Welcome to Ohtani Week: a celebration of, well, Shohei Ohtani. There’s been no player more fascinating or exhilarating since Ohtani graced our shores in 2018. Over time, the initial curiosity and excitement surrounding MLB’s first true two-way player in a century morphed into something more: Pure, uncut awe derived a superstar breaking barriers previously thought unreachable. All week, we’ll be talking about the most lovable—and possibly most talented—man in baseball. So throw on your Angels cap, grab your laptop charger, and dig in.
The delight of Shohei Ohtani is not just that he’s both a good pitcher and a good hitter, it’s that he does them both, period. Many of us have never seen this at the major league level. Ignoring the random position player pitching or pitcher in the outfield, the most-cited recent two-way player was Brooks Kieschnick with the Brewers. In 2003, he appeared in 42 games in relief, started four games at DH and three in left. That’s it. Prior to that, he hit .220/.297/.405 in 192 plate appearances over four seasons exclusively as a position player. In 2004, he pitched 32 games exclusively as a reliever.
During that overlapping season of 2003, the hitter part of the experiment went OK: .300/.355/.614 with seven homers in 76 plate appearances (0.3 WARP), but only .179/.207/.393 in his games as a position player. On the mound, he was credited with a win and 0.9 WARP but with a 5.26 ERA. (DRA liked him more, 3.85, a very good 81 DRA-.) Three singles and two homers as a hitter and no games started as a pitcher is a watered-down two-way player.
But it wasn’t always like this. Throughout history, players who appeared regularly on the mound and in the field were rare, but not unheard of. It’s not that there’s never been a player like Ohtani, it’s that most of us haven’t seen one in living memory. But they’ve occurred in the past. Who were the best?
To answer this, I started with Baseball-Reference’s list of two-way players. It comprises players who pitched at least 160 games and played another position for at least 160 games in MLB games. The list predates the Negro Leagues being classified as major leagues, so I added four Negro Leagues two-way players from Wikipedia’s international list.
Then I needed to rank the players. I wanted to use a measure of value, but since we do not calculate WARP for hitters prior to 1921 or for pitchers prior to 1950, that wasn’t an option. I used Baseball-Reference’s WAR, partly because I’m using the B-Ref list, and partly because B-Ref has helpfully calculated WAR for the Negro Leagues.
Using a player’s WAR as a hitter and WAR as a pitcher requires some adjustment. The no. 1 player if you sum the two, unsurprisingly, is Babe Ruth: 162.7 hitter WAR, 20.4 pitcher WAR. The average of those two is 91.6. But it’s lopsided. Ruth derived far more value as a hitter than as a pitcher. A two-way player should be good, or spend a fair amount of time, at both. So instead of using arithmetic mean, (a + b) / 2, I used geometric mean, (a x b)^½. Geometric mean takes proportion into account. If a player has 99 WAR as a hitter and 1 WAR as a pitcher, the arithmetic mean, 50, is twice as high as a player who has 25 WAR as both. The geometric mean for the well-balanced latter player, though, is still 25. The good-only-as-a-hitter former player’s is just 10.
By this method, here are the ten greatest two-way players of all time.
- Babe Ruth, 57.6. You’ve heard of him, of course. Ruth, though, highlights a limit of this analysis. He was arguably the greatest hitter of all time. He was an outstanding pitcher. But there were only two years, 1918 and 1919, in which he did both. In 1918, he pitched 166 1/3 innings—a light workload for those days—with a 2.22 ERA that was 22 percent better than average. In 1919, he pitched even less (133 ⅓ innings) and less effectively (2.97 ERA, 102 ERA+). He was quite a hitter both years: .964 OPS in 70 games started as a position player in 1918, 1.185 in 111 starts in 1919 (batting data for both years are incomplete). So while he was a great pitcher and a great hitter, the intersection was very small.
- Bullet Rogan, 29.9. Rogan played from 1920 to 1930 for the Kansas City Monarchs, and came back for brief cameos in 1937 (18 games) and 1938 (13 games) in his 40s. A Hall of Famer, he has a reasonable claim to being the best “true” two-way player of all time, this ranking notwithstanding. Every year from 1920 to 1928, he played a double-digit number of games (remember that Negro League statistics are incomplete) as a pitcher and as a hitter, mostly in the outfield. And he excelled at both. His career ERA of 2.70 is 61 percent above average, park- and league-adjusted. In his best year on the mound, 1925, he was 15-2 over 16 starts and six relief appearances, with a 1.74 ERA and a league-leading 15 complete games, four shutouts, and 96 strikeouts. That same year, he hit .360/.424/.592, an OPS+ of 170. That works out to a total of 9.3 WAR in just 50 games. He hit .338/.413/.521 over his career, a 152 OPS+.
- Bucky Walters, 18.2. I should have said this in my introduction: I’m omitting players whose pitching was primarily in the 19th century. Jim Whitney, who played from 1881 to 1890, and Jack Stivetts, who played from 1889 to 1899, both rank ahead of Walters. But nineteenth century baseball was weird. Pitchers had prodigious workloads, resulting in comical WAR figures. Whitney was barely above average in 1881 (107 ERA+) but he started 63 games and threw 552 1/3 innings, accumulating 7.8 WAR. Stivetts averaged 425 innings per season from 1890 to 1892, and while he was quite good (125 ERA+), that’s not the game we play today.
