An old idea for baseball might be making its way back. When Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani decided to come to play in America, he insisted he would continue to pitch and hit. When Brendan McKay got drafted by the Rays, they originally told him he’d only get to either hit or pitch, and he was clearly devastated. However, he has since been allowed to continue to do both. Just this past month, White Sox slugger Matt Davidson was told by management that he could train to be a pitcher. This past season, Davidson emerged as one of the best emergency position player pitchers, often fooling batters with his arsenal of pitches that were much better than the average position player. Are these three players a glimpse of what could be the new norm by the next decade?
What are some of the pros and cons of bringing the two-way player back? Well, it certainly adds a unique aspect to the game. It allows matchups to be approached differently. Technically, the Cubs have several two-way players, as Joe Maddon has been known to have two pitchers on the field at once. Maddon will sometimes keep another pitcher in left field for a batter, with the goal of bringing him in for the next batter. However, having a position player – pitcher (like Davidson or McKay) would allow teams to not create the defensive liability that Maddon does by putting his bullpen pitchers in LF. It also allows the team to get more creative with roster space. Rule 5 draftees could also become a more important part of a team, rather than just a player who is required to remain on an active roster. Teams can stash these draftees in the very back of the pen or bench if they have another player who can play both ways. Additionally, teams can add a 3rd catcher if one pitcher does exceptionally better with a specific catcher, much like David Ross and Jon Lester with the Red Sox and Cubs. Bottom line, it gives your Manager and General Manager flexibility with the roster.
What about some of the downsides? Well, look no further than Shohei, unfortunately. He was sidelined with an elbow injury throughout the season. Players have a higher chance of getting injured, as they are playing more frequently than before. Furthermore, players careers will likely become shorter. The only truly successful two-way player was Babe Ruth. Other players had cups of coffee, but Babe was by far the best. Even then, he couldn’t do both his entire career. He only pitched ten years, less than half of his career. He pitched in more than five games in only five of those seasons. He extended his career because he stopped trying to do both.
The point is that players will likely run themselves into the ground, both physically and mentally, if they try and perfect both pitching and hitting at the major league level. The league might also face the issue of increased mediocrity – players being mediocre at both pitching and hitting rather than being elite at one. Ruth had several successful seasons where he was elite at both, but the game has certainly evolved since then. The current talent level is through the roof and technology is continually improving, making it easier than ever to analyze opponents.
Should the fad of the two-way player come back into the game? The players are more talented than ever, and being able to produce at an elite level on both sides of the ball is not outside the realm of possibility. However, this is a business, and as fun as it would be to see what some of these players will do, the two-way player will continue to be the exception, not the norm. The owners and front offices will see the risks of what could happen with players like Ohtani, and will choose to keep the majority of players on one side of the ball. Let’s hope to see some other “exceptions”, because man is it fun to see players like Ohtani.
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