Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s Two-Way Star, Aims to Take M.L.B. Back to Its Future

Shohei Ohtani poses a wonderful problem for Major League Baseball. A 23-year-old superstar in Japan, Ohtani has announced his intention to join a team in North America next year, and the suitors are lining up to court him. They are also trying to figure out whether they can accommodate his desire to do something no major leaguer has managed in generations: play two ways, as a starting pitcher and an everyday batter.

A left-handed slugger and a right-handed pitcher, Ohtani has played in the outfield or as a designated hitter on the days he did not pitch for his current team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, and did it well enough to become known as Japan’s Babe Ruth. But Ohtani’s plan to continue double duty could drag his American employers far outside their comfort zones, tampering with modern rituals of caring for an M.L.B. starting pitcher as if he were a piece of fine crystal.

“The traditional line of thinking is that it’s extremely difficult to do either pitching or hitting,” Thad Levine, the Minnesota Twins’ general manager, said recently. “That’s why teams haven’t tried it. But I think you’re going to see it happen here very soon.”

Several M.L.B. executives have said they would be happy to craft a plan to keep Ohtani healthy as a two-way player. They know that his choice of team may depend on the club’s willingness to accommodate his multiple skills, and they are reluctant to stifle creativity in their traditionally slow-to-evolve sport. They would rather see how far Ohtani can take his audacious experiment.

“This is an entertainment business,” said Sandy Alderson, the Mets’ general manager. “The foundation is baseball, but it’s entertainment. To see someone with that kind of talent do what others have potentially not been able to do, that would be an exciting experience for the team involved as well as the rest of baseball. It’s going to be fascinating.”

Ohtani, who was named the most valuable player of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League in 2016, was limited by ankle and hamstring injuries this year , batting in only 65 games and making five starts on the mound. He had a .332 batting average with eight home runs, and put together a 3.20 E.R.A. pitching. In 2016, Ohtani hit .322 with 22 home runs, and he had a 1.86 E.R.A. with 174 strikeouts over 140 innings. In one notable start, he threw 31 pitches that were at least 99 miles per hour.

Many other players have been talented enough to succeed in either job. After arm injuries and control issues undermined him in 2001 following 41 major league starts, Rick Ankiel converted from pitcher to outfielder and reached the majors again in 2007. Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giants ace, has 17 home runs in his eight full seasons, and it’s tempting to wonder what he might accomplish if he played first base between pitching starts.

But with millions of dollars riding on every star’s shoulders — and knees, ankles, elbows, core muscles — their employers prefer to play it safe.

“There’s been a lot of talent that currently resides in major league baseball that is capable of doing it both ways,” said Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager. “There’s some exceptional pitchers that can really hit, but from a protection standpoint, people just declare one or the other.”

Ohtani’s injuries raise some obvious doubts about the wisdom of letting him hold both jobs, in addition to concerns about his ability to do it against an even higher level of competition than he faced in Japan.

M.L.B. also has a less forgiving schedule — 162 regular-season games vs. Japan’s 143, with every Monday off — and the travel is more strenuous. The longest distance between teams’ stadiums in Japan is about 900 aerial miles, roughly equal to a trip from New York to St. Louis. And teams in Ohtani’s league use six pitchers in their rotation instead of five, as most M.L.B. teams do.

“It would take a unique skill set, both physical and mental,” Jon Daniels, the Texas Rangers’ general manager, said of the two-way challenge. “And a unique setup for those skills to play out, proper health and recovery, and all those elements, as well. I would think it’s possible.”

It’s difficult to find a recent example of a player doing what Ohtani aims to achieve. But some research, using a standard of at least 15 major league games on the mound and 15 more at a different position in the same season, turned up Willie Smith of the 1964 Los Angeles Angels.

Smith pitched in 15 games that year and played the outfield in 87. A left-hander in both jobs, he batted .301 with 11 home runs and had a 2.84 E.R.A., mostly as a reliever.

The sport’s greatest two-way player was Ruth, who began his career as a dominant starting pitcher and then did both assignments regularly for the Boston Red Sox in 1918 and 1919 as he started to transform himself into the Sultan of Swat.

In those two seasons, he hit .312 with 40 home runs and 174 R.B.I., mostly while playing left field, and he had a 2.55 E.R.A. in just under 300 innings on the mound.

Last modified: