The legend of Babe Ruth extends beyond his mammoth home runs. One of the lasting impacts of Ruth is his ability as a two-way player. So much so that throughout the years teams have continued to toil with the idea of a two-way player – admittedly less so in recent years with the increased specialization of the role of the pitcher. Still, whenever a hitter shows that he can pitch a little, or a pitcher shows that he can hit a little, the two-way race begins yet again.
This year there are two players making a splash as two-way players. Well, attempting to make a splash is more like it, because neither man has seen all that much time in their respective non-standard role. All of this two-way talk takes on added importance when it comes to a certain two-way star hopefully making his way to Major League Baseball from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball in a few years. He may not be an MLBer right now, but Shohei Ohtani is the two-way player that all other players aspire to be, though as of yet no one has come close to matching what Ohtani has done for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.
But back to the current two-way race, because Ohtani is still but an MLB dream. First on the docket is the San Diego Padres’ Christian Bethancourt. The Panama native came up with the Atlanta Braves as a catcher, before he was traded to the Padres and started seeing some time in the outfield as well. There was no denying the talented versatility of Bethancourt, and his raw power made him very appealing as a movable diamond piece. What eventually caught the eye of the Padres coaching staff was his powerful arm. Behind the plate, Bethancourt displayed a cannon, and talks began to swirl about what he could do with said cannon on the mound. Thus last year the Padres let Bethancourt toe the rubber for two games.
The results were less than satisfying, but the Padres were only interested in two numbers Bethancourt put up; 9 and 3. Put the two together and you get 93, as in a fourseam fastball that topped out at 93 miles per hour. The Padres liked that; they liked it enough to make Bethancourt a pitching project heading into 2017. The early returns seemed promising, a 95-mph fourseam fastball coupled with an 80-mph changeup. The Padres nursed Bethancourt throughout the spring, and then thought they were going to unleash their new hybrid weapon at the start of the regular season.
What happened instead is that Bethancourt showed, and continues to show, a complete inability to find the plate. In 3.2 innings and 25 batters faced, he’s managed to strike out 2 and walk 8, for a WHIP of 3.818. That is – to put it mildly – disgustingly obscene. Almost as obscene is Bethancourt’s FIP of 11.92 and ERA of 14.73. He’s walking people, and when he does throw strikes he is giving up very hard contact. The ISO rates against his pitches are the stuff of absolute nightmares; .222 against his fourseam fastball, .750 against his sinker, and .333 against his slider. There’s getting hit hard, then there’s getting hit as hard as Bethancourt is getting hit.
The Padres may or may not have given up on Bethancourt the two-way player – he was demoted to AAA on Tuesday. He’s a project, with raw pitching tools that the Padres wanted to try and harness. The problem is, Bethancourt hasn’t been much of a two-way player. He only had seven plate appearances so far this year, notching one hit in the process. It’s clear that his pitching was limiting his ability to play the field, so one has to wonder just how much value there is in the project of making him into a two-way player.
Next up is Cincinnati Reds reliever Michael Lorenzen. A converted starter, Lorenzen has become a top-notch bullpen arm for the Reds. In 35 appearances out of the pen in 2016, he laid down a WHIP of 1.080 with an ERA+ of 149. Lorenzen has dominant stuff, with a fourseam fastball and sinker, both topping out at 97-mph as well as a slider that comes in at 93-mph. The Reds have, understandably, gotten fully behind Lorenzen as a relief stud.
But that’s not enough for Lorenzen – he wants to hit as well. There’s history for him to do this: he was a legit two-way prospect out of Cal-State Fullerton. In his junior year he posted a slash line of .335/.412/.515. Those are numbers that could have played out in a developing prospect in the Reds minor league system. The Reds, however, saw the arm Lorenzen possesses and immediately placed him into the role of a pitcher. It’s a decision they have been happy with, and will most likely continue to be happy with as long as Lorenzen is a member of the organization.
The thing is, Lorenzen can hit, and he’s been able to hit in a limited sample in the major leagues. For that reason, Lorenzen has asked his club for an expanded role. So far that has only resulted in pinch-hitting appearances, but they have been successful ones. Over the past two years, in nine plate appearances, he has two hits – both home runs. In 2015 while functioning as a starter, Lorenzen managed to hit .233 while posting an OPS of .757. When given a chance to hit, Lorenzen has hit, which means the Reds will most likely continue to allow him to hit. Maybe Lorenzen won’t be a true two-way player, but he’s at the very least a step in the right, and successful, direction.
Oh, and just so everyone knows what’s coming, let’s touch on Ohtani for a second. Bethancourt and Lorenzen are what they are: experiments and projects. But Ohtani is the real deal, a legitimate two-way player with the statistics and awards to back up the hype. En route to winning the Pacific League most valuable player in 2016, he put up an ERA of 1.86 with a WHIP of 0.957 and an 11.2 SO/9 in 21 games (20 of which were as a starter). He also had a slash line of .322/.416/.588 and an OPS of 1.004 while belting 22 home runs in 382 plate appearances.
Those are real numbers in a real, and highly skilled, professional baseball league. If Ohtani makes his way to the majors he should change the way the game is looked at and played. Bethancourt and Lorenzen are examples of teams toying with the idea of a two-way player. There’s no toying when it comes to Ohtani: his value to a team is both on the mound and in the batter’s box. Heck, before converting to being a designated hitter on his non-pitching days, he used to be an above-average right fielder.
Enjoy what Lorenzen and Bethancourt are attempting to do, but be prepared for what is to come; it will be baseball at its best and most fun.Next post: Aroldis Chapman on a Bad Day
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