It was Wednesday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium, in the midst of a series finale with the Seattle Mariners, when umpire Gerry Davis struck up a conversation with Royals first-base coach Mitch Maier.
“Wait ‘till you see this kid,” Davis said.
A day later, the Los Angeles Angels were scheduled to make the trip to Kansas City, and Davis, a 35-year veteran umpire, offered his early impressions of the Angels' prized offseason acquisition, Japanese rookie Shohei Ohtani.
“He’s coming in here, right? Wait ‘till you see him,” Davis said. “He’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Baseball’s newest star has not only caught the attention of fans; he’s not only attracted throngs of Japanese media chronicling his every move; he has been the topic of conversation inside MLB circles and team clubhouses.
On Thursday, as the Angels arrived in Kansas City, that conversation was forced by the media, moving from locker to locker, seeking players’ thoughts on Ohtani, a two-way player who both hits and pitches. “Are you impressed by his ability to do both?” they asked.
The responses were predictable, if not cliche. Until Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield.
“I’m amazed someone finally allowed someone to do both,” Merrifield said.
He continued: “There’s a lot of guys who could do both, I think, but they shut it down so early nowadays. They try to focus on one thing. And it’s impressive that someone allowed him to do both for such a long period of time.”
Merrifield isn’t referring to the Angels’ willingness to put Ohtani in the lineup on Thursday and Friday in Kansas City and then pitch him on Sunday. Several teams offered him the same opportunity, Royals manager Ned Yost pointed out. They even fought for the right to do so.
Rather, in the age of specialization, Merrifield was surprised no one had told Ohtani to pick one: Pitch. Or hit. But not both.
Merrifield has plenty of examples at his disposal inside the Royals’ clubhouse. Across the room stood left-handed pitcher Danny Duffy. In high school, Duffy signed to play baseball at Cal Poly, where he planned to pitch and play in the outfield. But when the Royals drafted him in the third round in 2007, he opted for the professional route, and that meant giving up hitting.
“I don’t know what (Cal Poly) had in store, but I knew that hitting was in play,” Duffy said. “I liked the outfield. I was really good in the outfield. But never at this (level).”
The decision — to pitch or hit — arrived even earlier for Royals starter Eric Skoglund. He was a junior in high school, on the No. 1-ranked team in the nation, when he elected to end his career at the plate, at the urging of those around him. He had cracked the team’s rotation but not the lineup. Therefore, it was time to fully invest in his left arm.
“I was a 5 o’clock hitter. I enjoyed hitting home runs during batting practice (before the game),” Skoglund said. “I think I got two at-bats my junior and senior years combined.”
In the opening couple of weeks of the season, Ohtani has displayed an ability to not only do both but do them well. Entering Friday’s game, he was batting .346 with three home runs and 11 RBI. He drilled a three-run triple into the gap in Thursday’s game, turning on an inside fastball. On the mound, Ohtani, 23, is 2-0 with a 2.08 earned run average. He’s in line to start on the mound on Sunday at Kauffman Stadium.
There are MLB players who believe some of their peers would have the ability to replicate the two-way nature of Ohtani’s skill-set. Perhaps even former Royals pitcher Zack Greinke could have been an adequate hitter. There was former Cardinals pitcher turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel, who proved he could do it, but his career as an outfielder began only after his career as a pitcher flamed out.
Asked if he could envision doing both at the major-league level simultaneously, Duffy said, “Not even close. I use all my time, and that’s just for pitching. I use literally every second that I have to get ready (to pitch).”
Cincinnati Reds prospect Hunter Greene, the No. 2 overall pick in last summer’s draft, made three pitching appearances and had 30 at-bats in his first professional season. But the Reds assigned him to Class A in 2018 and told him that he will now exclusively pitch. No more time at the plate.
The wonderment, particularly if Ohtani can prolong his early success, is over whether that approach will change with prospects like Greene and those who follow.
“It’s a special skill-set. You just don’t find it,” Yost said. “It’s very, very rare, to the point where we just haven’t seen it in very many instances throughout the history of our game — (where a player) could pitch to his high level that he can pitch and still be a big-time offensive producer.
“I think every team would take it. Every team would have it. It’s just so rare you can’t find it.”
The conjecture from Merrifield derived from the unknown. The pressure to choose often comes from coaches and parents long before kids have fully developed their talents. What could have been?
The NCAA studied specialization in sports in 2016 and found that one-third of college baseball players quit all other sports before age 12. More than half of them felt as if they were expected to be college athletes and trained toward that objective.
In baseball, pitching and hitting fall under the same sport, sure, but the preference for specialization prompts many to believe a choice is necessary there too.
“I think people think you gotta do one thing from the time you’re young to be good at it,” Merrifield said. “I think you see it now with people just playing one sport, which is terrible, I think. It’s a mentality that people have now. I don’t care for it personally. I like to see guys do multiple things for as long as they can.
“If they’re good at both, why not keep doing both? Ohtani, I think, is doing that.”