The Siren Call of the Two-Way Star

The 2017 MLB Draft kicks off tonight at 7 p.m. ET, and the Minnesota Twins will have the first pick from what is generally considered to be a pretty a mediocre class. And how the rest of the draft goes depends on how the Twins answer one pretty simple question: can a high-end MLB player really contribute as both a hitter and a pitcher?

According to Eric Longenhagen (and most of the other well-connected prospect writers on the internet), the Twins choice will come down to Vanderbilt RHP Kyle Wright or Louisville LHP Brendan McKay. Well, LHP/1B Brendan McKay, because the Cardinals ace is also their cleanup hitter, and his excellence has created a divide among organizations concerning on which side of the ball McKay should be developed as a professional. Or, perhaps more interestingly, whether he could potentially do both, at least for a while.

Likely to be picked right behind McKay is high-school right-hander Hunter Greene, who also was the best pitcher and hitter on his team. That’s less rare in high school, but with a top-shelf fastball and potential as a power-hitting shortstop, Greene also gets talked up as a guy who is a first rounder as either a pitcher or a hitter.

Toss in the eventual arrival of Japanese superstar Shohei Otani, and it feels like MLB’s dalliance with two-way players is about to get seriously tested. Only, instead of wondering whether Christian Bethancourt or Jordan Schafer could serve as a more-valuable 25th man, the question now is whether teams are willing to risk experimenting with the development of a player who is supposed to be a franchise cornerstone.

Of course, every draft pick — even the top guys — come with plenty of risk, so no one is throwing away a sure thing if they attempt to develop McKay or Greene as some kind of hybrid, rather than immediately forcing them to focus solely on one aspect of the game. Risk is inherent in projecting future value, and with players this far from the majors, that which is not known generally outweighs the knowledge base. But asking a player to try to become both a major-league hitter and a major-league pitcher still seems like it’s erecting another barrier to any major-league success at all, and to this point, we don’t really have much evidence that the reward is worth it.

The closest thing to a real two-way player baseball has produced in recent years are those “pitchers who rake”: Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Greinke, for instance. All are among the very best pitchers in baseball, and they have been notable for adding value at the plate, too. But they hit well relative to other pitchers. If we want to be real about how far any of them are from being legitimate offensive forces, this table tells the tale.

Pitchers Who Rake?
Player Career PA Career wRC+
Madison Bumgarner 529 53
Zack Greinke 431 51
Jake Arrieta 259 28

Sure, if we throw out Bumgarner’s abysmal batting totals from the first four years of his career, he’s put up a 100 wRC+ since the start of the 2014 season, giving some hope to the idea that a great pitcher could also hold his own as a hitter, but we also have to acknowledge that, through 2013, Bumgarner came to the plate 265 times and put up a .138/.185/.192 batting line. That’s a wRC+ of 5.

It’s hard to imagine a team allowing a two-way experiment to continue long enough for McKay or Green to get 265 big-league plate appearances with a single digit wRC+. If Bumgarner’s recent success required seeing enough major-league pitches to make the adjustments that he’s made to hit decently the last few years, that’s not a path a two-way player can realistically follow, since he won’t get to keep trying his luck as a hitter if he hits that poorly for the first few years.

Hitting major-league pitching is hard, especially now that the average fastball is roughly 104 mph. I’m sure that if Bumgarner had developed solely as a hitter, and left that whole pitching thing aside, he’d probably be a pretty good big-league hitter right now, but when the best example we have of a guy who can impact both sides of the ball has a career wRC+ south of Rey Ordonez‘, I don’t know how confident I would be that a guy can really do both on a high level in the majors.

And that’s without getting into the rest factor. McKay plays first base and DHs for Louisville, so he’s not regularly having to unleash throws with his left arm on non-pitching days, and that could probably continue in professional ball for a while as he’s further evaluated. But for Greene, it just doesn’t seem like there’s a realistic way to have him play shortstop and pitch without putting undue stress on his arm. Otani will face a similar issue when he gets here; we don’t really know if a pitcher can get enough rest required to start every fifth day for six months while also getting regular at-bats on his “off days.”

And if you’re spending a high draft pick on a guy like McKay or Greene, and you’re hoping for a quality starting pitcher, do you really want to risk some chance of him becoming that guy for the hope that he gets to upgrade your pinch-hitter availability on non-start-days?

With end-of-roster guys, I absolutely think the two-way utility man is a position that we’re going to see in MLB. It makes all kinds of sense to have a reliever who can throw 60 innings a year and serve as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner, or defensive substitute when necessary. The bar to just throw a bunch of mediocre low-leverage innings isn’t so high that you can’t imagine a guy capable of running a 90 wRC+ and a 110 ERA-, and that combination could be pretty useful if used right.

But if those are Brendan McKay’s career marks, he’ll be remembered as a bust of epic proportions. You don’t spend a high draft pick hoping to get a reliever who can also hit like a fourth outfielder. At the top of the draft, I think you probably still have to evaluate a player on one side of the ball, and mostly make your decision based on that.

If the Twins think McKay is the best pitcher in this class (as KATOH does), then they should take him No. 1 and develop him as a pitcher. If you think Wright is a better pure pitching prospect than McKay (as Eric does), then I don’t know that the fact that McKay could theoretically fall back on hitting if he flops as a pitcher is a big enough value-add to swing the decision.

And if you think he’s a good enough hitter to take No. 1 overall, well, then you might want to reconsider the abysmal track record of first baseman drafted in the first round. The last college first baseman taken in the first round to have a successful big-league career was Carlos Pena, back in 1998. Maybe Justin Smoak and Yonder Alonso are on the verge of improving the overall record of college first basemen, but when those are the potential success stories — and guys like Ike Davis and Brett Wallace are more common — then you know that this isn’t a pool in which you necessarily want to be wading.

I love the idea of two-way roster depth guys. I don’t know that I see a real path to two-way stardom in the majors, though. Perhaps Otani will change the paradigm, and perhaps he and McKay will usher in a new era of baseball together. Right now, though, with what we know, I’m hesitant to believe that there is enough development time to allow a player to be a high-level asset as both a hitter and a pitcher on a regular basis in the Majors. So if you’re drafting McKay or Greene, I think you probably want to be pretty sure that you’ll be happy with what they give you on just one side of the ball.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

Don’t sleep on Lorenzen! Chatter keeps building that he could begin actually seeing time in the outfield. He won’t be the star, but he could be a step up from the guys who have tried it before. Although not the star, he may be the guy who paves the way for one way that player could fit on a roster

5 years ago
Reply to  adlenon

Over the weekend, 2/3 of the Reds starting outfield missed games at the same time. The chatter began again of ‘maybe Lorenzen could get some innings out there!’ Instead, it was the likes of Patrick Kivlehan, Arismendy Alcantara and Babe Gennett who got the time.

Lorenzen may get some action there, if by some emergency all three outfielders for the Reds go down at the same time and maybe their backups too. It’s a nice story to fill some space for Reds team short on new narratives (“they can hit and field but can’t pitch” can only be written so many ways), but it doesn’t appear it’s anything more than that.