The Major Leagues are a slightly different story, of course, but Ohtani is nearing a big league contract and has met with teams to figure out the best fit in rotations and lineups come Opening Day 2018. It’s a rare feat to see a player excel on both sides of the ball in the best league on the planet, but Ohtani will have the chance to do exactly that in April.
That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.
Recent baseball history has featured its share of big league pitchers who were once great amateur and even professional hitters, and several of them — including Brooks Kieschnick, John Van Benschoten, Adam Loewen and Rick Ankiel — spoke to us about the experience.
They described how it came to be that they ended up solely on the mound, which Ohtani, of course, will aim to avoid. They also offered their advice for this ambitious, reportedly wise-beyond-his-years wunderkind who is about to embark on an unforgettable hardball adventure.
Ohtani most likely hasn’t sought advice from Kieschnick, but it wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Kieschnick, as fate would have it, is the last player to pitch and hit at the same time at the Major League level. He did it in 2003 and ’04 for the Milwaukee Brewers, and boy, did he ever have a blast.
“Oh my gosh, I felt like I was back in college,” Kieschnick said. “Just go out and have fun playing the game you love.”
Kieschnick’s two-way story began at the University of Texas, where he played outfield and pitched and dominated, winning the Dick Howser Trophy for national college player of the year twice. He hit 43 home runs in three years as a Longhorn and also shined on the mound, going 16-4 with a 3.25 ERA in 1993. That was good enough to get Kieschnick drafted with the 10th overall pick by the Cubs that year.
Kieschnick made it to the big leagues with the Cubs in 1996, played some outfield and pinch-hit in stints that season and in ’97, and then moved on to some Major League time with Cincinnati in 2000 and Colorado in ’01. It wasn’t until he resurfaced in Milwaukee in ’03 that he also became an option for the bullpen.
That season, Kieschnick homered as a pitcher, pinch-hitter and designated hitter, becoming the first MLB player to accomplish that feat in the same season. He also thrilled teammates and Brewers fans who otherwise weren’t seeing much to celebrate from a club buried in the standings.
Now, with the news that Ohtani is on the horizon, Kieschnick is getting a lot of phone calls that are conjuring up a lot of great memories. He’s also been thinking about what might eventually happen to Ohtani, since he knows how difficult it is just to play in the Majors in the first place, let alone play both ways. A good number of prognosticators are probably already wagering that Ohtani will eventually focus on one discipline — and the fact that his fastball hits triple digits would say the smart money’s on pitching. Kieschnick can’t argue that logic.
“He’ll be handled with kid gloves, but I’m thinking a guy that’s going to put that kind of strain on his arm by swinging the bat and pitching, his body will start to break down at some point,” Kieschnick said. “It’s good that he’s 23. He can probably handle it for a while.”
Van Benschoten’s baseball experience taught him that sometimes your preferred discipline is out of your control when it comes to what teams need and want.
Van Benschoten was a power hitter at Kent State University, blasting 31 homers to lead NCAA Division I, while excelling as a college relief pitcher, hitting 93 mph on the radar gun. He figured he might get drafted as a hitter … until the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him with the eighth overall pick in the 2001 Draft with eyes on him as a pitcher. Van Benschoten and his parent club tried the two-way thing in his rookie season at Class A Williamsport in 2001, and the right-hander pitched to a 3.51 ERA in nine starts. But he posted a .227/.302/.293 slash line in 75 at-bats and the hitting experiment was over almost as quickly as it began.
Van Benschoten made it to the big leagues, appearing in a total of 26 games in stints in 2004, ’07 and ’08. But he only got 21 career at-bats, hitting one homer and wondering what might have happened if he was just a hitter. That’s why Van Benschoten says while Ohtani seems to have extraordinary talent, the kid will face some challenges.
“If you’re physically talented as a pitcher, it’s easier to get to the big leagues,” Van Benschoten said. “With hitting, there are so many adjustments that need to be made. You’re constantly making adjustments. I didn’t have the chance, really, to get to make those adjustments.”
Still, Van Benschoten likes what he’s heard and seen, at least on video, of Ohtani.
“He’s got a fluid, athletic, explosion thing going on,” Van Benschoten said. “He’s long, athletic and explosive. It’s different. But it’ll still be very, very tough.”
How about Loewen? The Canadian-bred southpaw was a terrific high school prospect when the Orioles drafted him fourth overall in 2002 and signed him for $3.2 million the following year. Loewen was picked as a pitcher, although teams knew he had left-handed power, and he made it to a Major League mound in 2006. After three injury-riddled seasons with Baltimore, he disappeared from the big league radar … until he worked his way back as a hitter, making it to the Majors once again for Toronto in 2011. Then Loewen went back to pitching and got big league time with Philadelphia in ’15 and Arizona in ’16.
After all that perseverance, Loewen is proud of what he was able to do. But he has other feelings, strong feelings, when it comes to Ohtani.
“I’m a little jealous,” Loewen said with a laugh. “Because that’s always been my dream, to be a two-way player. And this is a guy who can basically do anything on a baseball field, and it’s kind of unprecedented. You have to go back a long way to find somebody like that. And then you hear he has 70-grade speed, and your head kind of spins thinking about how good he can be.”
Loewen says he’d love to see Ohtani jump-start a new era in baseball in which such versatility and excellence is not only possible but common.
“Clubs were more close-minded when I was drafted,” Loewen said. “With analytics now and teams trying to get the edge on everybody else, this is a place where you can do it. Because of him, guys that get drafted that can play two ways are going to have more opportunities.”
Ankiel knows a lot about playing two ways. He broke into the bigs as a phenom lefty drafted out of high school who could hit the upper 90s. Ankiel burst into MLB as a 19-year-old in 1999 and was spectacular in 2000, punching out 194 batters in 175 innings while pitching to a 3.50 ERA. But he lost command of the strike zone that postseason and never was the same on the mound.
Ankiel didn’t give up, though, and his all-around talent was so abundant that he was able to return to MLB as a hitter, putting up a .724 OPS, hitting 76 homers, and staying in the Majors until 2013.
If anyone knows the grind that faces Ohtani, it’s Ankiel. And if anyone wants Ohtani to succeed, it’s Ankiel.
“I’m praying that he goes to an American League team, just because if they’re thinking that they don’t want him to play in the field the next day, that they can let him DH,” Ankiel recently told MLB Network’s Chris Russo.
“Then we’ll get a chance to see this guy do both at the same time.”