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Two For One Deal
By Will Kimmey
Stephen Head wakes at 5 a.m. three or four times a week during the spring to meet Mississippi football players Robert Lane and Andrew Wicker—shotguns in tow—to go turkey hunting. Head schedules his classes to begin no sooner than 10 a.m., leaving himself ample time in the woods before reporting to school. He goes hunting before every baseball game he can because he finds it relaxing. Sometimes he arrives at Swayze Field still wearing his camoflague.
That's when his focus splits. The lefthanded batting and throwing junior not only serves as Mississippi's best hitter and first baseman, but also logs plenty of crucial innings on the mound as a weekend starter or closer. Head must separate his thoughts during games, not allowing one discipline to affect the other, and practice time must be divvied up as well.
"I'm two different people," says Head, a Baseball America first-team All-American at the two-way (or utility) spot in 2004 and a 2005 preseason first-teamer at first base.
Head's diamond duality is fairly commonplace at the college level—coaches will offer reminders on how double duty stretches scholarship money by getting two players in one—and nearly every team offers one two-way performer of varying skill and importance.
Two-way players have reached star status in past years, with John Olerud, Brooks Keischnick, Todd Helton and Jason Jennings earning BA Player of the Year awards for their double contributions. Serving as center fielder and closer (as well as top hitter), Mark Kotsay led Cal State Fullerton to the 1995 national title. A longer look back reveals Minnesota's Dave Winfield and Southern California's Dave Kingman, each of whom actually were better pitchers than hitters in college. But rarely have so many top teams counted on major contributions from two-pronged producers in the same year.
Just scan the preseason Top 25:
• Brian Bogusevic and Micah Owings rate as top-ranked Tulane's best hitters and pitchers (and the first- and second-team All-America utility players), while freshman Sean Morgan will close and serve as a top pinch-hitter.
• Texas senior third baseman David Maroul fires 90-mph bb's from the mound and could be used as a short reliever.
• Zech Zinicola, a freshman All-America utility player in 2004, gives No. 9 Arizona State a power arm and power bat.
• Head, Brian Pettway and Jon-Jon Hancock will see time on the mound and in the batter's box for 16th-ranked Mississippi.
• No. 18 Rice plans to use freshman Joe Savery as a weekend starter and full-time DH, while right fielder Lance Pendleton bats cleanup and flashes a 90-mph fastball out of the bullpen.
• Texas Christian center fielder Ryan Pack, a transfer from Seward County (Kan.) Community College, should prove a vital reliever for the 21st-ranked Horned Frogs, while projected closer Shawn Ferguson was a middle of the order hitter during his junior college career at San Jacinto.
• The Mid-Continent Conference named Oral Roberts' Dennis Bigley its 2004 player and pitcher of the year, and he returns for his senior season with the No. 24 team.
• Winthrop opens at No. 25 and has South Carolina transfer Heath Rollins to slot into its Saturday starter role while also serving as the lefthanded DH.
• Top freshmen including Jared Clark (No. 3 Cal State Fullerton), Joshua Fields (No. 10 Georgia), Chris Jones (No. 13 Texas A&M) and Matt Wieters (No. 19 Georgia Tech) each could see time as pitchers and hitters while they battle to define their roles.
Then there's No. 17 Vanderbilt, which lost recruit Kyle Waldrop after the Twins selected him in the first round of last summer's draft as a righthander. The Commodores certainly would have enjoyed adding his arm to their staff, but actually feel more of a loss by not being able to inject his power bat into a lineup that lost key 2004 contributors to the professional ranks.
Head, Bogusevic and Owings all should be drafted in the first two rounds in June, with Coastal Carolina third baseman/righthander Mike Costanzo, the preseason third-team All-America utility player, going before round five. And Houston features three two-way players who could all be rotation regulars. "There doesn't seem like there are a lot of those guys who come along, especially all at once," one National League scouting director said. "It'll be fun to go in to scout them."
Plenty of college players took on double duty on their high school, middle school and youth teams because they were the best athletes and their coaches used their talents in every possible way. NCAA-mandated practice time constraints, school obligations and the sheer difficulty of competing as both a hitter and a pitcher at the Division I level usually mark the end of that phase of a player's career.
