For Some Major League Pitchers, Pitching Came Second
When Jim Thome and Trevor Hoffman were inducted into the Hall of Fame as part of the 2018 class last month, they entered as the eighth all-time leader in home runs and the second in career saves, respectively. But their paths to Cooperstown began as struggling infielders, not as a slugger and a closer.
Thome was drafted by the Indians in the 13th round of the 1989 draft as a shortstop. He under-performed in his first minor league season, failing to hit a single home run in 213 plate appearances.
He eventually moved to the corner infield positions, changed his stance with the help of mentor Charlie Manuel, bulked up a little and then became a dangerous corner infielder on the way to slugging 612 career home runs.
Hoffman, meanwhile, was selected by the Reds in the 11th round of the 1989 draft as a shortstop out of the University of Arizona. In two combined seasons with Rookie-level Billings and low Class A Charleston, Hoffman committed 55 errors at shortstop and hit just .227.
"I wasn't hitting and was making some errors," Hoffman recalled. "I got behind some other shortstops in the Reds' system and some guys they drafted the next year. The Reds asked me about giving pitching a shot.
"The answer wasn't hard for me to reach. As a shortstop, I could already see the writing on the wall. I wasn't going anywhere. I kind of looked at the shortstop-to-pitcher move as a positive. I felt like with [a] good arm, this could be an opportunity."
The same can be said for Sean Doolittle, Jacob deGrom and Kenley Jansen—all converted position players who are now thriving as pitchers.
Doolittle was drafted by the Athletics with the 41st overall pick in 2007 as a first baseman, but multiple knee surgeries and a wrist issue stalled his career in 2011. After discovering he could still pitch after striking out more than a batter per inning at the University of Virginia, he shifted course and, at 25, started his new career as a pitcher.
"I really liked playing every day; that's why I was so excited about being drafted as a hitter," Doolittle said. "I wasn't even thinking about pitching."
Doolittle entered the 2009 season with Triple-A Sacramento. But in May, while playing right field, Doolittle tore his left patellar tendon as he was fielding a ground ball.
He missed the remainder of the 2009 season and all of 2010, but eventually recovered and joined the A’s for spring training in 2011. He started the season back in Sacramento, but in May ripped a tendon in his right wrist during an at-bat.
His knee was healthy again, but now he couldn't swing a bat.
"That's when I was the most discouraged, like, 'Is this a sign?'" Doolittle said. "I'd had it worked into my contract that I could go back to school if something happened and major league baseball would pay for the rest of my education.
“I already had three-quarters of a degree and I knew that with a degree from UVA, there's so much I could do. But then I thought, 'I can't see myself doing anything other than playing baseball.’”
Now, Doolittle has transformed into one of the game’s elite closers. Despite a current trip on the disabled list with a strained left big toe, Doolittle has recorded 79 career saves, 43 of which have come since being traded to the Nationals in July 2017.
Meanwhile, longtime Stetson head coach Pete Dunn didn’t put deGrom on the mound until he was a college junior, moving him from shortstop.
“I had seen him (deGrom) play in high school and legion ball,” said Dunn, who spent 37 seasons as the head coach at Stetson and is the godfather of newly inducted Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. “He had a good arm.
“You can imagine him (deGrom) in the six hole. It was pretty impressive. He had great range, good hands. I talked to him in the fall of his junior year about possibly closing for us.”
The plan was for deGrom to close, then on occasion play shortstop. The only problem was Stetson rarely had a lead for deGrom to appear.
“That was going to be his role,” recalled Dunn. “We were about 15 games into the season and he had just one save. I told our coaches, ‘Guys, our best arm is at shortstop. If we’re going to do anything, we have to have a chance on Friday night. We have to start him on Fridays.'
"It was the most drastic change I’ve ever made. They (coaches) had some doubts.”
So did deGrom and his family.
"At first, I didn't really like the idea of starting, because I wanted to play every day,'' deGrom said. “After they talked to me, I was all right with it.''
Dunn stood by his decision.
“I wasn’t the most popular guy in the deGrom family,” recalled Dunn, who also coached two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber at Stetson. “They felt his (deGrom) future was at shortstop. I think they’re pretty happy now.
“His arm was so free and effortlessly,” Dunn said. “He never labored, threw hard. He had a young arm. That’s what scouts loved about him.
“I did it for the team and certainly felt his arm would give him an opportunity to play pro ball. When he first came back (to Florida) after winning Rookie of the Year he was very grateful. He said, ‘I can’t tell you I was 100 percent, but I’m thankful.’”
This year, deGrom's fifth in the majors, the 6-foot-4, 180-pound righthander is having a breakout season. Despite pitching for the struggling Mets, deGrom leads all qualified, major league starters in ERA (1.71) and fWAR (6.6), while also posting career-bests in strikeout rate (10.93 per nine innings), opponent's batting average (.204) and WHIP (0.96).
“I always felt like I could pitch in the big leagues,” deGrom said. “Location, getting ahead of guys are key. If you can locate and keep the ball down, you can pitch here.”
Fantasy Baseball Podcast: Dynasty Pitcher Rankings & LABR NL-Only Breakdown
Geoff Pontes breaks down his LABR NL-Only auction, followed by a deep dive into the Dynasty Pitcher Rankings.
Jansen grew up in Curacao admiring catchers Bengie Molina and Henry Blanco, so when the Dodgers signed him at 17 that’s where he started his career. But the Dodgers quickly realized that Jansen’s bat was too weak for the majors.
In eight seasons in the minors, Jansen hit .229, striking out 226 times in 840 at-bats.
“I never gave up,” Jansen said. “I always wanted to hit and be a catcher. That’s how I felt about it.
“When I look back, it’s like, ‘What was I thinking?’ I didn’t want to do it at the beginning. Now I’m like, ‘Man, if I had known this, I would have done it from the beginning.’ But everything happens for a reason—at the right time, at the right moment.”
With the assistance of former big league pitcher Charlie Hough and the encouragement of hitting coach Franklin Stubbs at the Dodgers’ high Class A affiliate in San Bernardino, Calif. in 2009, Jansen began the transition to pitcher four years after he originally signed,.
“It happened so quick I don’t think about it,” Jansen said of the switch from behind the plate to the mound. “They saw the great arm that I had and they gave me that shot.
“I’m still trying to develop my slider, but my fastball was there. I didn’t want to do it in the beginning. I talked to my family and I went with it. I was bitter when that happened, but Charlie Hough and Franklin Stubbs were always positive.
“Charlie Hough brought that joy back in baseball for me. I really wanted to be a catcher but those guys really helped me.”
Jansen saved 41 of 42 situations last season, and he has already established himself as the Dodgers’ all-time career saves leader with 262 in just nine seasons.
“Fortunately for us, he converted to a pitcher,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “The arm strength was obviously there and he’s got such a clean delivery, plus he’s very athletic.
“To be a big-bodied (6-foot-5, 275-pound) guy and to have that kind of command with the fastball is pretty special. But he could never hit and when you can’t hit you become a pitcher.”