Does Shohei Ohtani’s success portend more two-way players in MLB? Opinions vary, albeit with the bears clearly outnumbering the bulls — at least in terms of expected production. While a certain amount of copy-catting seems inevitable, the presumptive American League rookie of the year paired a .925 OPS with a 3.31 ERA and a 10.95 strikeout rate. He was dominant on both sides of the ball in a way that’s unlikely to be replicated by anyone other than himself.
A pair of former two-way players I spoke to this season are among the skeptics. Which isn’t to say they hate the idea. Nor do they feel the Brendan McKays of the world don’t deserve every opportunity to show they can follow in Ohtani’s footsteps (hopefully without elbow surgery being part of the equation).
Steven Brault created a bit of a buzz by going his first 33 big-league plate appearances without striking out. On the heels of that eye-opening accomplishment, I asked the Pittsburgh Pirates left-hander for his opinion on why a player should, and shouldn’t, be able to play both ways at the highest level.
“The reason you should is that you’re good enough,” responded Brault, who’d excelled as a two-way player at Division II Regis University. “If you’re a good enough hitter, and a good enough pitcher, it stands to reason that your team would want you to do both. The reason you shouldn’t is that you can’t play every day. That’s been the case with Ohtani. On the days he pitched he didn’t hit, and on the day before he didn’t hit. Same for the day after. They had to make sure his body was ready to pitch.
“So, you’re going to get fewer at bats, and you’re going to get fewer outings because you’re pitching every seven days instead of every five. Basically, you’re getting less from each side. And Ohtani can really swing it. If you can’t play one of your best hitters three days a week because he needs to pitch… that’s not something you want.”
Adam Haseley isn’t sure it’s something he’d want to try. The 22-year-old Philadelphia Phillies outfield prospect played both ways at the University of Virginia, but pro ball is another story.
“The grind would probably be too much,” said Haseley, who was taken eighth overall in the 2017 draft. “But it also kind of depends on which one is going to be more predominant. I think that being more of a pitcher is more doable than being more of a position player. The wear and tear of playing every day in the outfield, or wherever it may be, is harder than if you were pitching and then DHing on other days.”
Which is, of course, what Ohtani was doing before his elbow cried uncle — and what he’ll probably be doing in 2020 once he’s ready to return to the mound. Not long from then, Brendan McKay could be knocking on a big-league door with the two-way skill set he honed at the University of Louisville. The fourth-overall pick in the 2017 draft pitched, played first base, and DH’d for Tampa Bay’s low- and high-A affiliates this past summer.
Brault — despite his reservations — would love to see McKay become Ohtani 2.0. Not only that, he wonders if his chances would be improved were cloning an option.
“Two-way players might actually make more sense if you had multiple guys on the team who can do it,” theorized Brault. “Then you could cycle them through and have it not be as taxing. Say you had eight Ohtanis — eight guys who were both hitters and pitchers. In a sense, you’d have a bigger team than anybody else.”
Colorado Rockies’ right-hander German Marquez being awarded a Silver Slugger is defensible. He went 18 for 60 at the dish, which equates to a smooth-and-even .300 batting average. And while extra-base hits weren’t his thing, his one non-single did leave the yard. He has a good argument for being this season’s best-hitting hurler.
Which brings us to Michael Lorenzen, who couldn’t be blamed if he were tell me to take the above paragraph and put it where the sun doesn’t shine. The Cincinnati Reds reliever logged half as many at bats, but what he did with them was more akin to an Ohtani than a Marquez. Lorenzen went 9 for 31, and four of those hits were bombs. His 10 RBIs were the most of any hurler, and his .710 slugging percentage dwarfed his peers.
As for positional particulars, Lorenzen went 5 for 17 with two home runs as a pitcher, 3 for 13 with two home runs as a pinch-hitter, and 0 for 1 as a right fielder. Ohtani, who was a DH when not toeing the rubber, went 6 for 19 with two home runs as a pinch-hitter.