So, Walters. He broke into the majors as an infielder with the Braves in 1931 and wound up with Phillies. Possessing a strong third baseman’s arm, Phillies management urged him to try pitching. He relieved one game late in the season and started the Phillies’ final game, giving up three runs over five innings. The next year he compiled a 4.17 ERA—this was the lively ball era, so that was good—over 151 innings while starting just five games in the field. And that was pretty much it for his time as a position player; he appeared in only ten more games in the field over the next 15 years. He became one of the National League’s best pitchers, ranking 81st among starting pitchers all time by JAWS. He had a 3.30 career ERA (116 ERA+) but had just a 72 OPS+ as a position player, 67 once he turned to pitching.
- Joe Wood, 17.6. Wood was a Red Sox pitcher from 1908 to 1915; he overlapped with Ruth the last two years. He’s best remembered for his 1912 season, when he went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA over 344 innings and three wins in the World Series. He couldn’t stay healthy after that, though. He was sold to Cleveland, and after a short and ineffective 1917 season (3.45 ERA—that was bad then—over just 15 ⅔ innings) he announced an intention to convert to the outfield. With an opening created by World War I-depleted rosters in 1918, he played 419 games in the outfield over the next five years, hitting .298/.376/.433 (116 OPS+). He pitched only two games, both in relief, during those years.
- Martin Dihigo, 12.6. A Cuban, Dihigo’s career in America was limited not only by Negro Leagues schedules (and statistics), but also by seasons he spent playing ball at home and in Mexico. We have MLB records of only nine seasons stateside. He was a true two-way player in each of them, starting games on the mound and in the field each year. As a pitcher, he’s credited with a 3.34 ERA (141 ERA+) over 402 innings. He’s best remembered as a hitter, though, producing .307/.389/.528 (138 OPS+) and averaging 118 runs, 126 RBI, 28 homers, and 19 stolen bases per 162 games. He played all over the field, primarily at shortstop. In 1926, at age 21, he led the Eastern Colored League with a .375 average, .737 slugging, 1.212 OPS, and 14 homers and was ninth in the league in pitcher WAR, giving him 4.3 total WAR in just 43 games.
- Leon Day, 7.4. It bears repeating that the figures here for Negro Leagues players are understated. Their seasons were short, and we have incomplete records of them. Day was primarily a pitcher, famous for his no-windup delivery. He was only 18 in his rookie year, 1935, when he made the Negro National League All-Star team. Seven years later, he had his best season, 8-2 with a 1.73 ERA (225 ERA+), leading the league in WHIP (.912), strikeouts (86), K/BB (3.2), and H/9 (5.3). He was an occasional two-way player from 1934 to 1937 and played regularly in the field, in the outfield and at second, from 1938 through 1946, compiling a .318/.365/.432 (122 OPS+) line at the plate over his career. He played a few years in Cuba and Mexico and ended his career in the minors, posting a 19-15 record and 3.61 ERA over 294 innings but no games in the field.
- Bob Smith, 7.1. Smith’s career mirrored Walters’, though he wasn’t as accomplished. Like Walters, he began as an infielder for the Braves; he was the club’s primary shortstop in 1923 and 1924. His weak bat (.240/.273/.303, 56 OPS+) relegated him to the bench in 1925. One day, after seeing Smith pitch batting practice, a coach convinced manager Dave Bancroft to try him on the mound. After a complete game 11-inning shutout of the Pirates on July 18, Smith started only four more games in the field over his 13-year career. He was a league-average pitcher (100 ERA+) for mostly bad teams (106-139 record) over 229 starts and 206 relief appearances but his hitting is best described as good for a pitcher (career .242/.265/.309).
- Ted Radcliffe, 5.1. The last of the four Negro Leagues players on this list and the only one not in the Hall of Fame, Radcliffe is also the only C/P of these ten. His nickname, “Double Duty,” leaves no doubt of his authenticity as a two-way player. He made the East-West Game (the Negro Leagues’ All-Star Game) as a catcher in 1937, 1943, and 1944 and as a pitcher in 1938, 1939, and 1941. He was well-regarded for his work behind the plate but was a below-average batter (career .271/.306/.374, 89 OPS+). He began pitching in 1929, his second year in the Negro Leagues, and led the Negro National League with a 2.58 ERA (185 ERA+) the next season. Over his career, for which we have stats for 41 starts and 47 relief appearances, he compiled a 3.68 ERA, 21 percent better than average.
- Shohei Ohtani, 4.9 and counting.
- Rick Ankiel, 4.4. Another name familiar to most of you. Ankiel finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote in 2000 after going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA over 30 starts in a league with a 4.65 average ERA. But he lost command of the strike zone in the postseason (4 IP, 11 BB, 9 WP) and was done with pitching in 2004. He became an outfielder and hit .242/.304/.427 (92 OPS+) in 598 games.
I’m sure you noticed that most of these guys were basically position players who wound up being exclusively pitchers (Walters, Smith) or pitchers who wound up being exclusively position players (Ruth, Wood, Ankiel). Their years doing both were very limited (none in the case of Ankiel). Only the four Negro Leaguers had multiple years as regular players on the mound and in the field. We may be witnessing the fifth.
Thank you for reading
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