No New Ohtanis, but Another Wave of Two-Way Players Is Coming

Shohei Ohtani won’t be pitching this season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, and 2017 first-round picks Hunter Greene and Brendan McKay are a long way from reaching the majors, but this spring, several teams are experimenting with the possibility of two-way players — enough that it’s worth taking a closer look. If spring is a time to dream on lefty knuckleball pitchers who have been woodshedding in South Korea, then we can certainly spare a few thoughts for what might become a new breed of the 25th man.

Mind you, we’re not talking about a new generation of Ohtani clones. For these position players getting more serious about pitching, and the pitcher getting more serious about position play, the model is probably something closer to Brooks Kieshnick. A two-time winner of the Dick Howser Trophy in college for his double-duty work at the University of Texas, and then the 10th overall pick of the 1993 draft by the Cubs, Kieschnick more or less flopped in 113 games played for Chicago, Cincinnati, and Colorado from 1996-2001. He returned to the mound with the White Sox’s Triple-A Charlotte affiliate in 2002, and then with the Brewers in 2003-2004, where he livened up a pair of 94-loss seasons by hitting .286/.340/.496 with eight homers in 144 PA, and pitching to a 4.59 ERA and 4.13 FIP in 96 innings of relief work. He was more successful in the former year than the latter, totaling 0.8 WAR in his dual capacity overall.

The parallels of this quartet to Kieschnick aren’t exact, as each player has taken his own path, and each of these teams has its own vision of how this will work. In an age of longer pitching staffs and shorter benches, this nonetheless rates as a very interesting innovation, even if the returns don’t yield an Ohtani-level star.

Speaking of Ohtani, on the heels of a remarkable season in which he hit .285/.361/.564 with 22 homers and a 152 wRC+, and pitched to a 3.31 ERA and 3.57 FIP in 51.2 innings, he underwent surgery on October 1. The Angels are hoping to get his bat back in May, but he won’t pitch in 2019, which doesn’t rule out the possibility that they will have a two-way player on the roster at some point this season. Jared Walsh, a 25-year-old former 39th-round pick out of the University of Georgia, where he pitched regularly — most teams liked him more as a hurler than as a position player — in addition to playing first base, right field, and DH, is in camp on a non-roster invitation and pulling double duty.

Walsh, who bats and throws left-handed, hit a combined .277/.359/.536 with 29 homers while splitting his season almost evenly between the Halos’ Hi-A, Double-A ,and Triple-A affiliates. He played both outfield corners and first (he’s considered a plus defender at the latter position), and also made eight relief appearances — at least two at each stop — totaling 5.2 innings, striking out seven while allowing six hits and walking two. He pitched in some close games as well as some blowouts, taking an extra-inning loss at Inland Empire and notching a save at Salt Lake. Not that minor league reliever won-loss records mean anything, but he also went 1-1 in two appearances for the team’s A-level Burlington affiliate in 2016.

The Angels liked what they saw of Walsh on the mound enough to send him to the instructional league last fall. He received a crash course in mechanics and arm care, and reported to camp with the pitchers last week and began throwing bullpens. He sports an 88-91 mph fastball that can touch 93 or 94 mph (reports vary) and a slurvy breaking ball that he’s working to improve. The Angels believe he can pitch at the major league level in a relief capacity, though if he moves directly to the mound from a position (as he did in three games for Salt Lake), the team loses its designated hitter for the remainder of the game according to Rule 5.11(a)(14). Thus, that gambit might be saved for interleague games in NL parks.

“We feel like he can do both [roles] at the Major League level, especially with what he did last year offensively,” said new manager Brad Ausmus earlier this month.

“It’s exciting, but I’m trying to keep it simple,” said Walsh. “If I overthink it, things get too complicated. Just hit and pitch and have fun. I’m on the pitchers’ arm care program, so I’ll be doing that every day, but I’ll also be talking to the hitting coaches about hitting and all that stuff. Whatever the schedule is, I just figure it out that day.”

Walsh isn’t even the Angels’ only two-way experiment. They also sent Bo Way, a 2014 seventh-round pick who plays center field, to the instructional league, though he did not get an NRI to the big league camp this spring. Way, who’s another lefty/lefty, hit .312/.383/.376 last year, split between Double-A and Triple-A and made six appearances on the mound, whiffing five in 6.1 innings while allowing six hits, two walks, and two earned runs; twice he pitched in the same game as Walsh. Much further down the system, 2018 fifth-round pick William English was chosen as an outfielder and right-handed pitcher, though he didn’t make any game appearances in the Arizona League last season.

The Angels also planned to let former first-round pick and Baseball America Top 100 prospect Kaleb Cowart try pitching, because let’s face it, the hitting thing wasn’t working (.177/.241/.293 in 380 career PA, with even worse numbers last year). They lost him on waivers to the Mariners in December, however, and then in January, the Mariners lost him to the Tigers, who considered drafting him as a pitcher in 2010. He was considered a first-round pitching talent coming out of Cook High School in Adel, Georgia, where his fastball “sat in the low 90s with sink,” according to The Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2011.

Cowart has played every infield position and left field in the majors, and added right field to his resume while in Salt Lake City. He hasn’t pitched in a professional game yet, but as Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said earlier this week, “We want him to get more involved in the pitching part of it right now. We know what he can do defensively… But he’s going to pitch for now. That’s the main reason we brought him in.”

Cowart has thrown bullpens in camp, but thus far, his control has been spotty. “He threw a pitch right over the hitter’s head and I was behind the screen. But it was right at my lips. I ducked and almost fell off the wheel,” said Gardenhire. “The ball came out of his hand really good, though. He has a nice breaking ball. But it’s going to be a process. He’s got arm strength, though.”

