On September 9th, Edwin Jackson assumed he would be celebrating his 20th birthday with a few friends. Instead, the Dodgers summoned him to join the big club in Phoenix and make his major league debut. Toeing the rubber for the Diamondbacks was Randy Johnson, who we’ve heard is a decent pitcher in his own right. The 36,488 people in attendance could hardly be classified as friends, and we are fairly certain that most had never heard of him before game day. Jackson made himself at home anyways, holding Arizona to one run on four hits in six innings to earn his first major league win.
Very few pitchers can make the necessary adjustments to debut by their 20th birthday, but Jackson’s climb up the ladder is even more remarkable than most. He is a conversion, having made the transition from high school outfielder to major league pitcher after the Dodgers selected him in the sixth round of the 2001 draft. Jackson is not alone, as the presence of converted position players on the mound is growing in the major leagues, and more teams are viewing a pitching career as a viable alternative to releasing struggling hitters who were blessed with strong arms.
While Jackson was drafted with the intent of moving him to the mound full-time, a large number of players are finding their way to the rubber after several years of taking their hacks at the plate. Rafael Soriano was on the verge of being released by the Mariners after hitting .167/.250/.204 while repeating rookie ball in 1998. As a strong-armed outfielder with no future as a hitter, the Mariners put him on the mound in 1999 in what turned out to be a prescient maneuver. Four years later, Soriano was the most dominating reliever in the American League and will be competing for a spot in their 2004 starting rotation.
Other successful conversions include Troy Percival, drafted out of UC Riverside as a catcher, and Trevor Hoffman, whom the Reds selected in 1989 as a shortstop from the University of Arizona. Both spent several years flailing away as hitters in the lower levels of the minor leagues before finding their niche in the bullpen. Percival’s revelation came after realizing that “I didn’t have the best swing in the first place, plus I couldn’t see the ball real well.” Hitters shared a similar problem in 1991 after Percival took the hill for Boise in the Northwest League, where he struck out 63 batters in 38 1/3 innings.
Jackson and Soriano are hardly the last wave in the hitter to pitcher conversion takeover. Thanks to the amazing Keith Woolner, I learned that 36 players in the minor leagues pulled the double-double of pitching at least 10 innings and playing 10 games in the field from 2000-2002. While it is not a laundry list of major league all-stars, you will find several players who contributed at the big league level this year. Brooks Kieschnick is the most notable for his versatility, but the Devil Rays got 173 innings of not-terrible work from Brandon Backe and Jorge Sosa as well.
Of the 36 names, Alec Zumwalt brings up the rear, as he does in most any alphabetized list. However, he is one of the most intriguing prospects on the list, having been converted from right field after struggling through three seasons with the bat. A fourth round pick out of high school in 1999, Zumwalt flashed some power in his bat, but was never able to put it together at the plate. He reluctantly agreed to take the mound in 2002 and did not see the instant success that others have experienced after the switch. His arm strength did not translate into high-90s velocity, and struggles with his command limited his effectiveness. Repetition and experience allowed for a breakthrough 2003 season where he dominated the Carolina League before a promotion to Double-A Greenville.
Zumwalt is currently experiencing more success in the Arizona Fall League, which is not known for being kind to pitchers. He has allowed just one run in his first nine innings while striking out eight batters, following up strong performances that have put him on the map in a crowded Braves system. Zumwalt has learned to mix his 90-94 mph fastball with an improving slider, and is taking to the nuances of pitching well.
One name not among the listed players is Jeremy Harts, whose conversion was not decided upon until the end of the season. After another miserable season with the bat in the Carolina League, the Pirates decided to move their former third round pick to the mound and take advantage of perhaps the strongest arm in professional baseball. Harts managed just 2 2/3 innings while issuing four walks, showing that he needs some work. However, Harts’ arm has been described as an 85 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He was responsible for the strongest throw I have ever witnessed, and some scouts feel that his athleticism will help him reach triple-digits if he improves his mechanics.
While arm strength is certainly the biggest factor in determining whether a player should be given a chance to take the mound, it is not the only factor to success. As Matt Anderson will attest, velocity does not equal success, and 100 mph fastballs simply find the bleachers more quickly than 96 mph fastballs. However, since most conversions have already spent several years in the minor leagues, teams do not have the luxury of bringing them along slowly. The timetable for success is much smaller than with drafted or signed pitchers thanks to the Rule 5 draft.
Since converted position players usually have two years or fewer to reach the show, the bullpen is the most likely destination for success. As a reliever, converted position-players need not be bothered with the complexities of learning a change-up or perfecting a breaking ball, and they can be spotted against hitters they are more likely to be effective against. Since command is less of an issue coming out of the bullpen, conversions are allowed to simply get by on their velocity while attempting to develop their secondary pitches as they go. While Jackson and Soriano were converted early enough to make the move into starting rotations, they are the exception, not the rule.
When I broached the subject of future conversions with scouts and player development officials, I was met with a large array of names, most of which are not known outside their own organizations. However, several intriguing names came up that have received accolades for their offensive abilities at one point and have even been recognized as legitimate prospects. Below is a brief summary of some notable players who may be given an opportunity to pitch before their careers come to a close:
- B.J. Garbe, Twins. The fifth pick in the 1999 draft hit .178/.241/.267 for Double-A New Britain this year, causing even his staunchest supporters to admit that his bat is not likely to come around. His arm is above average, though his velocity probably would peak around 90 on the mound. With the money they invested in him, though, it would be worth it for the Twins to try and get something in return.
- Reggie Abercrombie, Dodgers. The Dodgers almost certainly won’t give up on him due to his outstanding athletic ability, but his strike zone judgment is beyond repair, and several scouts suggested that his arm is the only one they have seen that compares to Harts’. Barring a Jeff Pentland-inspired miracle, Abercrombie won’t make it as a major league hitter, but it would be a shame to see his career end before we saw what he could do on the mound.
- Anderson Hernandez, Tigers. Signed as a shortstop in 2001 by the Tigers, Hernandez has earned praise for an arm that compares to Garry Templeton, but his offense has yet to come around. After a second disappointing year at Lakeland, there are rumblings that the Tigers may move Hernandez to the mound. He turns 21 next week and has not shown the progress the Tigers had hoped.
While these three may never end up on the mound, the success of players like Rafael Soriano will continue to encourage organizations to explore their options before giving up completely on a player. We will cover the success rates of converted pitchers in a future article, but the reward is high enough that we will continue to see failed hitters take the stride to the mound before they take the long walk home.