Two Way Street
By Max Toth
In 1987, the Los Angeles Raiders picked Kansas City Royals outfielder Bo Jackson in the seventh round of the NFL Draft. Jackson would become the first, and to this day, only player to be an All-Star in both baseball and football while kick-starting the “Bo Knows” marketing craze of the 80’s and 90’s.
But Jackson and his other two-sport contemporaries may not be baseball’s most interesting double-duty athletes.
These days, a player who can serve as both an MLB calibre pitcher and a solid fielder/designated hitter on their off days holds that honour - a special “position” rapidly re-emerging from baseball history: the two-way player.
Before we map out the MLB‘s versatile future, it‘s important to first look into the annals of history. Back in baseball‘s infancy two-way players weren’t just common, they were the standard.
Permit me, for example, to introduce Albert Spalding.
If that “Spalding” surname rings a bell, give yourself a big pat on the back. Spalding is the legendary sporting goods company that supplies basketballs to the NBA and is one of the most iconic brands in the marketing world. But before he got busy manufacturing quality round balls, Albert was actually one of baseball‘s first superstars. In 1875, Spalding boasted a 1.59 ERA, an amazing 54-5 won-loss record on the mound while putting up a solid .312 average in the batter’s box. Spalding was also a talented fielder and made huge waves when he actually became the first player to wear a baseball glove in the field. (Something tells me it was a “Spalding”.)
Two-way players were common until the mid-1880‘s. That’s when a number of rule changes were introduced, including allowing pitchers to throw overhand, and for the next few decades baseball became more like the game we see today that features the separation of pitching and hitting duties. But then a young Boston Red Sox rookie by the name of George Herman Ruth took the mound for his first career start against the Cleveland Naps.
Talk around Beantown was that young George was quite the ballplayer.
Although he made his big league debut in 1914, the man eventually dubbed "Babe" Ruth didn’t unlock his true two-way potential until 1918 when he hit .300 and smacked a league-leading 11 home runs to go along with his usual pitching excellence and led the Sox to the World Series. The next season, the Bambino shattered the single-season home run record with 29 long balls. However, the Red Sox finished the year with a disappointing 66-71 record and were losing a ton of money. That's when team owner Harry Frazee made the worst deal in baseball history, selling Ruth to the Yankees in an attempt to pay off the mortgage on legendary Fenway Park. Once he landed in New York, the Yankees saw Ruth’s potential strictly as a slugger and created the "Sultan of Swat" we know and love today.
It wouldn’t be until 1964 that we’d see another two-way player, when Willie Smith (The Chicago Cub, not the actor/rapper of “Fresh Prince of Bell-Air fame) batted .301 while chalking up a 2.84 ERA. Smith would switch to serving as a full-time left fielder in 1965 and played seven more seasons in the Majors. For the next 54 years the two-way player appeared to be dead in the water.
But then along came Shoei Ohtani.
Ohtani may be baseball‘s greatest modern all-around talent. He throws harder then Chris Sale, hits the ball harder then Khris Davis and runs faster then Mookie Betts. In his rookie season, “Sho-Time” batted .285, hit 22 home runs and racked up 61 RBIs. As a pitcher, he won 4 games and lost 2 in 10 outings with a 3.31 ERA. Ohtani has served as "Exhibit A" when it comes to the luxury of having a player fill the role as a top-of-the-rotation arm and a middle-of-the-lineup slugger. Unfortunately, however, he has also exposed some of the limitations of a two-way stud. Ohtani has suffered from a number of injuries in his short career, most of them limiting his pitching ability. He didn’t pitch at all in 2019 due to an elbow injury and has likely made his last start of the 2020 campaign after suffering a forearm strain. The fact is, because of his health troubles, Ohtani may never be a consistent fixture in the Angels rotation ever again.
So, will we ever see another true two-way sensation come along and, if it happens, what will they actually look like?
Right off the bat, let’s get this straight; it’s extremely unlikely we will see a player be both the pitching ace of a team, and their best hitter on off days. The strain on the body seems to be just too great for a player to maintain that level of high calibre play. We already discussed what Ohtani has gone through and other two-way hopefuls have also struggled with the injury bug. Witness Cincinnati Reds prospect Hunter Greene, for example, a highly touted two-wayer who is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
In truth, the future of the two-way player seems to parallel more to the role of utility players. Often referred to as "Human Swiss Army Knives," utility players are usually average athletes who boost their value to teams due to their ability to effectively play multiple positions. The two-way player of the future will likely be a good pitcher, not a great pitcher; and a good hitter, not a great hitter.
But they will still exist.
Multiple teams have realized the value of a single player filling a pair of important roster spots. Micheal Lorenzen of the Cincinnati Reds didn‘t have enough plate appearances to officially qualify as a two-way player in 2019, but he hit 4 home runs in 34 tries at the dish while posting a 2.92 ERA in 83.1 innings. The Tampa Bay Rays picked Brendan McKay fourth overall in the 2017 draft and despite not being a fixture as a position player, he has definitely flashed some two-way potential. Perhaps the most promising two-way prospect is Oscar Colas. On the mound, he's a flame-throwing southpaw and when Colas isn't pitching, he's a fearsome slugger with some serious pop in his bat. Colas recently defected from Cuba and as a highly prized free agent he'll definitely have a number of big league suitors this offseason.
So, from Albert Spalding to Shohei Ohtani to Oscar Colas, the two-way player is one of baseball's most fascinating by-products and although we may never see another Babe Ruth, the next wave of two-way terrors may be just around the corner.