Between Shohei Ohtani’s strong six-inning start against the A’s on Sunday and home runs in back-to-back games against the Indians on Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s fair to say that the 23-year-old phenom’s major league career is off to an impressive and unprecedented start. Obviously, it will take much longer before Ohtani’s attempt to star as both a hitter and pitcher can be judged a true success, but as Travis Sawchik pointed out, he has, at the very least, already shown off the tools that created all the hype in the first place– namely the triple-digit heat/nasty splitter/slider combo as a pitcher, as well as the raw power as a hitter.
Ohtani is doing things that haven’t been done at the major league level in nearly a century. Not since June 13-14, 1921 has a player followed up a win as a starting pitcher with a home run as a position player in his next game, and not since 1919 has a player served as both a starting pitcher and position player with any kind of regularity. Both of those feats were accomplished by Babe Ruth, of course. The Bambino spent his final two seasons with the Red Sox, 1918 and 1919, pulling double duty, then made cameos on the mound as a Yankee in 1920, 1921, 1930 and 1933. His last two Yankees pitching appearances came on the final day of the regular season, allowing him no chance to homer the following day. The other three times — including an October 1, 1921 relief appearance — that he pitched, he homered in his next game. Of course he did.
While other players have split time between the mound and position playing in a given season, the majority of them predate Ruth. Combing through the Baseball-Reference Play Index, since the inception of the American League in 1901, 20 players pitched at least 15 times in a season and played a position (besides pinch-hitter) at least 15 times as well; four of them did so twice. Fifteen of those 24 player-seasons predated Ruth, with all but one of those falling between 1901-1909. Only two have occurred since the start of World War II:
|Zaza Harvey||1901||White Sox/Blues||16||3-7||104||0.3||LF/RF||62||124||1.4|
|Nixey Callahan||1902||White Sox||35||16-14||106||2.3||RF||70||59||-0.6|
|Doc White||1909||White Sox||24||11-9||74||3.4||CF||72||111||0.7|
|Babe Ruth||1918||Red Sox||20||13-7||84||3.2||LF||95||189||5.2|
|Babe Ruth||1919||Red Sox||17||9-5||96||1.2||LF||130||203||9.4|
That’s quite a motley assortment, one that will test your knowledge of deadball era team nicknames (the Orphans became the Cubs, the Blues and Naps became the Indians, the Superbas became the Dodgers). As you can see, most of the early two-way players were pretty lousy hitters and nothing special as pitchers, at least within the seasons in question. I’ve highlighted the ones who were better than average at both tasks. A few of these players stand out and deserve worth closer looks.
On name alone, I had to include this guy, though I know almost nothing about him other than his real name (Ervin King Harvey) and the fact that he switched roles due to a trade. After debuting with the Orphans in 1900, he jumped to the White Sox in 1901 and pitched all of his games for them before being purchased by the Blues in mid-August, after which he was exclusively an outfielder; apparently, he requested not to pitch. He hit a sizzling .333/.375/.443 and stole 16 bases in 227 PA as a 22-year-old that year. Illness limited him to 12 games the next year, and he disappeared from baseball entirely.
Known by a nickname due to his degree in dentistry from Georgetown University, White was a very good pitcher during a 13-year career that ran from 1901-1913, going 189–156 with a 2.39 ERA (89 ERA-) and 48.9 RA9-WAR. Though he played 85 games in the outfield, he simply wasn’t much of a hitter; baseball history makes no mention of his prowess at filling cavities. As a hurler, he led the NL in strikeout rate in 1902 (5.4 per nine) while serving as the staff ace and occasional left fielder for the seventh-place Phillies, hitting just .202/.331/.232 in 120 PA. He found more success after jumping to the White Sox in 1903, and posted ERAs below 2.00 from 1904-1906. In the first of those years, he reeled off 45 straight scoreless innings via a major league record five consecutive shutouts; he would live to see Don Drysdale break that record 64 years later.
He led the AL with a 1.52 ERA in 1906 and starred in the World Series as the “Hitless Wonder” White Sox upset the Cubs, pitching a complete game in the clincher after earning a three-inning save the day before. The next year, he led the AL with 27 wins in 1907. He spent about six weeks as the White Sox’s regular center fielder in May and June of 1909, posting a .398 OBP for that stretch and hitting .234/.347/.292 in 238 PA on the season before his focus returned to the mound.
