Shohei Otani, Brendan McKay, and the Blueprint for a Two-Way Player

In case you missed the excitement last week, here it is: according to reports, there’s a very good chance that Japanese star Shohei Otani will be posted this offseason and appear in a major-league uniform next year. Part of Otani’s great appeal — and the source of his reputation as the Japanese Babe Ruth — is his capacity both to pitch and hit at a high level. Two-way players are intriguing to us: in an era of ever increasing specialization, the probability of a single player excelling on both sides of the ball is low. Forget the ace who also serves as his team’s cleanup hitter: even a player who could function competently as both a fourth outfielder and mop-up man would open up roster possibilities that many teams would love to exploit.

However, being a two-way player is hard. Beyond even the question of talent, a player faces other concerns: finding adequate rest, scheduling his throw days as a pitcher, and cultivating sufficient stamina to last a whole season in a dual role. Addressing these concerns successfully requires a great degree of planning on the part of a team. And while there’s speculation as to how a major-league organization might answer all those questions adequately, one team is already implementing that level of infrastructure with a highly coveted prospect.

Prior to becoming the fourth-overall pick by the Tampa Bay Rays this past June, Brendan McKay had starred as both a weekend starter and middle-of-the-order bat at the University of Louisville for three years, winning numerous player-of-the-year, All-American, and two-way-player awards along the way. With his clean lefty swing, level-headed approach, and prowess on the mound, he was often favorably compared to John Olerud. Rays leadership was quick to state that, despite being announced as a first baseman at the draft, McKay would continue to be developed as both a pitcher and hitter.

Back in February, I had the opportunity to see McKay open the college season against two teams in Clearwater, Florida. Over the two games, against admittedly overmatched competition, he went 2-for-4 with a home run and three walks while striking out nine over six scoreless innings. He greatly impressed me with his skill and calm demeanor both on the mound and at the plate, never overreaching, not becoming too aggressive, working with what pitchers and hitters gave him. At the time, the question for most people in the stands was, “Which way will he play in pro ball?” So far, McKay is making the question “Why can’t he do both?” a legitimate one.

To get a sense of how rare this is, one needs only to consider the excitement that a two-way feat tends to generate, whether it’s a #positionplayerpitching or Madison Bumgarner homering off Clayton Kershaw. Of course, these are just isolated moment, not entire careers.

At the earlier stages of baseball, from little league through high school — and even somewhat into college — the pitcher-hitter combination is much more common. Professional baseball is another matter entirely, though. There are, of course, players who have converted to hitting or pitching in the minors; on rare occasions, a player might actually have some success in both roles (albeit at different points in his career). But no one in recent memory has regularly taken to the mound and field in the same season at the major-league level.

Even in the minors, where experiments with rules and personnel are more common, the two-way player is still a relative rarity. Since 2006, when minor-league game logs became available, 38 players have met two basic requirements for being a potential two-way player:

  • Across all levels of professional baseball, appear in at least 10 games as a position player in a season.
  • Across all levels of professional baseball, appear in at least 10 games as a relief pitcher or at least 5 agmes as a starting pitcher in a season.

The stories of these players are strange and varied. Of the 38, 14 of them eventually reached the majors in some capacity. Many recorded their only two-way season in their last year as a professional. Most, such as Kenley Jansen, accomplished the feat as a part of being converted from an abysmal hitter to a pitcher. Brian Bogusevic switched from a serviceable yet uninspiring minor-league starter to a Double-A masher (to the tune of a 168 wRC+). Hernan Iribarren became the only recent example of the two-way position player/reliever by making 10 relief appearances for Triple-A Louisville this year, putting up a smoke-and-mirrors 2.57 ERA (0.64 K/9, 3.21 BB/9, 0% HR/FB, 49% fly-ball rate).

Really, there have been only two true attempts to have a player pitch and play the field in the same season: Casey Kelly in 2009 and Brendan McKay this year. Casey Kelly was drafted 30th overall by the Red Sox in 2008 as a pitcher but decided also to pursue shortstop. The Red Sox allowed him to do so, letting him hit in his first pro season in 2008, pitch the first half of 2009, and hit the second half. He showed more promise on the mound, but was not nearly as abysmal a hitter as many converted pitchers. In December of 2009, Kelly announced his intention to pursue pitching solely, a choice that eventually led him to the majors in 2012. However, even in his 2009 attempt, Kelly never played any shortstop in between his starts, essentially functioning as two different players in the two halves rather than a singular two-way player the entire season.

Kelly vs. McKay: Pitching
Stat Kelly McKay
Levels A, High A Low A
IP 95 20
BB/9 1.52 2.25
K/9 7.01 9.45
ERA 2.08 1.80
FIP 2.94 4.03
xFIP 3.24 2.76

As a pitcher, McKay has been as good as Kelly, albeit in a much smaller sample. McKay has struck out a few more batters per nine, while Kelly had a little more home-run luck. The stats don’t include McKay’s final start of the year, a five-inning, one-hit gem where he struck out six and walked none in the deciding game of a playoff series. Including that appearance would even out their FIPs a little more. What’s even more impressive is when you remember that, while Kelly put up his numbers as a dedicated pitcher for half a season, McKay has taken to the field the five days between starts. It’s when we take a look at the pitching numbers in light of the hitting numbers that we see why McKay is such a special talent.

Kelly vs. McKay: Hitters
Stat Kelly McKay
Levels Rookie, A Low A
PA 182 149
Slash .222/.302/.340 .232/.349/.376
BB% 10.4% 14.1%
K% 26.9% 22.1%
wRC+ 89 123

McKay has been even better than Kelly offensively, in an admittedly small sample at a position where better offense is expected. He is still adjusting to pro pitching, but has so far shown the ability to take a walk, hit with some power, and put up above-average offensive numbers. Again, McKay is putting up above-average offense and pitching at the same time, not in half seasons. Since 2006, McKay is the only player to have both taken his regular turn on the mound and played the field on days in between starts. And what’s more, he’s experienced success in both roles.

Brendan McKay is not Shohei Otani. But then again, who is? While it has only been a short season for McKay against lower-minors competition, he not only became the one true two-way player in the last 12 years, but also had success on both sides of the equation. Who knows how long it can last for McKay. No player has met the two-way requirements given above for more than one season. Can his body hold up to the demands of this routine for longer nine weeks? Again, we don’t know because no one has attempted it in over a full season. While it’s likely that baseball will make the decision for him and he’ll be forced back to a singular position, McKay has accomplished something should be noticed by all, especially by another talented two-way star some 6,800 miles from St. Petersburg.

Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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Handsome Wes
4 years ago

Didn’t the Padres also try the two-way game with some guy earlier this year?

4 years ago
Reply to  Handsome Wes

Christian Bethancourt, but that was more a desperate attempt to wring value out of a fading once-prospect than a legit hope of a two-way star.

OddBall Herrera
4 years ago
Reply to  Handsome Wes

He was basically a back up catcher and emergency relief pitcher/outfielder

An interesting experiment too (catcher and pitcher is such a good combo, I picture him having whispering behind the glove mound visits with himself), but not in the same vein of two way players the way we tend to talk about them…I guess the block for me was that he was a backup position player, at least until Hedges got hurt and then I don’t think they were doing the two way things at that point anymore.