September 21, 2023

Baseball’s potential ranks are full of pitchers who have ever batted

SEATTLE – The summer before his senior year of high school, JP Massey’s parents sat him down for a conversation that would determine his future. In addition to playing on his school’s baseball team, Massey was also a member of Chicago’s RBI program, and the scouts associated with that organization believed the teen’s recent growth spurt and promise on the mound shown, meant he had a future as a professional pitcher.

That was great news and all, but at the time, Massey also considered himself a position player who was fine-tuning his skills at the plate.

“I was more focused on hitting, and the pitching was just something that came naturally,” Massey told Yahoo Sports.

Six years later, the 6-foot-5 right-hander throws in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and was selected to participate in Saturday’s Futures Game — a 5-0 victory for the National League — as part of MLB’s All-Star festivities this week in Seattle. Turns out those scouts were onto something. But when his parents broke the news that someone from the RBI organization had contacted them to suggest that Massey’s days of beating should be numbered: of animosity from me,” he said.

Almost universally, All-Star caliber players were once the best in every aspect of baseball. Go back far enough in their careers – even if it’s all the way to Little League – and there was a time when their sheer athleticism compared to their peers made it seem like they had potential in all corners of the diamond. But generally, as they progress and the competition hardens, a path emerges that leads to the hill or to the plate.

Massey didn’t mind that for him, it was the former. “It was just sad to know I wouldn’t hit as much,” he said.

“And so I persevered through high school. Once I got to college, I went in expecting to do both, and I started having a lot of success on the mound. I realized this is something I could really develop into an MLB career, hopefully and God willing, so now I’m riding it and trying to fulfill my dreams every day.

‘I try not to face myself’

For aspiring professional pitchers in particular, there comes a time when they realize they have to leave batting – and playing the field – behind.

Mick Abel, the Philadelphia Phillies’ first-round pick in the 2020 draft who started Saturday for the NL, last played first base as a junior in high school.

I was fine,” he said. “I was nothing special.”

Tink Hence now the St. Louis Cardinals’ top-ranked pitching prospect only ever pitching on his travel team, but he played shortstop and the outfield and batted third for his high school team.

“My dad could yell at me for not getting a hit or strikeout, and I’d say, ‘That’s okay, because I’m going to pitch the next day,'” he said.

Jonathan Cannon, a towering, 6-foot pitcher in the White Sox system, said he was the best hitter on his team during senior year of high school. Undoubtedly impressive in his hometown of Alpharetta, Georgia, but, “My high school team wasn’t very good.”

“I think if you ask any of the guys here who are pitchers, they’ll all say they were good hitters in high school,” Cannon said. “But if we were good enough, we wouldn’t be doing this.”

What turns out to be the breaking point in would-be pitchers’ troubled careers often comes when they face pitchers who are, well, as good as they are.

“I loved hitting,” Cannon said. “I mean, honestly, I went to [University of] Georgia, and I thought I could hit, and then I saw two guys going into the first round throwing a bullpen, and I was like no chance.

“When I came here in pro ball and saw guys throw like me, I thought, ‘No, I’m not trying to face myself,'” he said.

“There’s just not enough time to get both right,” said Will Klein, a pitcher in the Kansas City Royals system who could crack the major league rotation next season.

And before anyone can protest, they’ll know exactly who you’re thinking about – the exception that proves the rule.

“I don’t understand how Shohei has the time to hit and throw and be the best at both,” said Klein.

“It’s amazing to us how he does it”

Shohei Ohtani, the second coming of Babe Ruth – except Ruth is remembered as the Sultan of Swat, and Ohtani is guaranteed to go down in history as the greatest two-way player baseball has ever seen. His success—currently Ohtani leads baseball in home runs while pitching to a 3.32 ERA—has made it impossible to not wonder if anyone could follow in his footsteps.

The question of whether Ohtani is a unicorn or a trailblazer is a complicated one that requires consideration of his unique superlative talents, as well as his unique path to the majors via Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League. But conversations with elite pitchers who had to retire from batting more recently than their big league counterparts can provide context for the daunting task of doing both at the highest level.

“It’s crazy to people who aren’t into baseball how impressive it is,” Cannon said of Ohtani’s two-way ability. “But to us, it’s mind-boggling how he does it.”

Their first-hand experience only underscores that baseball fans today are witnessing something that is anything but “impossible,” as Klein said. “I don’t know. Give that man his money.”

The problem – if you have to call it a problem to conform to the constraints of reality – is that it takes more than talent to get from amateur baseball to pro, through the minors, and finally to the major leagues. It takes skill, honed through hours of training and, generally speaking, a single focus.

In 2021, Spencer Schwellenbach won the NCAA’s John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award after batting .284 with six home runs, playing shortstop and pitching to a sub-1.00 ERA. He started out in college as a pure position player, but found so much success adding pitching that by the time the draft approached, several teams took an interest in his various skills.

“There were a few teams that both liked me and were willing to try it out. But when the day came, I think they didn’t want to do it,” Schellenbach said.

Instead, the Atlanta Braves took him in the second round and asked him to specialize.

“I miss hitting. But they wanted me to pitch, so that’s what I have to do,” he said. “And I was ready to be a pitcher. It was so hard, in college, to throw 40-50 pitches and play shortstop the next day. It took its toll on my arm.”

Schwellenbach blames that workload on needing Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament shortly after signing with the Braves. He returned from rehab this season as a pure pitcher, per the organization’s preference to protect his health, even though he still thinks he could have been a two-way player.

But even Schwellenbach has to admit, “If you don’t specialize in one, you’re not going to be as good as you can be.”

‘That was my dream: to hit the bat at university’

The last time Massey swung a bat was during batting practice as a senior.

“I hit a few bombs,” he said. “You can ask anyone who was there. I put on a little show. So I’m still proud of that to this day, and I’ll stand by that forever.

Even with their mutual days behind them and their futures on the mound looking bright, baseball’s top minor league pitchers can’t stop boasting about their prowess at the plate — and looking back on it fondly.

Abel claims he crushed line drives the other way when he took BP late last season. “It was great,” he said.

Back in college, Cannon participated in the pitcher’s annual home run derby.

“I would give people a run for their money,” he said, and he managed to get some out of it, according to his own retelling. “Enough to reach the final. That’s about four.’

Klein once made it a game at first base. That was in the collegiate summer league in Danville, Illinois, after most of the position players went home this year. He claims to have gotten a hit – a
single the other way – and when he heard this, Cannon sounded wistful.

“That was my dream: to hit the bat in college,” he said. “Like, that’s what I dream about.”

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