What about WAR you might ask? Clayton Kershaw would be pleased to tell you that he led in that category, with 0.8, while Marquez, Zack Greinke, and Max Scherzer were right behind with 0.7. Of course, WAR isn’t especially important when it comes to the Silver Slugger for pitchers. Frankly the award itself isn’t especially important. The players in question get paid to pitch, not to hit.
Matt Quatraro is Kevin Cash’s new bench coach in Tampa Bay. Formerly the team’s third base coach — and before that an assistant hitting coach in Cleveland — Quatraro replaces Charlie Montoyo, who was hired to manage the Toronto Blue Jays.
His expertise extends to the catching position. Quatraro worked closely with the club’s backstops, and as you could probably guess — this is the Rays we’re talking about, after all — data factored in. With that in mind, I approached the 45-year-old with some pertinent questions late in the season.
One of the things I wanted to know was whether some catchers frame certain areas of the plate better than others, and if so, does that influence who catches whom in a given game? The answer to the first part of the question was yes. The answer to the second part was yes-and-no.
“If you have a guy who is really good at the low pitch, you might try to match him up with your sinker-ball guy, as opposed to one of your four-seam ride guys,” Quatraro told me. “Of course, most teams don’t split their catching evenly, so you’re not always going to be able to do that. But in a perfect scenario, you would match up that way.”
According to Quatraro, catchers also differ in their ability to frame inside and out. Much like up and down, that only matters so much.
“You will see guys who are better on one side of the plate than the other,” said Quatraro. “Absolutely. Now, as far as pitchers who throw to just one side of the plate, that’s less common — especially for starters. You do see some relievers that are that way. Yusmeiro Petit comes to mind. He only throws away to righties. But while that’s the case, you’re not going to be matching up your catcher with a specific reliever. “
As for stealing strikes, some areas are better than others — regardless of who is squatting behind the plate.
“The lesser numbers are on the catcher’s bare-hand side,” Quatraro informed me. “A right-handed pitcher going away to a right-handed hitter is the least-often called. If you flip it, there are more strikes called away to left-handed hitters than there are to right-handed hitters.”
“I think that’s still in flux a little bit,” opined Quatraro. “The zone has moved up over the last couple of years, but there are guys who are getting that low strike. You see wider disparities from catcher to catcher.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Circling back to Ohtani, it didn’t take long for him to make an impression in MLB. An April exchange between Anaheim’s pitching coach and bullpen coach bears that out.
“He’s got special stuff,” Scott Radinsky related to me recently. “It’s funny. Charlie Nagy and I had a conversation early in the season, maybe five or six games in. I said something to the effect of, ‘Isn’t he a little slow to the plate?’ Charlie said, ‘I’m not really worried about that. He never pitches with anyone on base.’’
And then there’s what he does with the bat. An Angels coach told me early in spring training that Ohtani’s raw power was second-best on the team behind that of Mike Trout. Given that he went on to hit 22 bombs in just 326 big-league at bats, it’s probably safe to say that was an accurate appraisal.
“If he hits the ball in the air, there’s a pretty good chance it’s a home run,” acknowledged Radinsky. “It’s amazing the strength he’s got. He’s a special athlete, man. He can flat out rake.”
During yesterday’s Japan All-Star Tour Series broadcast, MLBNetwork put up a graphic showing that Ichiro Suzuki’s 4,367 hits are the most in professional baseball history. That is, of course, incorrect. Pete Rose played professional baseball from 1960-1986 and recoded 4,683 hits — 427 in the minor leagues, and
4,256 in MLB. Those are their regular-season numbers. Rose also had 86 hits in the postseason. Ichiro has 27 post-season hits.
Yuki Yanagita, who went 4 for 4 in yesterday’s game, led NPB’s Pacific Division in batting average (.352), OBP (.431), and SLG (.661). The 30-year-old Fukuoka Softbank Hawks outfielder homered 36 times and stole 21 bases. He’s slashed .319/.420/.545 in seven NPB seasons.
Yanagita signed a three-year deal with Softbank last December and — per The Japan Times — will be eligible to go to MLB as a free agent in the winter of 2020.
