-way players because baseball is demanding less from its pitchers.

RICK ANKIEL: My guys are getting pulled out in the fifth inning with a hundred pitches, and the bullpen takes over. So if you are - had a concern about maybe it's going to be too many throws, and then we - you know, do we DH him the next day? Do we play him in the field the next day?

GOLDMAN: Ankiel says that concern shouldn't be as great the way the game is trending. The Angels are being careful with Shohei Ohtani, resting him on days before and after he pitches. But in the true two-way spirit, he appears to be tugging against the restraints. After driving in a run in last night's Angels' win, he told reporters he wants to play even more. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "BASEBALL THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.