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Searching for the Best Two-Way Player Since Babe Ruth

Brendan McKay, Hunter Greene, and the two-way prospects du jour in the 2017 MLB draft

Shohei Otani, Hunter Greene, and Brendan McKay (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Shohei Otani, Hunter Greene, and Brendan McKay (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

I still haven’t seen another one-person baseball performance as dominant as Aaron Alvey’s on August 25, 2002. Alvey has since fallen off the baseball map — he reportedly quit the sport in high school and has been embroiled in legal troubles in recent years — but for one night, from the perspective of an elementary-school-aged kid who unearthed equal joy from pitching and hitting a Wiffle ball every day after school, Alvey was the ideal ballplayer. In the Little League World Series championship game that night, the Louisville club’s ace struck out 11 in six shutout innings and added a solo home run in a 1–0 victory over the team from Sendai, Japan.

It was a Bob Welch game in South Williamsport or, for a more child-friendly reference, a Bugs Bunny solo show from the best pitcher, batter, and overall athlete on the World Series field. That manner of performance is not unique at youth levels, as superior athletes naturally outperform their less-talented peers across the diamond, and for a select few, that well-roundedness can transfer to high school and college ball. But 15 years after I was first transfixed by a two-way baseball player, I’m still waiting for one to make an imprint on the major leagues.

It’s not just me; the sport at large has been waiting a lot longer than 15 years. Since 1901, only 13 players at the MLB level have reached both 200 plate appearances and 100 innings pitched in the same season, and among those 13, Babe Ruth is the only player to achieve the feat more than once, and the only one to achieve it at all after the start of World War I. It seems his sale to the Yankees cursed not only Boston, but the two-way player mold as well.

Yet the emergence of a baseball unicorn remains such a compelling dream that this year’s MLB draft, which starts with the first two out of 40 rounds on Monday night, is still captivating, despite an overall class that ESPN analyst Keith Law describes as “weaker than normal” and “definitely worse than it was a year ago,” and of which my colleague Michael Baumann wrote, “I hate this draft class.” Two-way players are the prospects du jour at the top of the draft, led by Brendan McKay, a weekend starter and middle-of-the-order first baseman at Louisville who could go first overall to the Twins, and Hunter Greene, who flashed a triple-digits fastball and a plus bat-glove combo at shortstop at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California, and who shouldn’t slip past the Padres at no. 3.

As with every MLB draft, numerous prospective picks spent the past year as two-way players, but given the recent hype around the idea inspired by McKay, Greene, and their fellow multifaceted draft mates, their dual identities are more notable this year. Hagen Danner, a two-way LLWS hero in his own right nearly a decade after Alvey, is slated to go in the first two rounds, with scouts unsure whether he’s a better long-term project as a pitcher or a catcher; at last summer’s Area Codes showcase, incidentally, he caught a fireballing Greene.

It’s improbable, of course, that any of these players will reach the majors as both a pitcher and a hitter, either because their draft teams will strip one of those responsibilities immediately — Greene seems destined to lose his shortstop status, for instance, and possible top-five pick Adam Haseley will stop pitching to move to the outfield full time — or because playing well enough on the mound, at bat, and in the field to warrant promotions through the minor league system will prove too difficult. The rare efforts to develop prospects in both areas have met with meager results and rapid ends. Casey Kelly, Boston’s first-round pick in 2008, was drafted primarily as a pitcher but wanted to stick at shortstop — until, after hitting .219/.282/.336 in two seasons at rookie ball and various Single-A stops, he agreed to abandon that route and transition fully to the mound.

“I think it’s very challenging probably with the specialization in today’s game,” Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen, then Boston’s director of player development, said in 2009 about Kelly and the broader two-way push. “With the amount of work we put in on both sides of it, from all the work the pitchers do in between their starts to all the work the hitters do every day. I don’t know what it was like back then [with Ruth], but I’m assuming we’re probably doing a little bit more work on a daily basis.”

Other recent possibilities floated as two-way efforts don’t really qualify as such, at least in the Ruthian sense of the term. In the days before, the Diamondbacks’ Micah Owings — who once slugged two home runs, a double, and six RBIs in the same game he issued a quality start — was one of my favorite players to follow through newspaper box scores, but he was never good enough as either a pitcher (career 5.04 ERA as a starter) or fielder (zero career MLB innings at a non-pitcher position) to make a dual role work. Milwaukee’s Brooks Kieschnick received a plurality of his career at-bats as a pinch hitter and threw only 96 career innings. This year, the Padres’ Christian Bethancourt experiment has foundered, as the catcher-cum-outfielder-cum-reliever has allowed 21 earned runs and walked 22 batters in just 16.1 innings between Triple-A and the majors.

For some multitalented players — Rick Ankiel, closers such as Kenley Jansen, now Anthony Gose — a switch from pitching to hitting, or vice versa, makes sense as a last-gasp career saver, but that isn’t the same as a simultaneous two-way effort. Instead, the sport’s defined, single-track structure has merely teased fans with fleeting glimpses of could-have-beens, like when Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks, who touched 97 mph with his heater in high school, cut down a runner at home with the fastest throw recorded by Statcast tracking technology.

