Christian Bethancourt and Two-Way Players of the Past, Future

Christian Bethancourt made the Padres! This is exciting, because he’s making the team as a catcher and a reliever at the same time. His existence challenges norms in a sport that’s known for the specialized roles of its participants. That said, we’ll have to see if he’s more Brooks Kieschnick or more Kenley Jansen eventually. Because hitter-slash-pitcher Kieschnick was nearly a unicorn, while Jansen — though a special reliever since abandoning his work as a catcher — has a story that’s been told in baseball’s history before.

If Bethancourt gets 20 plate appearances as anything other than a pitcher this season, and adds 20 innings pitched, he’ll join a list of just eight players who have ever managed the feat. You’ll recognize a couple of these names — the rest did their very best to stay in the game, bless them. Not a Bullet Joe Rogan in the bunch.

Baseball’s Two-Way Players
Player Played Positions 20/20 Years Career FIP- Career IP Career wRC+ Career PA
Johnny Lindell 41-54 1B, OF 1 106 251.2 113 3122
Hal Jeffcoat 48-59 OF 4 105 697.0 70 2131
Rick Ankiel 99-13 LF, CF, RF 1 93 242.0 91 2115
Willie Smith 63-71 1B, LF, RF 1 111 61.0 92 1794
Johnny O’Brien 53-59 2B, SS 1 138 61.0 67 906
Clint Hartung 47-52 OF 1 123 511.1 80 403
Mel Queen 64-72 RF 1 100 389.2 27 305
Brooks Kieschnick 96-04 LF 2 94 96.0 93 336
Minimum 20 IP, 20 non-P PA
20/20 Years = number of seasons that met criteria

Most of these players were clearly better at one thing than the other. Lindell was a hitter who pitched a little near the end of his career. Ankiel has one of the more triumphant , but it’s because he became a decent hitter years after losing his command on the mound — not because he became great both at both hitting and pitching at the same time. O’Brien might be the closest in style to Bethancourt: he wasn’t great at hitting or pitching, but he added value by being able to play up the middle defense.

Bethancourt would be the first to catch and pitch for more than 20 PA and IP, respectively, in the same season. There’s a reason for that, and you can see it in the roster construction. Bethancourt is the fourth catcher on the Opening Day 25-man roster.

The team is famously carrying three Rule 5 picks, so it’s a team in transition. Catcher Luis Torrens may be an asset for them down the road, so he’s going to make the team as the third catcher behind Austin Hedges and Hector Sanchez, and the latter two will probably be auditioning for their future all season long.

Even as a third catcher, Bethancourt might not get a lot of reps behind the plate. Managers generally prefer to keep a catcher on the bench as long as possible into any given game. Given the specific set of skills required by the position, there’s plenty of reason to keep a catcher in the holster as long as possible. Even if Bethancourt were the third catcher, he’d spend a lot of time on the bench.

It would be difficult to move Bethancourt around the diamond, too, if that included playing him at catcher. Moving him from pitcher to left fielder to pitcher in consecutive plate appearances would actually work — manager Andy Green could maneuver his way around a lefty this way and not burn another pitcher — but pitcher to catcher to pitcher would cause all sorts of problems in a three-catcher setup.

Even as the fourth catcher it may cause hiccups. Would Green call on Bethancourt to pitch if the third catcher is playing in the game?

Dennis Lin, who covers the team for the San Diego Union-Tribune, already hints that though the story is fun, Bethancourt’s actual role on the team may be more conventional. “While he hasn’t hung up his catching gear, Christian Bethancourt will primarily function as an eighth reliever,” he pointed out on Saturday. He adds that “Bethancourt’s budding versatility could be a boon for the Padres, who will have just one off-day this month.”

His versatility as a catcher means the ability to leave him on the bench and play Luis Torrens some. His versatility as a left fielder means they can use him to avoid burning two right-handed relievers to get through an inning. But in all likelihood, we probably don’t have a guy who can hit like Rick Ankiel and pitch like Rick Ankiel (or, the non-Steve Blass version).

We might not even have a guy who can pitch and hit as well as Brooks Kieschnick, who had the best bat among the pitchers who were better than league average on the bump.

Does Bethancourt have the stuff? We have some spring data, and with that data, we can say:

  • His 94-95 mph fastballs are low spin but have great sink and fade.
  • His changeup has poor velocity gap, poor fade, and below-average drop.
  • His breaking ball has curveball velo (80 mph) but less drop than a slider.

As a hitter, Bethancourt had below-average patience, pop, and contact ability. As a pitcher, Bethancourt will have to improve his secondary stuff or rely almost solely on getting grounders from his big sinking fastball. As a catcher, Bethancourt’s defensive skills will be difficult to use given the need to save a catcher on the bench.

It’s a great story! Not often has a player been able to prove useful on both sides of the ball, and Bethancourt has very specific skills that could end up being very useful. But when you drill down you realize that his particular skill set may not end up being the future. Most likely, he’ll have to decide to be one or the other, a decision that baseball thrusts upon its players regularly — just usually earlier in their lives.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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7 years ago

Why isn’t Babe Ruth included in that table? Didn’t he do 20/20 in at least 1919 (maybe other years too)?

Big Daddy V
7 years ago
Reply to  smc5784

Likely because he played too far back for innings played to be tracked.

Wes Ferrell is another guy who would show up here. He was a frequent pinch hitter throughout his career (100 OPS+, 12 batting WAR) and started 13 games in LF in 1933.

Da Bum
7 years ago
Reply to  smc5784

I found that odd as well. My guess is its not tracked easily to show the player got the ABs outside of days he pitched. Obviously a few players would meet the requirement given but short of double checking gamelogs of every player from way back that did both there’s no way to be sure.

I do believe this article should put up an asterisk and mention it. Maybe make it a list of all players in the modern era or something.

7 years ago
Reply to  smc5784

1930 is the first year I see positional batting splits (i.e., PA’s as P vs OF) on baseball-reference. But, before that, they have defensive stats (including games and starts) broken down by position.

Ruth definitely had precisely two 20/20 seasons. Before 1918, he was used exclusively as a pitcher. After being traded to NY at the end of 1919, he was rarely allowed to pitch; never more than 9 innings a season.

In 1918, he pitched 166.1 innings over 20 games (19 starts) and played OF/1B for 72 games (70 starts). In 1919, he pitched 133.1 innings over 17 games (15 starts), and played OF/1B for 116 games (111 starts). It’s safe to assume those are the greatest 2-way seasons in MLB history. In 1918, he had 5.2 batting WAR and 3.2 pitching WAR. In 1919, he had 9.4 batting WAR and 1.2 pitching WAR.

Paul G.member
7 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

I’m not sure that is safe to assume. Two-way players in the 19th century were not uncommon and because of the innings thrown could accumulate absurd WAR totals. Some of them were also good hitters. By pure WAR I seriously doubt Ruth is the best. That said, Ruth’s seasons are a lot more impressive.