Two-way players a rare breed
Pitcher/position players not seen often beyond high school
When today's top players were back in Little League, chances are they were the team's ace pitcher and best position player. Perhaps they would continue that as far as high school, depending on the program they entered.
But that would be it. More often than not, focus would be narrowed to one or the other late in high school and 99 percent of players in college would become one-dimensional.
What about that one percent? There is the rare breed, the extremely gifted and, some might say, masochistic, athlete who continues to play the game both ways.
"It's something I've been doing since high school, since middle school," said University of Virginia first baseman/starting pitcher Sean Doolittle. "I've always been pitching and playing a position. It's something I really wanted to do in college. Switching gears on a given day, you almost have to have two different personalities. It takes trial and error to figure out what works and what doesn't. I think I have it down."
"In high school, I was a quarterback and even played basketball," said Rice University's Joe Savery, who also pulls off the first base/starter combination. "I enjoyed being an athlete and an overall successful athlete. I came into school and figured if I had a future in baseball, it'd be on the mound. I always thought I could hit in college. It was a great challenge to take on, to be a two-way player in college and be successful doing it."
Both Doolittle and Savery have had success in both arenas in their college careers. On the mound, Doolittle is tied for the Virginia career wins record with fellow two-way player Joe Koshansky (now a first baseman in the Rockies organization). This season, he's got a 2.11 ERA as the Cavaliers' Sunday starter. Savery, despite a shoulder injury that slowed him down early on, is 6-1 with a 2.01 ERA for Rice this year and carried a career 2.51 ERA into this past weekend's action.
|1. TB||LHP||David Price||Vanderbilt U|
|2. KC||SS||Michael Moustakas||Chatsworth HS (Calif.)|
|3. CHC||3B||Josh Vitters||Cypress HS (Calif.)|
|4. PIT||LHP||Daniel Moskos||Clemson U|
|5. BAL||C||Matthew Wieters||Georgia Tech|
|6. WSH||LHP||Ross Detwiler||Missouri St U|
|7. MIL||LF||Matthew LaPorta||U Florida|
|8. COL||RHP||Casey Weathers||Vanderbilt U|
|9. ARI||RHP||Jarrod Parker||Norwell HS|
|10. SF||LHP||Madison Bumgarner||South Caldwell HS|
At the plate, Savery has hit .349, Doolittle .305, in their junior seasons. Not that it's been easy. Playing two ways takes its toll on the body and doesn't allow a player to focus on any one skill. It was particularly difficult for Savery this year. A pitcher coming off offseason shoulder surgery normally would have the opportunity to concentrate on rehabbing and getting back to full strength on the mound. Savery didn't have that luxury as he was playing first base every game from the start of the season.
"That's something I've joked with several people about," Savery said. "While other pitchers are shagging balls, doing their long toss, working on small things, I'm taking BP, fielding ground balls," Savery said. "My arm is feeling good again, but I didn't have the luxutury of throwing long tosses when I wanted to. Whether I'm drafted as a pitcher or not, I can't let that affect my helping the team with my bat."
While that team-first attitude shared universally by two-way players is admirable, it could affect their draft status. Before the injury, Savery was being projected as a top 10 pick. He'll still go early enough, but could a focus on pitching have helped him return to health sooner and answer questions about his shoulder to the scouting industry? Perhaps, but even with the slow return and longer looks at his offense, the consensus is that, as Savery mentioned, his future is on the mound. Doolittle, however, may be swinging the stick at the next level.
"We haven't paid much attention to him as a hitter," a scouting director said about Savery. "His skills aren't as advanced as Doolittle's hititng. You like his athletic ability, his competitiveness, but to consider him as high pick, you don't see the electricity in the bat. There's nothing to get you over the hump where you'd say you have to have him as a hitter.
"I feel confident [Doolittle's] going to hit. I see him as a singles-doubles hitter. He'll hit for average with little power. Guys that come to mind are Mark Grace and J.T. Snow. He's got a chance to win a Gold Glove. You like him, he's going to be a nice, safe pick for someone that wants someone to move quickly through the system."
The one player in this year's draft class where there might be more of a split comes from the high school ranks. Florida prep star Michael Main has a live arm that can pump out mid-90s fastballs with regularity. At the same time, he's an electric center fielder, a switch-hitter who can flat out fly.
"For us, he's a power arm, he's looked at as a pitcher for us," a scout said. "But you can't discount his athleticism, either. You can't overlook his arm on the mound, throwing 95 mph.
"At the same time, I clocked him after a stumble out of the box, 4.02 seconds to first. That's 70 (on the scouting scale with 80 being the highest) speed. You see him as a position player, he's just as good as any position player you'd see. Yo almost you want to try him in the field and see what happens, then can move him to the mound if it doesn't work."
"It's different for each team," said Main, who would continue as a two-way player at Florida State, but hopes to forego that commitment and turn pro after the draft. "Some teams have interest in just strictly pitching, some are split on the decision. Every team is considering me as a pitcher. Some teams are split or like me more as a position player. The pitching side of it, it's always going to be there, so if they can use me as a position player, it's an added bonus."
The "fall-back" is one of the more intriguing things about the two-way player. The general rule of thumb is that it's much easier to return a position player to the mound than the other way around, with the lost time taking swings too much to overcome. There's been talk recently, for instance, of putting Matt Bush -- the No. 1 overall pick by the Padres back in 2004 -- on the mound since the shortstop has struggled throughout his pro career with the bat and he used to throw 94 mph from the mound in high school.
There is also "the leap." When selecting a two-way player, the hope is that there will be a jump in ability once the player is focusing in on just one skill. The Diamondbacks' Micah Owings made it to the big leagues in just over one full year of pro ball, helped no doubt by removing regular hitting duties to his responsibilities.
"The one advantage [we] have at the next level, given the success we've had up to this point, I feel there's a jump to be made, once we're allowed to focus on pitching or hitting," Savery said. "I've enjoyed doing it. I wouldn't change anything, looking back, but you definitely feel there's more in there once you're allowed focus."
Even if there is a consensus on which skill set is better, all it takes is one team to like a player on the other side of the ball to draft him. In 2001, nearly every organization liked college home run champion John Van Benschoten as a hitter, but the Pirates liked his arm and took him in the first round as a pitcher. Conversely, many teams loved Nick Markakis' left arm and the fact it could throw in the low-to-mid 90s from the mound. But the Orioles loved his athleticism and power potential and now he's their everyday right fielder.
"Coming into the season, we thought I'd get drafted as a pitcher," Main said. "If it looks like I was going to be drafted as a pitcher, then all of a sudden someone took me as an outfielder, that'd be fine with me.
"It wouldn't matter to me at all. I love to do them both. Any possible way to play in the Major Leagues, that's my ultimate goal."
That's the other sentiment shared by all of these gifted athletes. It's been great to play both ways up until this point, but it doesn't really matter what happens next, just as long as the opportunity to chase that dream exists.
"I've always thought somebody else would have to make that decision at the next level," Doolittle said. "That's the good thing about it. I'm not the one who'll have to pick. Hitting and playing a position you get to play every day, but there's nothing like being on the mound, in the spotlight and in control of the game. There are some pretty big pros to both."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.