The Australian Baseball League season gets underway this coming Thursday. Byung-Hyun Kim (Melbourne Aces) and Warwick Saupold (Perth Heat) are among the notables who will be populating the eight rosters.
Mike Tamburro has been named the 2018 King of Baseball by Minor League Baseball. The award “recognizes a veteran of professional baseball for longtime dedication and service.” Tamburro has been with the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox since 1977, serving as the team’s general manager, president, and most recently, vice chairman.
Ehsan Bokhari, who has worked as a senior analyst for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the new director of research and development in Houston. He replaces Mike Fast, who left the Astros and is now a special assistant to the general manager with the Atlanta Braves.
Quintin Berry has been hired as an outfield and base-running coordinator by the Milwaukee Brewers. Playing sparingly for five teams from 2012-2017, Berry was 29 for 31 in stolen base attempts during the regular season, and a perfect 5 for 5 during the postseason.
Kevin Kouzmanoff, who played for five MLB teams from 2006-2014, has been named the hitting coach for Oakland’s short-season affiliate, the Vermont Lake Monsters.
Tyler Thornburg was seven years old when he attended Game 6 of the 1995 World Series and watched the Braves capture their first, and only, championship since moving to Atlanta. He was a huge fan growing up. The righty reliever put it to me this way: “I was a stat nerd as a kid. I knew all of the players and their numbers. I collected baseball cards and memorized everything on the back of them.”
Did that same level of fandom carry over into Thornburg’s years at Charleston Southern University? I don’t know the answer to that question, but my guess is that it didn’t. I’m basing that on my own experience, as well as on a recent conversation with a friend who is now in his forties. He admitted to barely remembering a 1990s moment I brought up, explaining that he was in college at the time and other interests were garnering most of his attention. For all intents and purposes, his girls-and-keg-parties years were a hole in what has otherwise been a baseball-loving life.
I thought of that while contemplating the controversial, if not somewhat misinterpreted, comments made by Bill James on Thursday. Notable among them was, “If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them, the game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever.”
Let’s assume that James was sharing the following two-pronged opinion (my belief is that he was): 1. The game itself is what fans love most. 2. Fans primarily root for laundry — i.e. their favorite teams — knowing that the names on the back are going to be constantly changing. From one year to the next, Player X will be replaced by Player Y, for several possible reasons — Father Time being one of them.
The three years James mentioned is one orbit of the sun short of a typical college tenure. My friend fell away from the game for roughly that period of time — a goodly number of players getting replaced during his lull — only to return as passionate as ever. Other fans have experienced something similar, at varying points of their lives. I can’t speak for James, but I think that’s what he was getting at.
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At Royals Review, Sean Thornton wrote about how Gold Glove voting, while still imperfect, has improved markedly in recent years.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Joe Mauer had an .889 OPS in 897 games as a catcher, a .797 OPS in 310 games as a designated hitter, and a .751 OPS in 593 games as a first baseman.
Tigers right fielder Nicholas Castellanos hit 88 balls 330 feet or farther for outs this season, four of which went over 400 feet. (Per Chris McCosky of The Detroit News.)
St. Louis Cardinals right-hander John Gant has two hits in 47 career plate appearances. Both are home runs.
Newly-named Blue Jays bench coach Dave Hudgens — formerly the hitting coach in Houston — had one hit in seven big-league at bats. Playing for the Oakland A’s, Hudgens singled off Toronto’s Dave Stieb in September 1983.
Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner played in 1,472 games, had 2,852 total bases, 369 home runs, and a 149 adjusted OPS. Albert Belle played in 1,539 games, had 381 home runs, 3,300 total bases, and a 144 adjusted OPS.
Gus Bell, the grandfather of Cincinnati manager David Bell, played with the Reds from 1953-1961. His best season was his first in the Queen City. Acquired from the Pirates the previous winter, Bell slashed .300/.354/.525, with 30 home runs.
Chris Rowley, who has made eight pitching appearances for the Toronto Blue Jays over the past two seasons, is a first lieutenant in the United States Army. Rowley is the first graduate of West Point to play in the big leagues.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.