Callahan spent 13 years in the majors between 1894 and 1913, winning 20 games twice for the Orphans (1898 and 1899) and totaling 99 wins and 16.8 WAR (18.3 RA9-WAR) as a pitcher. He dabbled at other positions as early as 1897, when he pitched 23 games and made 18 or more appearances at second base, shortstop and in the outfield, and he played a total of 23 games in the pasture in 1902. That year, he threw the first no-hitter in AL history on September 20 against the Tigers, but by then, he was more or less done with pitching; he made just five more starts, three of them in 1903, the year he took over as the White Sox manager.
He led the Sox to a 60-77 record while serving as their regular third baseman, and was replaced as manager by Fielder Jones — who would lead the White Sox to the aforementioned upset of the Cubs — early in 1904. He spent that season and the next as the team’s regular left fielder; over the 1903-05 span, he produced a combined 7.0 WAR while hitting for a 115 wRC+. He missed out on the White Sox’s biggest triumph, spending 1906-10 leading the semipro Logan Squares, much to the consternation of AL president Ban Johnson, then rejoined the Sox as a player in 1911, and as their manager from 1912-14.
Coombs pitched a shutout in his July 5, 1906 major league debut for the A’s, and later that year pitched a 24-inning (!) complete game victory against the Red Sox, striking out 18. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he developed arm troubles that limited his effectiveness in 1907, and when A’s right fielder Socks Seybold broke his leg in spring training the following year, manager Connie Mack installed Coombs as his regular. He started hot, but by June he had played his way back to the mound. While he hit just .255/.287/.355 in 235 PA for the full season, he posted a 2.00 ERA over 153 innings the rest of the way. He continued to improve as a pitcher, and in 1910, led the AL with 31 wins (against nine losses) with a 1.30 ERA in 350 innings, setting a record with 53 consecutive scoreless innings along the way and adding three more wins in the A’s World Series victory over the Cubs. Though his ERA shot to 3.53 the next year, he had a league-high 28 wins and helped Philadelphia to another championship.
Later, he helped the 1916 Brooklyn Robins win the NL pennant, and got the team’s lone win in their World Series loss to Ruth and the Red Sox. As his pitching declined, he made a 13-game foray to the outfield for the 1918 Robins, but his .168/.223/.230 line in 122 PA confirms that was the wrong way to go about it.
As a rookie in 1915, Sisler dabbled on the mound, with seven relief appearances and eight starts, six of which were complete games. In one of them, he outdueled Walter Johnson. He hit a thin .285/.307/.369 in 294 PA as a rookie, but soon developed into a contact-hitting machine whose career bridged the dead-and live-ball eras, winning a pair of batting titles with averages above .400 in 1920 (when he set a longstanding record with 257 hits) and 1922 and placing among the league’s top five seven times in that category, mostly before scoring levels got silly. He occasionally took the mound after his rookie season, throwing a total of 41 innings from 1916-1928, but as his career .340/.379/.468 batting line, 2,812 hits and 1939 election to the Hall of Fame attest, he made the right call.
In a 20-year major league career that spanned from 1921-44, with a five-year foray to the minors (1930-34) in between, Cooney did it all: played, coached and managed in both leagues (albeit on an interim basis, with his AL stint confined to one game while Al Lopez attended a funeral). He even umpired a game. He broke in primarily as a pitcher with the Braves, but hot hitting (.379/.414/.394 in 73 PA in 1923) and good defense led to additional work in center field, though he hit a meager .254/.302/.285 in 1924 while throwing 181 innings.
Focused almost entirely on pitching the next year, he set a career high with 245.2 innings while going 14-14 with a 3.48 ERA. And he again hit well enough (.320/.346/.388 in 112 PA) to resume double duty, which came in handy when he was beset with arm trouble that limited his mound work. He hit .302/.367/.357 in 147 PA, primarily as a first baseman, while throwing just 83.1 innings in 1926. He didn’t pitch at all in 1927, and did so only sporadicly from 1928-30, but after his lengthy minor league detour, he returned as a center fielder, first with the Dodgers (1935-37) and then back to the Braves (1938-42), averaging 120 games a year in that capacity from 1936-41. He finished his career with an 86 wRC+ in 3,675 PA and a 95 ERA- in 795.1 innings, totaling 10.9 WAR.
