Shohei Ohtani is a twenty-three year old Japanese baseball player. He possesses a fastball that tops 100 MPH and hitting power that promises home runs in bunches. He signed this winter with the Los Angeles Angels after four years of wild success playing as both a pitcher and hitter in Japan.
Ohtani plans to play both positions in the Major Leagues as well. He is scheduled to pitch every fifth game. In between those outings, he plans to play designated hitter. Scouts and talking heads have compared him to the notoriously great hitter and pitcher, Babe Ruth. Ohtani’s success playing both positions in Japan has left many MLB fans wondering why more players don’t try their hand at both positions.
It turns out, two simple economic concepts can explain why playing both positions is harder than you think.
The first concept is the of division of labor. Workers become more efficient and productive as they become more specialized. Major League pitchers have become so specialized that when they make a bad pitch, they miss their target by mere centimeters, not inches. Their margin for error is miniscule, and becomes ever more so each day. Those pitchers that are able to operate within the decreasing margin of error are candidates for a $100 million contract. Those that miss that small margin are soon out of the league.
Hitters face the same reality. In order to keep up with the increasing expertise of pitchers, hitters must spend their time becoming a better expert in hitting. The average Major League pitch gets to the plate in 450 milliseconds. Further, it takes 150 milliseconds for the player to swing the bat around. This means the hitter has roughly 300 milliseconds to decide if he is going to swing at a pitch. And you have much less time than that if you want to hit the ball hard! Long story short: hitting is really difficult, and becomes more difficult as pitchers improve. Hitters must focus their time to increase their own expertise to keep up. If you are 50 milliseconds too slow, it’s back to the unemployment line for you.
The second economic concept is opportunity cost. Our time is scarce – there are only 24 hours in the day. Each moment Ohtani spends perfecting his pitching craft, he is not becoming a better hitter. And each moment he spends taking batting practice, he is not becoming a better pitcher. Ohtani is stuck in a bad dream – one where he keeps working (maybe even more so than his teammates!) but can’t keep up with the progress made by others.
Hopefully it now makes sense why Ohtani is at a disadvantage if he tries to play both positions. In order to succeed at both positions, Ohtani must be more than just one of the best players in baseball. He will have to be more than just the next Babe Ruth. He will have to possess such a superior skillset as to defy economics. If he does so, he will go down as the most talented player ever.