Louisville coach Dan McDonnell is going to bat for two-way college baseball players.
Here’s his pitch:
With the hubbub over Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani, he said, the time has come for collegians excelling as pitchers and hitters to get more opportunities to do both as professionals.
“I don’t know why we have to watch Japan do it and say, ‘Hey, it works over in Japan, so let’s do it here,'” McDonnell said. “It’s been working in college baseball forever.”
Former major leaguers such as Dave Winfield, Todd Helton and Mark Kotsay were great pitchers and hitters as collegians, but had to give up dual roles to be position players as pros. McDonnell argues any of them, and others, could have been stars as two-way players in the big leagues — if only they had been given the chance.
McDonnell’s opinion comes from his vantage point as the college coach of Brendan McKay, the No. 4 overall draft pick last year who’s being developed as a two-way prospect by the Tampa Bay Rays. The left-handed pitcher and lefty-hitting first baseman won three straight John Olerud Awards as the nation’s top two-way player and was the consensus 2017 national player of the year.
“The more success Ohtani has, the better for Brendan,” McDonnell said. “I’ll give Brendan his own due credit. What he did three years in college baseball, he earned the right himself.”
McKay said the plan is for him to remain a two-way player as long as he shows the ability to pitch and hit at each stop on the way up the pro ranks.
“I’d obviously be open to anybody who says, ‘Hey, this is what we’re seeing,'” McKay said. “They’re on the outside looking in. They can see it more than a person, an athlete or competitor who wants to keep doing both. I’d take that insight.”
Two-way college players from decades ago hit and pitched largely because they were superior athletes and excelled at both. Nowadays, the prevalence of two-way players stems largely from the 11.7-scholarship limit and 35-man roster limit.
“There’s no minor league system, you can’t make trades,” McDonnell said. “The season starts, and these are your 35 guys. Most of the time, you’ll have one, two or three guys out for the year with injuries, so you go through the spring holding your breath. You need those two-way guys and there’s value to them.”
An Associated Press review of the 297 Division I rosters this season showed 215 teams list at least one two-way player. There were 64 teams with three or more.
Some of the best are Southern Mississippi’s Matt Wallner (.374 batting average, 11 homers, 47 RBIs, 1-0 with 4 saves); Georgia Tech’s Tristin English (.323, team-high 43 RBIs, 2-0 with 3.66 ERA, 30 strikeouts and 5 walks in 32 innings); Georgia’s Aaron Schunk (.294, 8 doubles, 27 RBIs, 1-0 with 2.12 ERA, 5 saves); and West Virginia’s Braden Zarbinsky (.424 on-base percentage, 2-1 with 3.63 ERA).
Seattle Mariners pitcher Marco Gonzales, the 2013 Olerud Award winner at Gonzaga, said youthful exuberance fuels a lot of two-way players.
“When you’re in college, you want to go hard every day,” Gonzales said. “It’s more of a rah-rah energy. Every game is do or die in college.”
McKay was in Louisville’s weekend starting rotation for three years and was 32-10 with a 2.23 ERA and a school-record 391 strikeouts. He also had a .328 career batting average with 28 homers, 48 doubles and 132 RBIs in 189 games as a batter.
He has started his first full pro season with the Low-A Bowling Green (Kentucky) Hot Rods. He’s playing first base and batting .385, and has made three pitching starts in which he has struck out 15 and walked one over nine innings.
“In college, you’re practicing almost every day and play maybe three-to-five days a week,” McKay said. “Basically, it’s the same workload. You’ve got more intensity every day with games instead of practice.”
Traditional professional baseball thinking says there isn’t enough time for two-way players to prepare adequately as both a pitcher and hitter, and the long season makes the endeavour physically prohibitive.
McKay would juggle his practice routine by the week at Louisville to get in bullpen sessions, defensive drills and batting practice. The talent evens out at the pro level, of course, and pitchers must focus on conditioning and throwing between starts. Video study also is part of the job, both as a pitcher and hitter.
And there is risk vs. reward, Gonzales said.
“Teams are investing their money in a player (and) it’s rare you want to see a guy out there running the bases and sliding and diving for a ball when he’s got to take the mound a couple of days later,” Gonzales said. “I guess the trust they have going forward with (Ohtani), it’s got to be both ways because they have to trust he’s going to play smart and he has to trust his ability to be able to prepare for every game.
“I think you haven’t seen a ton of it because most of the American guys in college, when they get to the pros, the pro teams want their investments to be in one area or another.”
Ohtani, when he’s not pitching, is the designated hitter two or three other days of the week for the Los Angeles Angels. McDonnell believes a two-way player would be more valuable in the National League because pitchers have to hit, and a good-hitting pitcher can stay in games longer in middle-inning situations that otherwise call for a pinch hitter. That same two-way player gives the manager the luxury of having an extra pinch hitter available on days he’s not pitching.
“Everyone talks about money, money, money; free agency, salary cap, taxes. Why wouldn’t you want one guy who can serve two roles in some capacity just from a business sense?” McDonnell said. “Secondly, I’ve always thought he gives you insurance. If something happens to the arm, now the bat is going to play. If he gets to Double-A or Triple-A and can’t hit the breaking ball, now we’ve got a pitcher. To me, it’s a safer investment. If two of them work out, it’s a bonus.”
AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, and Tim Booth in Seattle contributed.