A real, sustained two-way effort will require both an extraordinary baseball athlete and an organization with a hearty reserve of imagination. Two-way play in other sports — or in the hitting and fielding realms in baseball — requires less diversification of talent than it does in baseball, where both pitching and hitting involve tremendous athleticism, balance, and coordination, but also two distinct strains of technical skill that are time consuming to hone initially and then maintain effectively throughout a season and career.

Even Ruth achieved the 200 PA–100 IP double only twice, as he didn’t play anywhere except pitcher until 1918 and essentially stopped pitching once he became a Yankee two years later. And that was for a proven two-way producer; the current class of prospects likely won’t even earn a chance to prove its worth on both sides before being forced into one or the other.

“It’s a gamble because if you do both, maybe you don’t reach your ceiling in either,” prospect writer Jim Callis said on MLB Network recently. “You get to that argument: Would you rather have somebody who’s maybe good two ways or great one way?”

As with all sorts of baseball nostalgia, the allure of the two-way player draws from Ruth’s singular status. (A handful of 19th-century players, such as Hall of Famer John Ward, also embodied both roles, but if you know their names, you’re certainly already awash in this very brand of nostalgia.) Baseball fans are in a constant pursuit to identify modern reincarnations of the sport’s legends, from Mike Trout, Mickey Mantle redux, to Joey Votto, Ted Williams impersonator, to Clayton Kershaw, eerily similar Sandy Koufax parallel. But even with today’s elite players, nobody can approach the totality of a Ruth comparison, so unique were the Bambino’s feats on the diamond, so varied were his contributions. The Babe has the most batting WAR and highest wRC+ of any hitter in history, plus he won an ERA title and at one point threw 29.2 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series. It’s incomprehensible that any modern player could recapture his two-way magic.

Yet the descriptor “best two-way player since Ruth” is a legitimate and nonhyperbolic comparison for any future two-way player who receives a modicum of playing time in the majors, if only because of a lack of any other precedents. And that phrasing sounds a great deal more mystical and affirming than, say, “best two-way player since Casey Kelly,” had his experiment succeeded, or really more so than “best two-way player since [any MLB player other than the greatest one of all time]” would.

It also imbues the two-way quest with a great deal more pressure than it would had any other player managed to follow Ruth in the last 100 years. If McKay reaches Double-A with decent numbers at the plate and on the mound, he will sell out ballparks every night throughout the Southern League; if whichever team signs Japanese sensation Shohei Otani when he posts promises to let him swing the bat as a designated hitter in addition to pitch, the craze surrounding his rookie season will make Nomomania appear tame by comparison, at least stateside.

Current draft buzz aside, our greatest hope is Otani, who might seek a move to MLB as soon as this upcoming offseason — if he’s willing to sacrifice nine figures of salary — and who has already proved his two-way bona fides at a professional level. According to Deltagraphs, a Japanese-language site that tracks sabermetric stats from Nippon Professional Baseball, Otani the hitter had that league’s fourth-highest wRC+ last year, with a batting line 82 percent better than average, while Otani the pitcher one-upped himself with NPB’s best park-adjusted ERA and FIP. As Ben Lindbergh noted last fall, Otani’s combined WAR total between hitting and pitching (10.4) was “roughly equivalent to Mike Trout’s single-season high,” despite the 22-year-old phenom appearing in fewer than 130 games.

But this year, Otani hasn’t played since early April after straining a leg muscle running the bases, this injury coming after lingering ankle pain kept him out of the World Baseball Classic and prevented him from pitching. The pessimistic — or, perhaps, financially conscious — baseball fan would note that an MLB team investing nine figures in a likely ace would want to limit his exposure to injury-making opportunities.

At least on a hypothetical level, there is a simple, practical rationale behind developing a two-way star: If he can serve as a multiwin player as both pitcher and hitter, he both strengthens his own value and offers the team added roster flexibility, particularly as bullpens balloon in size and benches shrink accordingly. But largely, the practical considerations for a two-way player veer toward the negative, from injury risks to specialization concerns to the sheer improbability that a single athlete could double as one of the world’s most electric arms and one of its most powerful bats.

Ultimately, the dream of a successful two-way player with reasonable MLB longevity stems more from a romantic notion rather than any realistic understanding of the modern incarnation of the sport. But romance is a central component of baseball’s appeal, from every fan’s Opening Day pennant fantasy to the game’s fireworks traditions to, yes, the baseball cinema that to this day features Ruth as a prominent figure, spouting warm aphorisms about the difference in magnitude between heroes and legends.

To my younger self, a 12-year-old pitcher-slash-slugger from Louisville was a baseball hero, for one title-winning night. Fifteen years later, I’m waiting for someone — maybe Otani, maybe Greene, maybe McKay or a future draftee — to match that feat in the majors, to transcend 100 years of pessimistic precedence and become a legend by virtue of his positions alone.