Mark Prior served as a DH as a freshman at Vanderbilt, gradually dropping hitting after a transfer to Southern California to focus solely on his pitching. Big 12 and College World Series all-time saves leader Huston Street played third base for much of his sophomore season at Texas because he was the Longhorns' best defensive option there, but he hit just .176.
Just this year, several high-profile players opted to specialize for the first time in their college careers in an effort to help their teams and also hone their skills with an eye on a pro career. Former backup catchers Kevin Whelan (Texas A&M) and Chris Leroux (Winthrop) might have put away their chest protectors for good after flashing upper-90s fastballs over the summer in the Cape Cod League. Auburn junior Josh Bell went the other way, calling it quits on the mound and as a corner infielder to make sure he experienced a full season as a catcher in his draft year.
For those who march on as two-way players, conditioning ranks paramount in training and practice situations. Hitters, especially power hitters, normally work out to produce more bulk in their upper bodies. Pitching requires more flexibility and endurance, so weight sessions aren't as heavy and there's more running to focus on building up their lower backs and upper thighs. Owings and Bigley adhere to pitcher's workout regimens, while Bogusevic sticks to the position player routine he began as a freshman, when his time on the mound was more limited.
Dividing up practice time also becomes a chore. Most coaches have their two-way talents take part in hitting and defensive drills with the team, but restrict the number of throws and amount of running the players handle during the week and sometimes limit their time in the batting cage. The pitching part of the equation normally takes place in post- or prepractice bullpen sessions.
"I hit, then bounce right to pitching," says Bigley, who takes the 300 swings per day that every Oral Roberts hitter does. "I bounce back and forth. I always get my hitting done in practice; if I have to throw, I'll stay after practice."
Coaches say their biggest concern for a two-way player is wearing down over the course of the season. It's important for the athlete to work extremely hard on conditioning during the offseason, and then back off a little once the season begins. "You've got to make sure their legs are under them," Oral Roberts coach Rob Walton says. He limits Bigley to between 50 percent and 75 percent of the running the rest of the Golden Eagles pitchers complete, because Bigley gets plenty of exercise during defensive drills and batting practice.
The coach must trust the player to be honest about how his body is feeling each day, so he doesn't overexert himself. Players want to prove to their teammates that they're not getting off easy and doing less work, but sometimes that's what's best for the player and the team.
"I am the real competitive type, and not the type that will go ask for not being able to run," Bigley says. "The only time I won't run or do anything everybody else does is when coach pulls me aside and tells me I need to lay off."
This division of labor gets more difficult during individual work in the fall, when the NCAA limits players to two hours per week. Bogusevic devotes an hour to pitching and one to hitting, "and the rest falls by the side," he says.
"I get my reps to where I feel confident and move on to the next station," Owings says. "I feel like I put time into whichever one I need to regardless of the other. If one needs more work than the other, I do more of that."
Separating pitching and hitting becomes an act of mental juggling during a game. To a man, the players say doing both helps them understand the mindset of a hitter when they're on the mound, or figure out how a pitcher might work them when they're at the plate. It's similar to how a wide receiver might better understand the timing behind route-running if he has past experience as a quarterback. Balancing two outlooks on the game is an acquired skill; for example, Bigley has found it easier to sit out of the lineup in games he pitches.
"Early in my career, I'd have a rough at-bat and take it to the mound," Owings says. "I'd try to overcompensate by trying to throw too hard, and I'd lose focus. If I'm pitching bad, you can get too aggressive and lose your approach at the plate and swing at bad pitches."
Bogusevic says he looks at two-way play as giving him two opportunities to help his team. He can make up for a bad day in one phase by excelling in the other. Head maintains a laid back mound persona while staying aggressive at the plate.
"Pitching kind of takes the edge off for me," Head says. "I relax when I pitch. I take pride in it. Plus, you've got eight guys behind you helping out. Hitting, it's all yourself. No one can swing for you. I'm really focused on that."
Scouting a two-way player can sometimes be as difficult as performing as one.
