How Shohei Ohtani Is Changing Baseball
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's baseball season. There is a rookie who is making a huge splash. And it's not just because he's good, which he is. It's because he's really transforming how fans think about the game. His name is Shohei Ohtani. He plays for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. And last week, he did this.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: That's headed out to centerfield. That's got some sound. Ohtani has done it again.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: This is unreal - Shohei Ohtani.
GREENE: All right, the sound there from Fox Sports West when Ohtani smacked a home run. In his next game on Sunday, he was untouchable as a pitcher. It has been a really long time since any baseball player has both hit and pitched so well. And Steve Inskeep talked about the 23-year-old phenom with ESPN's Jessica Mendoza.
JESSICA MENDOZA: It just shows something that I feel like baseball is so needing. And that's just that pure athlete - that Babe Ruth-type feeling of - you know, what we all grow up with. If you played baseball or you played softball, you know, everybody hit. And they pitched, and they played positions. But at the major league level, it's something that's been absent for so long.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I'm glad you mentioned Babe Ruth because didn't he have a career as a pitcher before he became the greatest home run hitter of his time?
MENDOZA: Yes. He was so good. And he hit as well. But it was his pitching that he was known for. Then he kind of transformed into this hitter that we obviously know now. But he was first known as a pitcher.
INSKEEP: So Ohtani is now attempting this. And it's amazing the streak that he went on last week. Let's work through this. On Wednesday, what happens? He's the designated hitter. He hits a home run, right?
MENDOZA: Yes. And then Thursday, he hits another one. He went basically three consecutive days where he had a home run. And then from there, he gets the ball on Sunday. And honestly, even if you just google, youtube - just - I don't care if you know nothing about baseball. Watch what the movement on his pitches were doing. I mean, he had 12 strikeouts. Eight of them were on a splitter, which, I mean, that's just a pitch you don't hear a lot. This thing is so dirty. It's just got this wicked - almost like a whiffle ball.
INSKEEP: It drops.
MENDOZA: Yeah, you split the fingers. You throw it just as you would a fastball. But it's going to break down with late dropping action.
INSKEEP: So let's explain why for generations there have not been pitchers who are also hitters. It's because the game is so specialized, right?
MENDOZA: Well, it's the big leagues. And to be able to split time - and I spent time at Angels camp to see what he has to do to be able to be a hitter and pitcher. I mean, it's tireless. And so you think about if you want him to pitch - which so many teams talked about, hey, maybe we focus on just having him do one, so he does that well. Can you really do both well because of the amount of time you have to spend just hitting, just pitching? Whereas he's spending - he gets there early. He stays late. I mean, you'd think he'd be exhausted. But then he's like, guys, I've been doing this my whole life. Like, I can hit and pitch. Don't worry.
INSKEEP: Well, that's the next question then. Do you think that he can last the whole season doing this?
MENDOZA: I do. I think his body - you know, like anyone's - should hold up just because of the training that he's had prior. I'm more worried about just the amount of attention. It's more the mentality - the mental part of this, which is why I believe he chose Anaheim. He could have gone anywhere. He could have picked any team. All 30 teams wanted him. But he wanted a team in a place where he could just play baseball and not have it be, you know, him be the biggest thing in the world. Well, then probably don't pitch close to a perfect game and hit the home runs because now the whole nation is watching.
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GREENE: Steve Inskeep talking there to ESPN's Jessica Mendoza, who joined us on Skype.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLIM THUG SONG, "I LOVE THIS GAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.