MLB Needs a Lot More Hitters Who Can Pitch Like Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani isn't just trending because the Los Angeles Angels were listening to trade offers for the reigning American League MVP.
The Japanese designated hitter-pitcher is the best two-way player in the major leagues since Babe Ruth and one of the most must-see athletes in pro sports today. When Ohtani becomes a free agent after the 2023 season, the MLB superstar could be the first $50 million per year player in baseball history.
But he might make an even bigger impact. If Major League Baseball plays its cards right, Shohei Ohtani and two-way players could revive the game.
Is America's Pastime Past Its Prime?
Baseball used to be king. How do you think it became known as America's pastime? In the 1950s and 1960s, nothing was bigger than baseball. But the rise of television in the 1970s signaled a switch, and the top sport became American football. Now it's not even close with the NFL and college football.
According to a 2021 Washington Post poll, only 11 percent of adults said baseball is their favorite sport to watch, tied with basketball and way behind football (34 percent). What's more concerning, just 7 percent of sports fans under the age of 30 said baseball is their favorite sport. Football (24 percent), basketball (17 percent), "something else" besides traditional sports (12 percent) and soccer (10 percent) ranked ahead of baseball.
Baseball remains popular with the 50-and-over crowd, but former MLB pitcher David Wells said he doesn't watch baseball anymore because the players are too "pampered." And young people would rather scroll through TikTok feeds for hours than spend one minute with America's pastime.
On top of all this, Major League Baseball has the lowest percentage of Black baseball players (7.2 percent) since 1991. Deion Sanders, who played nine seasons in the big leagues and 14 years in the NFL, believes there are fewer Black players in MLB today because the cost to play baseball is too high and "Black fathers are not pushing their kids toward baseball" because they didn't play the game when they were growing up.
Start the Two-Way Player Era in Baseball
All of this is bad news for MLB. Here's how Ohtani could help. There has never been a player like Shohei Ohtani in major league history. Even Babe Ruth was only a full-time pitcher and full-time hitter in the same season for two years (1918 and 1919). And he only had 317 and 432 at-bats in those two seasons while playing first base and the outfield. He started as a pitcher and part-time hitter in the dead ball era, then became a full-time outfielder and the game's greatest power hitter.
Ohtani is a hitter who can pitch. Before he made his major league debut as a hitter in 2018, he played some outfield, hit and pitched in Nippon Professional Baseball for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan, making 64 appearances in the field — 57 in right and seven in left. Ohtani has played in the field in MLB for the Angels seven times, all in 2021 — six appearances in right and one in left. He is a good outfielder with a strong arm and could be a defensive weapon, but the Angels keep him at designated hitter and on the mound to protect their two-way phenom.
It's understandable. The Angels have made a lot of money thanks to Ohtani's popularity. The value of the franchise has increased from $1.8 billion to $2.2 billion since he joined the club. Even though the Angels likely won't sniff the postseason this year (20-plus games out of first place in the AL West and 11 games back for the AL wild-card spot), the rest of the league can capitalize. Ohtani is a "once-in-a-generation baseball talent," and MLB needs to start marketing him that way. Just as Babe Ruth ushered in the live ball era in baseball, Ohtani can be the spark that starts a two-way player era in MLB.
Baseball has had good-hitting pitchers before. It's also had notable two-way players besides the Babe (see Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, Bullet Rogan and Leon Day, who all played in the Negro Leagues). But two-way players in baseball are a rarity. The modern game has never had an everyday fielder in the starting rotation or the bullpen. Could it be done? Why not?
Look at Little League teams. The best hitters are often the best pitchers. They play key positions in the field (shortstop, catcher, center field), hit bombs and throw gas on the mound. These two-way players continue in high school and sometimes college ball. Then major league teams sign them, and they decide whether they should have a career as a hitter or a pitcher.
It doesn't have to be an either/or proposition anymore. Shohei Ohtani has proven players can be both an everyday hitter and a starting pitcher every five days. America's pastime needs more hitters who can pitch. And they are all over America (and the world) just waiting to be discovered.
Big league clubs need to bring the game back to local communities and help cultivate young talent. MLB could change the rules and encourage more two-way players to hit, pitch and field in game situations in youth baseball, high school and college. Then teams could sign them, develop them, and get two roster spots for the price of one in the Show.
Shohei Ohtani, at age 28, is the best show in baseball today. While there may never be another talent quite like him, there can be way more two-way major league players. And they can bring excitement back to baseball too.
The Show Must Go On
Babe Ruth changed the game 100 years ago. Shohei Ohtani can change the game for the future. To stay relevant, MLB has to get more young Americans excited about baseball.
They missed the boat the first time around at the beginning of the internet age when Major League Baseball Advanced Media (BAM) tightly controlled highlights and didn't allow anything to be posted on YouTube for free, instead pushing fans to team websites to protect local media rights. That was great for generating revenue with old baseball heads, but it wasn't great at bringing in new fans.
MLB has another chance to reach the younger demographic. A few years ago, they gave teams the keys to YouTube. They still lag behind the NFL and NBA. But just like Marvel reinvented superheroes and "Stranger Things" has made the '80s cool again for another generation, MLB can reach young people and make baseball fun again with two-way players.
Get rid of the designated hitter rule, go beyond box scores and see the bigger picture. Shohei Ohtani can be the face of MLB's reinvention. Before you know it, America's old pastime will look like a whole new ballgame.