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There Are More Shohei Ohtanis On The Way

After the Tampa Bay Rays made Brendan McKay the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, they brought him to Port Charlotte, Florida, site of their minor league and spring training operations, for a debriefing. McKay had received first-round grades as a hitter and pitcher at the University of Louisville, where he was the program’s first Golden Spikes Award winner. There was outside discussion about whether McKay should pitch or hit as a professional. But several Rays player-development officials had a different question for McKay: Did he think he could he do both?

There have been similar debates over what to do with dual-talent, amateur players before, but those mostly centered on which path a player should choose. In 2001, Kent State star John Van Benschoten led Division I baseball in home runs with 31 and posted a 1.532 on-base plus slugging, yet the Pittsburgh Pirates had him focus on pitching after selecting him with the eighth overall pick in the draft.1 Selected just two picks before McKay in 2017, dual-talent Hunter Greene has already put away his bat at the request of the Cincinnati Reds.2

What did McKay tell the Rays?

“I don’t see why I couldn’t do it at the next level,” McKay told FiveThirtyEight. “I think they were just as interested as I was.”

McKay made his major league pitching debut on Saturday with six shutout innings before taking the first big league at-bats of his career as a designated hitter on Monday. And he isn’t the only player in the Rays organization to be asked that question. Even before Shohei Ohtani arrived last season in Anaheim and became the first player to log 300 at-bats and pitch 50 innings in a season since Babe Ruth in 1918 and 1919,3 the Rays had already embraced their own domestic two-way player experiment.

A month before the 2018 draft, a Rays scout asked Tanner Dodson, then an outfielder and pitcher for the University of California, if he was open to continuing as a two-way player if they selected him. He answered with an enthusiastic yes. The Rays are now experimenting with another two-way player this season in Triple-A: shortstop-pitcher Jake Cronenworth, who pitched in college for Michigan. He’s batting .333 in 276 at-bats and has hit 96 mph in 6⅓ scoreless innings, often working as an opener.

McKay, Cronenworth and Dodson are the faces of the club’s latest unconventional approach: taking advantage of the two-way player in an era when it’s never been more needed. Pitching staffs have expanded and bullpens have taken on a record number of innings, so, getting two players for the price of one roster spot should have more appeal. Other clubs have also followed the Ohtani experiment to a degree,4 but it’s the team that championed defensive shifts and the opener that is again at the forefront of asking what is possible.

“A lot of our thought process was having some humility that we don’t necessarily know enough to shove [them] into a box one way or the other,” said Chaim Bloom, vice president of baseball operations for the Rays. “Baseball is such a hard game that I think the number of players that are going to be able to have sufficient skill to do this is still going to be small. But we’ve seen over time in this business that sometimes it takes someone going out and doing it to expand people’s definitions of what might be possible. So we may see that happen here.”

It’s not just at the major league level where the two-way player had gone extinct. Before Ohtani, Mike Farmer was the last player in affiliated baseball to reach 50 innings and record 300 at-bats. That was in 1992 for the Phillies’ High-A club in Clearwater, Florida.5 But two-way players were once common. Since 1900, there have been 682 minor-league seasons of at least 300 at-bats and 50 innings pitched, including 199 such seasons in the 1940s and 182 in the 1950s, according to data from Baseball-Reference.com. But the two-way player had largely vanished from the minors and all of professional baseball by the 1970s, aside from short-lived experiments like that of Brooks Kieschnick with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Two-way players in the minors and Major League Baseball, by decade

Decade Minors MLB
1900s 33 5
1910s 63 2
1920s 111 0
1930s 83 0
1940s 199 0
1950s 182 0
1960s 7 0
1970s 1 0
1980s 1 0
1990s 1 0
2000s 0 0
2010s 0 1

Minimum 300 at-bats and 50 innings pitched in a single season.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Had it not been for an oblique injury last year, McKay likely would have been the first minor leaguer since Farmer to reach both 50 innings pitched and 300 at-bats. McKay pitched 78⅓ innings (2.41 ERA) and logged 192 at-bats (.727 OPS) last season combined in Rookie League, Single-A and High A. He dominated Double-A hitters this year, striking out 62 in 41⅔ innings with a 1.30 ERA, before being promoted to Triple-A, where he posted a 1.08 ERA in his first 25 innings.

McKay actually improved his hitting at Triple-A as well, belting four homers in his first 49 at-bats to go along with a .951 OPS before being called up.

A challenge in developing a two-way player is that one skill is often further ahead in development. McKay and Dodson are more advanced as pitchers, and some observers were already calling for the Rays to limit McKay to pitching this spring. The game has become more specialized over time, and few clubs have bothered to dig deeper into what is possible for hitting and pitching.

Injury concerns have also contributed to the near-extinction of the two-way player. If you have a star bat like Ohtani’s, you might not want to risk losing at-bats to injury on the mound.

As Angels manager Brad Ausmus said this spring, the key to two-way experiments may be “workload balance and getting enough preparation on each side of the baseball.” Rays officials also noted the challenge of finding enough reps in the day for maintaining hitting and pitching skills.

But when you’re the front office of the Rays, competing in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox, you have to question everything. One question is this: just how effective and efficient is baseball training? Maybe there is enough time in the day to develop two-way players.

In a study commissioned by the Chicago Cubs in 1938, sports psychologist Coleman Griffith concluded, only 48 minutes per day were spent on “effective” baseball practice while the other two hours and 47 minutes were wasted. (In the major leagues, players generally arrive at the ballpark four hours before first pitch.) While some practices have changed over the years, many have also remained the same, like coach-pitched, on-field batting practice that is far removed from game velocity and breaking balls. There could be an advantage found in rethinking how the baseball day is structured.

Is there time for a player to practice both hitting and pitching skills in the same day? “There’s plenty of time,” McKay said.

Technology advances are also perhaps helping players get better feedback in practice, allowing for smarter and fewer reps to reduce wear and tear. McKay said the Rays have monitored his heart rate during bullpens to see how his body was responding, as well as how his diet, hydration and workload should be altered. One adjustment the Rays made with McKay this season is that he does not play a position when he is in the lineup as a hitter — he has played some first base in the past — and he slots in at a DH instead.

“One of the biggest challenges that comes with this is not just managing in-game workload but structuring practice sufficiently,” Bloom said. “Giving the player enough of a chance to get better at everything he needs to improve at and keep him healthy: That’s something we spent a lot of time thinking about, and we’re learning as we go. We’ve already learned a lot.”

In college, Dodson would often play seven innings in center field before he was summoned to close out the game pitching the eighth and ninth innings. Last summer, in his first stint as a pro, he never pitched or hit in the same game. The Rays mapped out a schedule each week for him. “It was, honestly, a lot easier” than the college setup, Dodson said.6

Dodson’s potential path as a reliever/position player — he is also a switch-hitter — could become a route to a more common two-way player: the ultimate utility man.

“Ohtani laid some groundwork, McKay laid some groundwork. I think I’m laying a little different ground work as a reliever,” Dodson said. “I think everything started as something nobody did.”

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Footnotes

  1. Van Benschoten tore his labrum in 2005, which derailed his career.

  2. Greene had Tommy John surgery this spring.

  3. Ohtani returned to the field as a DH-only player in May.

  4. The Pirates are experimenting with J.B. Shuck as a two-way player in Triple-A, Reds relief pitcher Michael Lorenzen has accrued 10 plate appearances this season, and the Angels have other two-way players in their organization.

  5. Farmer posted a 1.87 ERA in 53 innings and a .586 OPS in 303 at-bats.

  6. Dodson has landed on the injured list three times this season.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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