On Saturday night, the Shohei Ohtani Project reached a major milestone. Not because of anything Ohtani himself did, but because Tampa Bay Rays two-way prospect Brendan McKay got his first taste of big league action. The Rays, sliding out of the AL East race with Tyler Glasnow on the IL and Blake Snell on the skids, are calling on the rookie to make at least two starts, perhaps more if he pitches well.
So far, so good for the 23-year-old lefty from Darlington, Pennsylvania: In his debut, McKay took a perfect game into the sixth inning and left the game after six innings of scoreless, one-hit ball. He even fielded his position well: When Joey Gallo popped the ball up against the shift toward a totally deserted left side of the infield, McKay scrambled over to third base to track it down.
McKay is also capable of retiring batters through more traditional means, with good fastball velocity for a lefty and exceptional command for anyone, with a plus slider to boot.
But the Rays don’t just expect McKay to be their no. 4 starter down the stretch and shag bloopers against the shift; they also expect him to hit.
Right now, Ohtani is the only person in the past 100 years to be a big league regular at the plate and on the mound at the same time. We don’t know whether others could follow in his footsteps given the chance to develop into two-way players from the beginning of their careers. McKay’s success or failure in this endeavor will go a long way toward answering that question, and thus could end up impacting future two-way players even more than Ohtani’s.
McKay was the no. 4 pick in the 2017 draft out of the University of Louisville, where he was the consensus national player of the year as a junior. Not only did McKay post a career 2.65 ERA and strike out 391 batters in 315 1/3 career innings at Louisville, he hit .328/.430/.536 over three collegiate seasons, including a staggering .341/.457/.659 to go with 18 home runs in 64 games in his draft year.
When the Rays drafted McKay, they made a point to introduce him as a two-way player, and almost 25 months later, a two-way player he remains. Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters not to expect McKay to DH regularly between his first two big league starts, but said McKay would probably see action as a pinch hitter on his first trip to the show. (McKay played first base in college and his first two years in the minors, but has yet to play the field in 2019.)
While Ohtani’s ability to play both ways in professional ball has made him an intercontinental superstar, McKay was merely the latest heir to a longstanding tradition of two-way players in NCAA ball. Brandon Belt, Andrelton Simmons, and Buster Posey all played both ways in college. So did Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston. Three years before McKay won the Golden Spikes, Kentucky’s A.J. Reed took home college baseball’s biggest individual award after leading the SEC in wins and home runs in the same year. The Astros took Reed with the 42nd pick in the 2014 draft, then used their next pick on Cal State Fullerton’s J.D. Davis, who had 16 doubles and seven saves as a junior. Suffice it to say, there are dozens of ex-two-way players scattered across the majors.
Most fans don’t know that MLB clubhouses are positively crawling with two-way players because in the overwhelming majority of cases, the team that drafts such a player chooses which of those two ways he’s going to play, or allows him to make the choice himself. In the 2017 draft alone, McKay was one of three two-way players in the top seven picks. Hunter Greene, who went second overall to the Reds, was a high-level shortstop prospect, but he’s pitched almost exclusively in pro ball, and has never played a professional game at shortstop. No. 8 pick Adam Haseley made five starts for the national champion Virginia Cavaliers as a freshman in 2015, then posted a 1.73 ERA as a sophomore, but after more than 200 professional games in the outfield, Haseley has yet to throw a professional pitch.
The reason that even the best two-way amateurs routinely turn into one-way pros is simple: It’s hard enough to develop a young player and keep him healthy when he’s devoting all his reps to one side of the ball. Developing a two-way player also requires the player to be at roughly the same stage of development as both a hitter and a pitcher; if he’s a Single-A–level hitter but a Triple-A–level pitcher, there’s no way to get him reps at both positions that challenge him without overwhelming him.
Most of the time, one skill set is so far ahead of the other that the choice is obvious. Greene, for instance, came armed with a 102 mph fastball, a gift too rare to risk fouling up with a Hail Mary shot at having him play shortstop part time. Haseley, conversely, didn’t throw hard enough to be a serious pitching prospect but was a polished college hitter with the potential to move quickly through the minors, so the Phillies never bothered trying him out on the mound.
Ohtani was able to become a world-class hitter and pitcher for two reasons: First, the top level of Japanese baseball, the NPB, is better than the American minor leagues but not as good as MLB. This means Ohtani was able to achieve that elusive balance, facing competition good enough to challenge him as he developed but not so good that it overwhelmed him. Ohtani didn’t pop out of the womb cranking 450-foot homers and throwing in the upper 90s: Even he had to learn how to compete against the best players in his country. As an 18-year-old rookie, Ohtani hit just .238/.284/.376 and posted a 4.23 ERA while striking out just 46 against 33 walks in 61 2/3 innings. But NPB wasn’t so far over his head on either side of the ball that Ohtani was forced to specialize right off the proverbial bat.
