BASEBALL HAS A FASCINATION with pitchers who can hit and hitters who can pitch. Shohei Otani — “Japan’s Babe Ruth” — is generating cross-cultural anticipation as he moves closer to free agency next winter. Madison Bumgarner creates a stir whenever he lobbies to take part in a Home Run Derby. And who can forget the grand theater Jose Canseco provided as a Texas Ranger in 1993, when he threw 33 pitches against the Boston Red Sox on his way to Tommy John surgery?
Inevitably, two-way phenoms have been forced to make a choice, because it would be too difficult to ply both skills on a regular basis. But that assumption might soon be tested by an ambitious Louisville Cardinal.
His name is Brendan McKay, and he has authored a list of achievements longer than John Jaso’s hair. McKay has won three straight John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Awards, and he recently captured Collegiate Baseball Magazine’s 2017 National Player of the Year Award in recognition of his multiple skills. During Louisville’s regular season, he hit .363 with a 1.186 OPS and 17 home runs at first base and posted a 9-3 record with a 2.37 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 91 innings as a starting pitcher.
McKay wants to pitch in pro ball, and he aspires to hit, and he would prefer to commingle the two interests for a living. McKay’s skill sets are so evenly matched in the estimation of scouts that it’s almost a misnomer to refer to him as a hitter-pitcher. Maybe a terminology change is in order and teams will start referring to him as a “hitcher,” or a “pitter,” depending on the day.
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell, who has spent the past three years marveling at McKay’s ability to switch roles, thinks he’s just the man to buck tradition once he embarks on his professional baseball career.
“I don’t know if he’s the No. 1 college pitcher in the country,” McDonnell said. “Let’s just say he’s in the top three to five. I don’t know if he’s the top college hitter in the country. Let’s just say he’s in the top three to five. So you’re getting two players with one pick and one dollar value.
“The excitement he drew before the season was remarkable. I’ve been talking to pro guys since the fall. Now here we are at the draft, and it’s fun because the kid has put himself in such a great position. How you use him is your choice. I [realize] the challenges of big league two-way players. But you’re getting a starting rotation pitcher that you hope can give you 200 innings a year and a left-handed power bat. Man, it’s exciting.”
When the 2017 MLB first-year player draft begins Monday in Secaucus, New Jersey, McKay and California prep star Hunter Greene will both hear their names called among the first handful of picks. Greene is a charismatic young player — and a talented pitcher and shortstop. But from the moment he hit 102 mph on the radar gun, his path to the majors seemed preordained.
McKay, in contrast, has the potential to set off a spirited debate among scouts. He could be a pitcher, a hitter or both, depending on how imaginative his future employer chooses to be. Barring a major surprise, only the Twins, Reds, Padres, Rays or Braves — the teams holding the first five picks — will have a chance to decide.
“I don’t know if he’s the No. 1 college pitcher in the country. Let’s just say he’s in the top three to five. I don’t know if he’s the top college hitter in the country. Let’s just say he’s in the top three to five. So you’re getting two players with one pick and one dollar value.”
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell on Brendan McKay
By all accounts, McKay is exceedingly humble and a popular teammate. But he’s confident enough in his ability to defy convention until someone looks him in the eye and tells him no.
“You go in trying to do both,” McKay said by phone this week after Louisville advanced to its fifth straight Super Regional. “But when somebody takes you in the draft and gives you whatever amount of money they’re gonna give you, they might have a little more say than you or your advisor. You give your input. But when it comes down to it, it’s like any other job. You’re going to do what they tell you to do to earn that paycheck.”
In the meantime, why not dream big?
“Brendan is respectful and he’ll do what’s best for an organization,” McDonnell said. “But I think in his mind, he really thinks he can do both. There’s no way he wants to shut the door on either one.”
DRAFT HISTORIANS SEEKING a comparable for McKay have to go back to 1973, when star outfielder Dave Winfield went 9-1 with 109 strikeouts in 82 innings as a pitcher for the Minnesota Gophers. At the College World Series, Winfield threw eight innings of one-hit, shutout ball with 15 strikeouts against a University of Southern California team featuring future big leaguers Fred Lynn, Steve Kemp, Rich Dauer and Roy Smalley.
After being selected in the baseball, football and basketball drafts, Winfield agreed to a $100,000 bonus with the San Diego Padres and went straight to the majors. He hit 465 homers and amassed 3,110 hits in a Hall of Fame career — and never pitched an inning in pro ball. Since Winfield, numerous players have displayed impressive versatility at the college level. Olerud and Todd Helton were talented two-way collegians who each won batting titles and made a combined seven All-Star teams in the majors. John Van Benschoten, a star pitcher and NCAA home run champion at Kent State, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a pitcher in the first round in 2001 and compiled a 2-13 record with a 9.20 ERA in 26 MLB appearances.
Brooks Kieschnick was an outfielder who transitioned to the bullpen with the Milwaukee Brewers and hit .286 as a bench bat during the final two years of his career. And Rick Rhoden, a 151-game winner in the big leagues, made history in 1988 when New York Yankees manager Billy Martin started him as the DH against Baltimore. Rhoden went 0-1 with a sacrifice fly.