"You look at them as two separate players, but you do have to think about where they're playing," one NL scouting director said. "If they're playing a position where they throw the ball a lot, it may affect their velocity when you see them on the mound. It's a little bit hard to know exactly what kind of arm strength they have. You kind of have to go on the best you have ever seen them. It makes it a little bit trickier."
It also takes more time. Scouting directors and cross-checkers normally spend only one game per weekend watching a specific player, but sometimes have to invest two games or days to get a feel for a two-way guy. And if the player's pitching role comes in relief, it might take an entire weekend series for the scout to get a look. "When you scout a two-way player, if it's a lefthanded pitcher, I'm more apt to bear down on the pitching part than the hitter," the NL scouting director says. "But you've got to go whichever way you think is better."
That's not always an easy call. Sure, there's a consensus on which way players such as Head will go as a professional. Yet with a player such as Bogusevic--a legit pick in the first two rounds as a pitcher and hitter--scouts must also discern which aspect of his game could produce the most upside.
The other part of this equation is the player's preference. "You've got to really find out how strongly they feel about one or the other," another NL scouting director says. "If a kid says, 'I want to play,' then you've got to think if you're going to make him a pitcher and take him in the first round."
Sometimes a team's decision can surprise even the player. Kent State's John Van Benschoten led Division I with 31 home runs as a junior in 2001, and the scouting consensus saw a long-armed hitter with plus power and an athletic frame. The Pirates saw a competitive righthander with a chance for four above-average pitches and drafted him eighth overall. Van Benschoten has gone 28-23, 3.52 in four minor league seasons, reaching the majors last season. He begins 2005 in Triple-A with a chance to become a No. 2 starter. "We liked him better the other way, but they did their homework and it looks good so far," an NL scouting director said.
Some baseball people like to toss out the idea that drafting a two-way player can be somewhat safer, with the rationale being that the player can switch to his other discipline if the first one doesn't work out. Others see that as a copout. "If you pay a guy a million bucks, that can't be as a fall back," the scouting director said. "If you're going to take a guy high, you have to do it as that position. Always in the back of the mind, you can try it the other way, but you don't take a guy thinking you have two chances at making a good pick."
Unlike scouts, college coaches do benefit from a two-way performer's versatility. However, employing the dual talents of their players can get tricky. Long Beach State coach Mike Weathers never had coached a true two-way player until Jason Vargas came to campus in 2004. Weathers admitted to having to consult rule books and double-check with umpires on how to make out his lineup card on Sundays early last season when Vargas was pitching, making sure the team's leading hitter could remain in the game as a DH if he was lifted in favor of a reliever. Weathers eventually got the hang of it, but the issues extend further.
Coaches know a player will be more fatigued after pitching, and must choose when and how to use them in a particular week's games. Will a Friday start mean a tired throwing arm from the outfield on Sunday? Or can starting a series-clinching game on Sunday leave a pitcher with less energy and stamina after two games of fielding, batting and running the bases?
"You can drive yourself crazy doing that. You have to make up your mind and stick to it," says Tulane coach Rick Jones, whose degree of difficulty could increase by having to move Owings, the likely Friday starter, to left field or first base on Saturdays when Bogusevic pitches, because Bogusevic will have to DH for his bat to be in the lineup. Most coaches with just one two-way player in the rotation choose the Friday start because the player is the freshest, or the Sunday outing because it allows for recovery after the series ends.
"If it's between innings, sometimes (my arm) really hurts a bunch," says Bogusevic, who says his arm normally doesn't feel sore until two days after he pitches. "Once the game starts, it's not a factor. The adrenaline kicks in."
Augie Garrido, who coached Kotsay at Fullerton, said he implemented changes in cutoff plays the day after his center fielder pitched; either the shortstop went deeper or Kotsay flipped a ball he fielded to the right fielder for the relay throw back to the infield. "He might have been (playing at a diminished capacity) after pitching," Garrido says, "but we wouldn't have won the College World Series without Kotsay pitching, too."
Most two-way players look at it that way as well. It's hard to even get them to admit spending time in one area affects their skills in another area. "I think about that," Head says. "If I enter pro ball, I'll spend all my time hitting. But when you're playing in college, the goal is to win the College World Series, so I want to do whatever I have to."