Ohtani could clear path for 2-way players

Japanese superstar would be 1st successful pitcher-hitter since Ruth

December 3rd, 2017

As Dave Winfield was wrapping up a Hall of Fame career, he had only one bit of unfinished business on his personal bucket list. 

"I'd still like to pitch in a game," he said.

Winfield would have settled for one. You know, just to show he still could. Winfield had done it at the University of Minnesota and figured it couldn't be that tough.

:: coverage ::

Winfield never got around to checking that last box, and so he will be remembered as a first-ballot Hall of Famer who impacted games with his glove, legs, bat and arm. But he did not pitch.

There may not be a current or former Major Leaguer who appreciates what Shohei Ohtani is about to do more than Winfield.

Unless it's John Olerud. He pitched and played first base -- and did both things well -- at Washington State University. Some scouts saw Olerud as a pitcher first and a hitter second. He wasn't sure, either.

After the Blue Jays selected Olerud in the third round of the 1989 Draft, he remembered a workout when pitchers went to one diamond, hitters another. He went with the hitters and guessed he might be called over to the other group at some point. And that's how a 17-year career that included a batting title and two World Series championship rings took off.

If either Winfield or Olerud came along now, scouts would look at their careers differently. Rather than debating whether they should hit or pitch, they would almost certainly be given the opportunity to do both.

And that's the impact Ohtani could have on Major League Baseball. To sum it up, he could change everything.

No one is quite sure how it's going to work out, or even if it will work out. Starting pitchers have such regimented workdays -- running, lifting, throwing -- between starts, that it's unclear to a lot of people how Ohtani would get his pitching work in and then play a game at first base or designated hitter.

That's what we'll find out in 2018. Ohtani is insisting on getting a chance to do both. He did both successfully in Japan the past five seasons, starting at least 20 games three times with a 1.076 WHIP and compiling an .859 OPS in 1,170 plate appearances as a hitter.

No one since Babe Ruth has successfully done what Ohtani is attempting to do.

And even then, it didn't last very long. Ruth had 543 plate appearances in his final season with the Red Sox (1919) and also pitched in 17 games. When he was sold to the Yankees after the season, his pitching career was pretty much over.

Baseball was already moving in this direction, as a new generation of baseball executives looked at the game differently.

The Rays used the fourth pick of the 2017 Draft on Louisville's Brendan McKay, and in his first taste of pro baseball last summer, he started six games as a pitcher and played 36 as a first baseman or designated hitter.

Also in the 2017 Draft, the Reds took prep two-way star Hunter Greene No. 2 overall. But while Greene DH'd in seven games for Billings in the Pioneer League (and started three games on the mound), his future is on the hill.

The Dodgers had scouted as both a pitcher and a hitter at the University of Arkansas. The Royals drafted him as a hitter in 2010, and that's what the A's considered him when they acquired him in '16. After the Dodgers traded for Eibner last offseason, they sent him back to the Minors to add pitching to his game.

Eibner's transition has been derailed by Tommy John surgery, but when he returns in 2018, he could still get a chance to do both. If he can, he'll essentially save the Dodgers a roster spot by filling two roles.

Other players have tried. Brooks Kieschnick pitched in 74 games and got 144 plate appearances for the Brewers in 2003-04. Willie Smith played 691 games and pitched 29 times for five teams in the 1960s and early '70s.

Outfielder Jason Lane hit 26 home runs to help the Astros get to the World Series in 2005. When his career stalled, he returned to the Minor Leagues and started over as a pitcher. Lane had done both at USC and eventually pitched three games for the Padres in '14 before calling it a career after the '15 season.

But no one since Ruth 99 years ago has successfully done what Ohtani is attempting to do. Every player, coach, scout and manager will be paying attention. If Ohtani can do it, the impact on the game will be huge. And Winfield will be paying attention.