The lower level of competition also gave the Nippon-Ham Fighters, Ohtani’s NPB club, more of an incentive to develop him as a two-way player. Last year, Ohtani had the eighth-best wRC+ among MLB hitters with at least 300 plate appearances and the 29th-best ERA- among starting pitchers with at least 50 innings. Getting a top-10-ish hitter and a top-30-ish starting pitcher out of one roster spot is quite a coup (as last year’s worldwide freakout over Ohtani would suggest), but having an outside shot at that best-case scenario might not be worth risking one of those outcomes to try to get both. Having literally the best starting pitcher in the league and literally the best DH in the league in one roster spot (which is how voters for the Pacific League Best Nine Awards regarded Ohtani in 2016)? That’s worth the developmental risk that pursuing a two-way path through the minors could harm the prospect’s development on his stronger side. Or, for that matter, expose him to additional injury risk; Ohtani is proof of that himself—offseason Tommy John surgery cost him the first month of the 2019 season at the plate and will cost him the entire 2019 season at the mound.
Second, he’s a stupendously gifted athlete. If there’s some other human on the planet with the arm strength to throw a 101 mph fastball, the finesse to command multiple breaking pitches, the hand-eye coordination to hit .300 with patience and power, and the foot speed to post a double-digit stolen base total in half a season, I’m not aware of him.
McKay is a superb prospect, but he’s not on Ohtani’s level. Ohtani is bigger than McKay. He has a better hit tool and more power, he throws harder, and he runs faster. Ohtani is a god. McKay is merely an exceptionally talented human, one who can not only throw but command four pitches, with potential to hit for average and power to boot.
Mortal though he may be, McKay came out of college exceptionally polished as both a hitter and a position player and with a legitimate chance to succeed as either. That’s not the case for most collegiate two-way players. I saw McKay live as a freshman and found him incredibly impressive as a pitcher; he threw 6 1/3 no-hit innings against a top-10 Florida State team that had torched first-rounder Kyle Funkhouser the night before. But as a position player, he was a contact-first first baseman without much power, and that’s not a particularly enticing prospect profile. If McKay had been draft eligible in 2015, he’d be a full-time pitcher now. But in 2017, McKay developed a power stroke, putting on eye-watering batting practice shows and nearly doubling his career collegiate home run total; when he turned pro, opinion was more or less split on whether he’d be a better hitter or pitcher.
McKay has performed better as a pitcher than as a hitter in pro ball; he posted a 2.41 ERA with 103 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings across three low-minors levels in 2018, which was to be expected for such an advanced prospect. So far in 2019, though, he’s been even better against tougher competition: 66 2/3 innings in Double-A and Triple-A, with 88 strikeouts against just 15 walks and nine earned runs allowed.
At the plate, McKay hit .214/.368/.359 in 2018 and is hitting .205/.313/.331 so far in 2019, which could indicate that he just can’t hit in the pros. But it could also be the result of him moving through the minors as quickly as his arm will allow, and his bat isn’t developing at quite the same pace. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that McKay is on an Ohtani-like schedule that reduces his playing time. For comparison’s sake, Haseley, who beat McKay to the majors by a month, took 981 minor league plate appearances before his call-up, almost twice as many as McKay’s 541. His arm’s more than ready, but his bat needs more minor league reps, and he can’t pitch in the majors while leaving his bat in Durham to catch up.
If McKay can’t hang as a two-way player, we’ll have more proof that maybe it takes a once-in-a-generation talent like Ohtani to pull off that act. But if he can, that could throw baseball’s developmental paradigm into chaos, and players like McKay could be scouted as two-way regulars from the start, instead of position players who can take the mound and eat an inning in a blowout, like Rangers minor leaguer Matt Davidson, or pitchers who can pinch hit, like Cincinnati’s Michael Lorenzen. Both of those players entered pro ball intending to hit or pitch, and only after hitting their ceiling in one phase of the game did they return to playing both ways.
McKay isn’t an established big leaguer at one position trying to chip in at another; he’s a top prospect being developed as a two-way player from the start. In fact, a substantial part of his stature as a prospect stems from his potential to play both ways. If McKay succeeds, it would embolden other organizations to take chances by developing top prospects as two-way players.
The Rays are already taking that next step. In 2015, they spent a seventh-round pick on Jacob Cronenworth, who over three years at the University of Michigan hit .312/.400/.436 while playing all four infield positions, and also had a career 2.76 ERA with 27 saves on the mound. Cronenworth is a 6-foot-1 right-hander who threw in the low 90s in college, hard enough to hang in the Big Ten, less so in the AL East, and so the Rays have been developing him as a shortstop. Now 25 years old, Cronenworth is hitting .343/.431/.552 at Triple-A Durham and was just named to the International League All-Star team.
He’s also returned to the mound in 2019 for the first time in four years. It’s been a mixed bag: In six appearances he’s walked more than he’s struck out, but he’s also yet to allow an earned run and has been throwing as hard as 96 miles an hour. Maybe Ohtani is so special his success can’t be replicated. Or maybe he is to playing both ways what Babe Ruth was to swinging for the fences, or Steph Curry was to shooting 28-foot jumpers: a supreme talent who was only unique until others realized they could also do the impossible.