The Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani is predicted to become the first two-way major leaguer since Babe Ruth, competing at the elite level as both a pitcher and a hitter. The 23-year old began his MLB career this season with the Angels and has been adjusting both to a new style of play and to a new baseball. Proving himself against all this hype creates a high-pressure situation — and, if Friday’s game proves anything, ideally a quiet one.
When the Angels faced the Kansas City Royals over the weekend at Kauffman Stadium, there were about 15,011 fans watching the game. Three of those fans were wildly cheering female Japanese exchange students sitting behind the Angels’ dugout, stoked to watch Ohtani play. They were, however, a little too stoked — and in a largely unprecedented move, security asked them to quiet down while Ohtani was at bat. Through his interpreter, he later explained that he was “thankful for the cheers” but “at the plate, [likes] to focus and block out the noise.” This request makes sense when you consider the science of distractions. But it’s not easy to do in a sport that’s designed to be as loud as possible.
While quieter secondary sounds, like a runner sliding into a bag or a ball hitting a glove, are by and large a part of the game, loud environments have proven to create a make-or-break situation for athletes. Studies on noise and human task performance demonstrate that background noise is detrimental to tasks involving cognition, concentration, and attention, adding stress as the volume intensifies. In February, a paper in PLOS One in February showed that high-pitched squeals and loud grunts are actually a really good way to throw off an opponent, suggesting that even if the screams of Ohtani’s fans were meant to be supportive, they were still very distracting.
Part of the power of distraction rests on the importance of sounds to athletic performance. Reaction times are determined by both visual and audible indicators, with elite athletes relying more heavily on sound clues. That’s especially true for baseball players in the outfield, who rely on the volume of the crack of the bat to let them know how far the ball will fly.
It’s also fair to reason that the fans on Friday night were especially distracting: Kauffman Stadium can fit 37,903 people but was at half capacity that game, creating a quieter backdrop against which loud fans could stand out. While general cheers sometimes sound like white noise, and actual white noise releases cortisol and puts the body at ease, specific screams are especially distracting: their piercing sounds more like a poke in the shoulder than a blanket of sound.
We’ll see whether the Angels shush the fans for Ohtani in any upcoming games, since he says he isn’t the one who made the request (but he didn’t mind it either). Besides, right now he’s likely concentrating more on his blister before tonight’s game against the Boston Red Sox. Noise is a problem, but not being able to throw a splitter is worse.