Of all the players to pull significant double duty, Wonderful Willie Smith is the only one to do so since World War II, and is the only black player to do so. He played his first professional baseball in the post-integration Negro Leagues, with the Birmingham Black Barons, and was good enough to play in the Negro American League’s 1958 and 1959 East-West All-Star Games. As a 22-year-old southpaw, he pitched three scoreless innings of relief and singled in the winning run in the former, and started and hit an inside-the-park homer in the latter.
Signed by the Tigers, he spent 1960-62 in the minors, and got a cup of coffee in 1963, playing a total of 17 games, with 11 on the mound and the balance in pinch-hitting and -running roles. Traded to the Angels in 1964, he pinch-hit and threw 31.2 innings on the mound in 15 appearances, all in May and June, and nearly all in mop-up duty, with a 2.84 ERA. On June 8, manager Bill Rigney sent him to right field in the late innings. “I didn’t dare say I wouldn’t play out there,” Smith later said. Rigney then brought him in to pitch, but he faced three batters and gave up two homers.
After taking one of his four losses in relief on June 13, he started the nightcap of a doubleheader the next day in left field and homered. He made just one more mound appearance that year but became a semi-regular at the outfield corners, hitting .301/.317/.465 with 11 homers and seven steals in 373 PA. He would spend seven more years in the majors, never replicating that success (.248/.295/.395 lifetime) and making just three relief appearances in 1968 as his further mound work. The highlight of his post-double duty career was a game-winning pinch-hit homer for the Cubs on Opening Day in 1969.
As interesting as those players are, their relatively minimal success in one role or the other can’t hold a candle to the expectations for Ohtani. And while the accomplishments of the nascent Ruth in 1918-19 may stand as the closest analogue to what the Angels are attempting, it’s important to understand the on-the-fly nature of Ruth’s journey from star southpaw to Sultan of Swat. After breaking in as a 19-year-old in 1914, Ruth went 65-33 with a 2.02 ERA in 867.2 innings over the next three seasons, topping 20 wins twice, leading the AL with a 1.75 ERA and nine shutouts in 1916 (when he helped the Red Sox beat the Robins in the World Series) and with 35 complete games the following year. Through the end of the 1917 season, he hit .299/.355/.474 (148 wRC+) with nine homers in 405 PA, but his non-pitching work was limited to pinch-hitting.
Ruth was the Red Sox’s Opening Day starter on April 15, 1918, and started four times that month, with two pinch-hitting appearances thrown in as well. After another start on May 4, during which he hit his first home run of the season, he started Boston’s next game, on May 6, as a first baseman, batting sixth. He homered. He tied the major league record by homering again in his third straight game, and thereafter his pitching was sporadic. He made just two more starts on the mound that month, one in June (when he hit eight of his MLB-leading 11 homers), and three in July, then eight in August, the season’s final month; due to World War I, the regular season ended on September 2, and the World Series, in which Ruth beat the Cubs twice, ended on September 11.
In 1919, Ruth started nine times in May and June, but just six times the rest of the way; after he tied the major league record with nine homers in July (against just three starts on the mound), he took the hill just once in August and twice in September. He finished the year hitting .322/456/.657 with 29 homers, a record he would demolish in 1920, with 54 homers, and then 59 the following year. You don’t need me to tell you that part of the story.
Here’s a breakdown of Ruth’s 1918-19:
Even working within the Angels’ planned six-man rotation, Ohtani figures to surpass Ruth in games started; our Depth Charts forecast has him down for 24 (one to date plus 23 for the rest of his season). If he’s DHing three times a week, that’s another 78 starts, and while that may be less taxing than playing the field for nine innings, it’s also true that the caliber of competition he’s facing is much higher.
We’ve grappled with other ways of looking at players who have spent time as both pitchers and hitters, but we’re really in uncharted territory with Ohtani. And while the hype may be a bit much to endure, based on what we’ve seen so far, this promises to be a fun and fascinating ride. Buckle up.
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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.