[Update: On Saturday, Cowart returned to the Angels via a waiver claim, as the Tigers needed a roster spot for newly-signed Josh Harrison.]

Speaking of former Baseball America Top 100 prospects, now-27-year-old corner infielder Matt Davidson made the list four times from 2011-2014, but has found major league success harder to come by, both with the Diamondbacks (2013) and White Sox (2016-18). He did show considerable improvement last year, hitting .228/.319/.419 with 20 homers, a 104 wRC+ and 0.8 WAR in 434 PA — not great, but big steps forward from his 84 wRC+ and -0.9 WAR in 2017. Though he struck out 165 times in each season, his walk rate climbed from 4.3% to 10.5%, with his strikeout rate dipping from 37.2% to 33.3%.

Last year, Davidson proved to be the most effective and plausible choice among position players to take up more regular pitching duty. Amid a season that saw a record 65 pitching appearances by position players (not including Ohtani), he threw three scoreless innings in three appearances, allowing one hit and one walk while striking out two (Rougned Odor and Giancarlo Stanton). At Yucaipa High School in California, he served as a pitcher/DH and wore no. 51 in tribute to Randy Johnson. Fitting, as he was chosen by Arizona as a 2009 supplemental first-round pick.

Beyond Davidson’s results, which amount to small-sample success in very low leverage situations, he showed an average fastball velocity of 89.9 mph, and maxed out at 92.3 mph. According to Pitch Info, he also threw a curve and a changeup, though Statcast classified some of those changeups as sliders and others as split-fingered fastballs, and various reports confirm that he does have a splitter in his repertoire.

The White Sox nontendered Davidson in November, and while the Rays and Orioles showed interest, he eventually signed a minor league deal with a non-roster invitation with the Rangers earlier this month, so he’ll get to rib Odor, whom he whiffed on a slider on June 29. He’s not aiming to be the next Ohtani. Instead he’s planning to reprise last year’s mop-and-bucket duty, and will work his way to throwing bullpen sessions. Via MLB’s T.R. Sullivan:

“I don’t want to make it sound like I am going to the big leagues and be a good pitcher,” Davidson said. “I’m not trying to be one of the seven or eight relievers. I want to be the pitchers’ best friend. Nobody wants to go in when it is a 7-0 blowout. I want to be the guy that helps them out.”

Finally, moving in the other direction is the Reds’ Michael Lorenzen, a 27-year-old righty who doubled as a center fielder and closer while attending Cal State Fullerton. He was considered draftable in the former capacity, though concerns about his ability to hit for average led him to be favored as a pitcher — favored enough to be a supplemental first-round pick in 2013.

After starting 21 games in 2015, Lorenzen has made just three starts from among his 150 appearances over the past three seasons, all of them last year. In 45 total appearances, he threw 81 innings with a 3.11 ERA and 4.16 FIP; he struck out just 15.7% while walking 9.9%. While he can dial his fastball into the high-90s, it’s generally a sinker he’s throwing (40.8% of all pitches last year, according to Pitch Info) rather than a four-seamer (10.7%); his expansive repertoire also includes a cutter, changeup, curve and slider — enough pitches to start.

On the other side of the ball, after homering once apiece in 2016 and ’17 while making a combined total of 17 plate appearances, Lorenzen bashed four homers last year, one of them a grand slam; in 34 PA, he hit .290/.333/.710. Two of last year’s homers, and his 2017 long ball, came as a pinch-hitter, a capacity in which he’s been used 22 times in his four years. Overall, he’s hit .250/.276/.500 for a 101 wRC+ in 92 PA.

All of which is to say that the Reds had an inkling of the possibilities before. Now they’re looking to take advantage of that to a greater degree, and, with the support of new manager David Bell, have let Lorenzen help craft a plan, which takes a lot of coordination across the coaching and training staff to prevent him from overexerting himself. On the pitching side, they’re stretching Lorenzen out to be either a starter or a multi-inning reliever, while on the position playing side, he’ll be available as a center fielder, though he’s not vying for the starting job, for which top prospect Nick Senzel, an infielder blocked at both second base and third base, is competing. Via’s Mark Sheldon:

“It’s fantastic, the effort they’re putting in,” Lorenzen said. “A lot of the excuses were, ‘You know, we don’t want to overwork him.’ Well, let’s just sit down and talk about it then. They were willing to sit down and talk about it, which is one of the reasons why I love this staff so much and why I think the front office did a great job [hiring] this staff. They’re willing to find solutions for problems.”

…”We have the plan laid out. Everyone knows what I’m doing. When I need my rest, I will take my rest because I’m getting the work I need to get in, vs. me going out and getting extra work in all the time and wearing on my body.”

Said Bell, “I have to slow myself down, because I think it’s cool that he’s preparing himself the way he is … it’s very unique and pretty special that he can do it. I love his approach to it. He’s truly preparing himself to give as many options to our team to help us win. It’s nice.”

Because novelty — pitchers hitting home runs, position players taking the mound — enlivens the grind of the long season, rest assured that we’ll be following the progress of all of these players’ attempts to pull double duty, hopefully with some up-to-date scouting detail.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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5 years ago

In case anyone’s interested, the top pick from last year’s NPB draft, Akira Neo, is also a two-way player, and there’s substantial hype for him. It’s unclear if the Dragons will allow him to develop that way, as he is a middle infielder instead of a corner OF/DH, but everyone agrees he’s a special talent.

5 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

I wish him every success, not least because his name is Akira Neo.