College Coaches Share Lessons From Working With Two-Way Players
Shohei Ohtani’s two-way talents have become the stuff of legends in Japan since he debuted for the Nippon Ham Fighters as an 18-year-old in 2013. Now, he is ready to bring his unique skill set to MLB and hopes to continue to be a two-way player.
No player has appeared in even 15 big league games as a pitcher and position player in the same season since 1964. Even Babe Ruth was forced to give up pitching once his prowess as a slugger became apparent. As a result, there is no blueprint for big league teams to follow when considering how to use Ohtani.
In college baseball, however, two-way players are relatively common and, in an era where teams are limited to 27 scholarship players, some programs see them as a market inefficiency. College baseball is, of course, vastly different from the big leagues, but it is also the highest level of the sport that still regularly uses two-way players.
With that in mind, Baseball America asked Nebraska’s Darin Erstad, Louisville’s Dan McDonnell and Virginia’s Brian O’Connor what they have learned about managing two-way players and how they might set up a schedule for a two-way player in the big leagues. All three have coached All-American two-way stars. Erstad has coached multiple two-way players, including Jake Meyers, a 2017 All-American. McDonnell coached Brendan McKay, the 2017 College Player of the Year and the best bet after Ohtani to become a two-way player in the big leagues. O’Connor has had several two-way stars at Virginia, including Sean Doolittle, Danny Hultzen and Adam Haseley.
All three coaches independently said it is important to take each player individually. Every player is unique, so the approach must be tailored to them. O’Connor said the Cavaliers have a weight-training program designed specifically for two-way players, but even that can be tweaked. Haseley, for instance, followed a weight-training program that was closer to what the hitters did than Hultzen, who trained more like a pitcher.
Another large area of concern for the coaches was their players’ workload outside of games. All three said their two-way players rarely take in-and-out, limiting the number of throws they have to make. McDonnell said the Cardinals calculated that McKay might make 6,000 throws over the course of the year just by taking ground balls at first base. McKay wanted to take infield practice, so as a compromise during his junior year, some days he would take infield practice normally and on other days a manager stood next to him and made the throws for him.
“He would get so mad,” McDonnell said. “But you look at the big picture, six months, how many ground balls, how many throws? It starts to add up, even if it’s not intense.”
Coaches also have to consider how to use their star on the mound. Players who pull double-duty as relievers, like Matt Wieters did at Georgia Tech, require a different touch than starters. And even among those who are starters, their coach has to decide when is best to use them. Typically players that are more pitcher than hitter throw on Friday night and those that are more hitter than pitcher throw on Sunday. In that way, they are at their freshest for their best position.
But, again, every player and situation is unique. Erstad said he used Meyers on Sunday because he thought his mentality was best suited for pitching in the final game of a series. This year, however, he is more likely use Luis Alvarado, another pitcher/outfielder, on Friday night because Alvarado is more of a power pitcher and would benefit from being at his freshest when he pitches.
“It really depends on the skillset of the pitcher,” Erstad said. “Jake’s not a power guy, he’s more finesse with a fantastic changeup. Maybe he was a little fatigued, but if he’s 1-2 mph slower, it’s not a huge difference. With him, maybe you’re not as concerned with his legs being a little tired. If you have a guy with a big slider, a big fastball, you put that guy at the front end to maximize him being as strong as he can be.”
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College baseball coaches have the advantage of having at least two off days to work with every week, making it easier to limit the workload of a two-way player while also keeping him in the lineup. But Erstad, who was a two-time all-star, said MLB has its own advantages.
“I think there’s more rest at the big league level because of the factors of being a student-athlete,” he said. “Most teams don’t have charter planes (in college) and there’s no true practice at the big league level. Sleep patterns are pretty consistent except on travel days. College kids are getting up and going to class.”
Whatever team signs Ohtani will have some hard decisions to make when setting his schedule. The college coaches don’t have the familiarity with Ohtani required to lay out a schedule for him, but they all offered their thoughts on how a two-way player’s schedule might look in the big leagues.
Erstad said he would try to use a two-way player as the DH on the day before and after he pitches. Then he could play in the field for a couple games. O’Connor said some of the plan would depend on whether the player would play a position or just DH. But he said the team would have to consider if they could move from a five-man rotation to an arrangement that allowed the player to pitch just once a week, as they do in college. McDonnell suggested there might be a way to map out a long-term schedule that would allow for strategically skipped starts to give the player an extended break from pitching at times.
In Japan, Ohtani typically pitched on Sundays, taking advantage of the NPB’s league-wide off days on Mondays. He also didn’t play in the two games preceding his start, allowing him time to prepare to pitch. When he did hit, he was mostly used as a DH.
Whether Ohtani is successful or not in his bid to become the big league’s first two-way player in decades, college baseball will continue to nurture its two-way stars. Southern Mississippi outfielder/righthander Matt Wallner was named Freshman of the Year last spring for his two-way exploits. Auburn freshman Tanner Burns was highly sought after in last year’s draft as a righthander and was the highest ranked player on the BA500 not to sign after the draft, but will also get a chance to show his hitting prowess in college. California junior righthander/outfielder Tanner Dodson showed off his two-way talents in the Cape Cod League this summer and is the best two-way talent in the college draft class.
O’Connor said college baseball’s openness to two-way players is beneficial to their development.
“People didn’t know what Brendan McKay was (in high school),” he said. “When Doolittle came out, he was drafted as a hitter and look what he’s doing now. These guys are good athletes, ultracompetitive, gifted enough to do it and the game hasn’t forced them to make a decision yet.
“I think overall it’s helped these guys because it’s given them three years of a body of work to help determine what they are.”