Others have used their versatility as a lifeline to prolong careers. Rick Ankiel hit 74 homers as an outfielder after a case of the yips wrecked his pitching career. Matt Bush, a first-round flop at shortstop, re-emerged as a closer in Texas after a checkered off-field history. Now Christian Bethancourt and Anthony Gose, former top prospects who failed to cut it as position players, are trying to reinvent themselves as pitchers in the minors.
San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy thinks the bar can be raised. Bochy has contemplated using Bumgarner, who has 16 career homers, as a designated hitter on several occasions, only to relent and use a position player who needed the at-bats.
“Obviously, the concern would be pitching and monitoring all the throwing the kid is going to do wherever he is on the field,” Bochy said.
“Could it be done? Sure, if he has the talent. If he’s that good as a hitter and you really thought he could hit major league pitching. I would personally think he could be a DH. It would be intriguing. I’d love to see it.”
One thing veteran personnel people agree on is the importance of the two-way player signing off on the organizational game plan. If his heart isn’t in it, it’s a recipe for failure.
“I think you have to ask any player, ‘What do you envision yourself doing 10 years from now?”’ said Arizona Diamondbacks special assistant Tim Wilken, a longtime scout with the Blue Jays, Cubs and D-backs.
Sometimes experience can be the best teacher. When Toronto drafted Dave Stieb out of Southern Illinois University in 1979, he was adamant about playing in the outfield professionally. So the Jays sent Stieb to the Florida State League, and he hit .192 with Dunedin. He then embraced the pitching path the Jays had in mind from the outset. Stieb reached the majors at 21 and won 176 games in a 16-year career.
“We sent him out happy and let him basically determine what he needed to do,” Wilken said. “It was pretty easy to go from there.”
HITTERS TYPICALLY DISLIKE pitchers, and hitters don’t care for pitchers as a rule, so pardon McKay for feeling a bit conflicted. He was a Pirates fan growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Darlington, Pennsylvania, but these days he’s more inclined to follow individual players than specific MLB teams. He’s partial to Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer on the pitching side and Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in the batter’s box.
The hardest part of trying to emulate Kershaw and Harper is the maintenance required between games. McKay needs to budget his time, and he’ll get sore in different muscle groups, and at the start of each week McDonnell has to meet with the strength coach and trainer to map out a strategy.
“There’s a big workload,” McKay said. “You’re playing almost every day like a position player. Then you’ve also got side work as a pitcher and a couple of extra lifts a week and other preparation you’ve got to do. It’s very tough to handle your body and handle how you get tired throughout a season.”
At the start of Louisville’s season, McKay pitched Friday night, then played first base Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday. McDonnell eventually began mixing in some DH time, and then a little less DH time. He would constantly ask McKay, “How are you feeling?” But when McKay answered “fine” for the hundredth time, the coach stopped inquiring.
When McKay takes grounders at first base during infield practice, the Louisville staff adds a twist: Rather toss balls back to the coach hitting the fungoes, McKay has been instructed to make the shorter, less taxing flip to a team manager filling in at first base. McDonnell did the math in his head and concluded that little changes might make a difference over a long season.
“Brendan gets kind of pissed,” McDonnell said. “He hates the special treatment. But I’m thinking, ‘If you throw it back to the fungoer 35 times a day and multiply that by a week, a month and then a year, you just made a thousand more throws overhand. I don’t need you making those throws.’ Sometimes we get a little too protective of him, and he doesn’t like that.”
Regardless of McKay’s long-term path, the short-term plan for him appears clear-cut: MLB teams generally give college pitchers little to no work after the draft because their arms have already been taxed by the NCAA season. So McKay’s drafting club might opt to send him out this summer and let him play first base just to acclimate to pro ball.
After that, who knows? It’s natural to wonder how much more proficient could McKay be if he were allowed to specialize in one facet of the game rather than multitask. But he’s just not built that way.
“That sounds pretty good [in theory],” said a scout, “but this guy might get bored as hell.”
Each day brings a new opportunity to add a different wrinkle — on both sides of the ball. During a tournament in Clearwater, Florida, scouts perked up when the opposition employed a shift on McKay and he showed the wherewithal to lay down a bunt single. When Louisville pitching coach Roger Williams suggested that McKay could benefit from throwing a cutter, he embraced the idea and seamlessly added it to his repertoire.
Now, McKay is poised to join outfielder Corey Ray, pitchers Kyle Funkhouser and Zack Burdi and catcher Will Smith as the fifth Louisville player since 2015 to go in the first round of the draft. It’s an indescribable thrill for a kid who’s predisposed to taking life one game at a time.
“You work your whole baseball life, from the time you start playing ball,” McKay said. “You look at major league games and think, ‘Hey, this looks like fun to play.’ Then you start looking at colleges and think, ‘Where do I want to go where the team has success and it’s a fun atmosphere?’ You meet a lot of guys that have the same will and passion you do, and they all want that opportunity to fulfill their lifetime dream of playing professional baseball.”
As he pursues his dream, McKay is ready to take on the added responsibility of blazing a trail. Otani might be wise to take notes.