Why the 2017 MLB Draft probably won't produce the league's next two-way star
By: Ted Berg
Across the 1918 and 1919 seasons, a Boston Red Sox player named Babe Ruth — you may have heard of the guy — made 37 appearances as a pitcher and threw 30 complete games to tally 299 2/3 innings with a good, but by the standards of that era unspectacular, 2.55 ERA. He also started 181 total games as a position player in those seasons and led the Majors in home runs and OPS across the span.
Still only 25 when he was famously traded to the Yankees before the 1920 season, Ruth made sporadic pitching appearances throughout the remainder of his career, but for the most part just focused on being the greatest hitter to ever lift a bat. Babe Ruth, the biggest star in baseball history, was also the sport’s last real claim at a two-way star.
There have been a handful of two-way players of minor repute since, and a couple of Major League pitchers that converted into somewhat successful position players. But with all due respect to the likes of Christian Bethancourt, Micah Owings and Brooks Kieschnick, the sport has not seen a guy simultaneously excel as a pitcher and a position player since Babe Freaking Ruth. And though this author would cherish a true two-way MLB star as much as any fan of the sport would and should, Monday night’s 2017 MLB Draft seems unlikely to buck nearly a century’s worth of tradition to produce the game’s next great pitcher-hitter combo.
I feel like a hopeless naysayer here, and I mean not to knock the extraordinary talents of top draft prospects and compelling two-way candidates Hunter Greene and Brendan McKay, nor the less heralded potential first-round pick Hagen Danner. I’m not saying that none of them have the capacity to become two-way contributors at the Major League level: I’m not a scout, and I haven’t seen nearly enough of any of them in game action to make even untrained guesses at their physical tools and projectability (and I urge you to look warily upon MLB Draft previews from anyone who doesn’t spend a whole buttload of time watching these guys and talking to scouts about their futures).
This may sound incredibly obvious, but it’s nonetheless true: First-round draft picks, and especially early first-round draft picks like the ones expected to net teams Greene and McKay, represent enormous value to Major League teams. Selecting a guy first or second or third or even 28th overall means making a huge investment in his future, both financially and logistically. And even as some teams now seem more willing to experiment with roster roles at the fringes, MLB clubs have always been risk-averse. Attempting to develop a mega-talented player as both a pitcher and a hitter would be an enormous risk: There’s no real strong precedent to draw upon — at least not stateside — and maintaining the health of young pitchers requires great care and caution even if you’re not asking them to do double-duty.
That’s not to say there’s no added value in, to paraphrase a popular internet thing, finding yourself a man who can do both. The Cardinals used a second-round pick on Rick Ankiel in 1997, and after Ankiel fell apart on the mound following a great rookie season, St. Louis ultimately benefited from his services as a power-hitting outfielder. The A’s took Sean Doolittle late in the first round of the 2007 Draft, and when injuries prevented Doolittle from reaching the Majors as a first baseman, the club turned him into a good reliever. There are more, and more unlikely, stories of successful conversions, but undoubtedly drafting a hitter with a history of success on the mound (or vice versa, again) improves a club’s chances of getting value from the pick in the long run.
“There are a lot of two-way players in every draft, but for 2017, a number of first-round talents have significant experience as two-way players,” Braves general manager John Coppolella told the Associated Press. “There may come a day where there is a true impact two-way player, but until that day, you just choose one outcome and know the other possibility looms if failure occurs.”
Again, the 2017 season has seen a couple of teams get a little more creative with certain players’ roles, and — not coincidentally — two of those teams have top-3 picks on Monday night. Reds pitcher Michael Lorenzen has stated his desire to be a two-way player, and the rebuilding club has thrice used the reliever as a pinch-hitter this season. The rebuilding Padres briefly tried using Bethancourt as a setup reliever and extra position player in the early part of the season, but Bethancourt — never much of a hitter — struggled to throw strikes and earned a demotion to Class AAA, where he has also struggled to throw strikes.
But while Lorenzen has been good out of the Reds’ bullpen since the start of last season, neither he nor Bethancourt is anything close to a full-blown two-way MLB player, and neither appears likely to become the type of franchise-changing star a team hopes to find with an early first-round draft pick. They stand mostly as false hope, glimmering little shards of evidence we identify only because we all think it would be extremely cool if one of those clubs chooses to keep things funky with the likes of a Greene or a McKay.
Trying that, naturally, requires figuring out a program wherein a young player can develop on the mound, at the plate, and in the field without jeopardizing his health. How exactly would such a thing shake out? Greene plays shortstop and, by all accounts, plays it very well. But it’d seem borderline criminal to make a 17-year-old player endure the rigors of both pitching and playing shortstop with any regularity: Presumably you would never want him on the field the day before or the day after he pitches, so allowing him to pitch and play shortstop would likely mean robbing him of development opportunities in both spots.
“That remains to be seen, whether or not someone can do that,” Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey told the AP. “I’m not necessarily saying it’s impossible, but the amount of time, if you talk to any of these guys, that they put in on either the hitting side or the pitching side, to double that, no one’s figured out a way to make more than 24 hours in a day.
“If someone figures that out, maybe we’ll have an opportunity, but it’s a challenge.”
McKay, a hard-throwing lefty and first baseman, might be a better candidate than Sports Illustrated cover star Greene to pull it off, since McKay fields a position that requires far less throwing and has already performed as an elite college bat. A good-hitting first baseman with the ability to take the mound late in games to retire opposing lefties would be an enormously valuable and endlessly fun player, but doing that, again, would require a player develop big-league ability in both functions and come with a whole lot of risk.
Paradoxically, it would make most sense for a two-way to exist in the American League, where pitchers do not hit. If McKay can hit well enough to be a capable Major League DH, it would be far easier to protect his arm on days he does not pitch. It’s a pipedream, still, but that’s probably the best route. It makes less sense for a guy like Greene, who plays a more valuable defensive position without as much obvious immediate offensive upside.
Still, the most likely person to emerge as a true two-way player in MLB anytime soon is one currently playing overseas: Shohei Otani, a 22-year-old fireballer for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan, was the NPB’s best pitcher last season and one of its best hitters as a DH. A hamstring injury has kept him off the mound (and mostly out of the batter’s box) to date in 2017, and, as Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports recently explaining, going to the Majors before 2019 could cost him hundreds of millions of dollars.
But unlike Greene and McKay, Otani will be a free agent with a whole lot more negotiating leverage than any 2017 draft pick. He initially intended to enter the American minor leagues after high school, but signed with Nippon only when that team promised him the chance to keep playing on both sides of the ball. So Otani looks like the guy with the talent, the desire, and the pull to both pitch and hit on a regular basis in the Majors. For now, though, the idea of a true two-way superstar in the big leagues remains more of a fun thought experiment than an immediate possibility.