Hunter Greene and Brendan McKay may not have been selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 Major League Baseball draft Monday night, but both could have a much bigger impact on the game.
Greene and McKay both excelled as two-way players at their respective schools. Greene was a standout shortstop and right-handed pitcher at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California. McKay played first base and pitched in his three seasons at Louisville.
That’s not exactly uncommon. Plenty of players dominate in two roles in high school and college. Once they get drafted by a major-league team, however, that changes. In the past, teams have pushed players into one position. The true two-way player hasn’t existed in MLB for quite some time.
That might be over. Both Greene and McKay will be allowed to continue playing both ways in the minors.
While Greene was the bigger name, McKay may have the better chance of sticking in both roles. He expressed a desire to continue hitting and pitching in the weeks heading into the draft, and the Tampa Bay Rays are more than willing to allow him to do that.
That didn’t seem like the case initially. McKay was called a “first baseman” by commissioner Rob Manfred at the draft. Shortly after everyone thought he was ticketed to be a position player, reports emerged that the Rays will allow McKay to do both. McKay confirmed that during an interview with MLB Network Radio.
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The Cincinnati Reds seem a bit more hesitant with Greene. While they admitted they’ll keep the door open on Greene remaining in both roles, the Reds said that pitching with be Greene’s focus. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, as the 17-year-old can reportedly hit 102 mph on the mound.
Reds general manager Dick Williams told C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer this is “a very unique situation.”
“As I’ve said many times, playing at the highest level is very difficult and I just wouldn’t ever want somebody to try to focus on both to the detriment of one,” Williams said. “So, we think Hunter’s got a great chance to be a major leaguer as a pitcher. We think the potential is there as a position player. I think at first we will focus on pitching and allow him to take at-bats. We’ll keep the door open to playing the field. This is a very unique situation, something we’ve never been confronted with before. We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to go through this with Hunter.“
Williams is right about that. Baseball hasn’t had a true two-way player since Babe Ruth. Some teams have toyed with the idea. The San Diego Padres were supposed to make it work with Christian Bethancourt this year. He lasted 3 2/3 innings before the team sent him to Triple-A to focus on pitching. The Reds said they would do it with Michael Lorenzen. While seven plate appearances is a lot for a reliever, that’s not a true two-way role.
That’s how most of these experiments tend to go. Teams will flirt with the idea briefly only to abandon it when it doesn’t work immediately. The last guy to truly get a shot at the role was probably Brooks Kieschnick of the Milwaukee Brewers. Kieschnick posted a 3.44 ERA over 43 innings and a .270 average over 68 plate appearances in 2004. Before him, Hal Jeffcoat received some time at both positions with the Chicago Cubs and Reds in the 1950s.
The Arizona Diamondbacks and Reds entertained the idea with Micah Owings in 2007 and 2008, but he never received more than 64 plate appearances in a season. More recently, Boston Red Sox draftee Casey Kelly split his 2009 season in the minors doing both. He starred as a pitcher the first half, and a shortstop in the second half. That December, he decided to focus on pitching full-time.
Greene and McKay could be different. In most recent cases, the players who attempted to become two-way players weren’t utilized that way in the minors. They specialized at one spot, but happened to be good a the other thing. Take Owings, for example, he was primarily a pitcher, but he wasn’t too bad at hitting. Put him with an experimental manager, and suddenly he’s getting a few pinch hit opportunities in the majors. That’s usually as far as it goes.
Much of that will depend on how committed the Reds and Rays are to making it work. The Reds have already announced a more cautious approach with Greene, hinting at him getting at-bats, but not saying he’ll take the field just yet. The Rays have not announced how they’ll balance using McKay in both roles.
Whatever they decide will be close to uncharted territory. Will McKay be used as a starter who DHs or plays first on his off days? Will he specialize as a position player who can make an appearance out of the bullpen one or two times per week? How do you balance both of those things while making sure he’s not completely exhausted? Could Casey Kelly’s route be the optimal strategy, or is there another way?
Perhaps the bigger concern will be injuries. Both players take on much higher injury risk playing both ways. If McKay is mainly used as a first baseman, the Rays won’t want him to blow out his arm pitching. They could end the experiment at the first sign of soreness.
With Greene, that’s probably an even bigger worry. Pitchers already have high injury rates, and the fact that he’s just 17 doesn’t help his case. High school pitchers are usually handled with extreme caution. It’s tough to imagine the Reds would suddenly and drastically change course with a guy who can already hit 102 mph with his fastball. One twisted ankle while legging out a double could be all it takes for Greene to shift to the mound full-time.
Still, the fact that both teams are willing to give it a shot suggest MLB is more open to the idea. That could have something to do with the success of Nippon Professional Baseball superstar Shohei Otani. The 22-year-old has been the best pitcher in NPB since 2014. He wasn’t satisfied with that, though, and decided to serve as the Nippon Ham Fighters’ designated hitter for 104 games in 2016.
Otani rewarded the club by winning the awards for best pitcher and best designated hitter in NPB last year. Over 140 innings, he posted a 1.86 ERA, with 174 strikeouts. At the plate, he hit .322/.416/.588, with 22 home runs, in 382 plate appearances. Otani has expressed a desire to try and do both once he comes to the majors, though it’s unclear how soon that’s going to happen.
Baseball has been notoriously slow to embrace innovation. Because of that, it’s easy to come up with scenarios where Greene and McKay get shifted to one position. Even if that’s the case, Greene and McKay have already inspired teams to experiment with the idea. That alone is a pretty significant development in finding baseball’s next two-way star.
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