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Karl Lindholm: Many pitchers could, and can, also wield bats

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Posted on May 3, 2018 |
By Karl Lindholm



shohei.jpg
SHOHEI OHTANI, THE 23-year-old Japanese star who is attempting to be a two-way player in defiance of encrusted baseball tradition.

By the way, who decreed that pitchers can’t hit?

From little League through high school, the most athletic player is often the pitcher — and the best hitter, batting cleanup.

Yet at the professional level, and even in college baseball, pitchers are relegated to specialist duty, never carrying a bat to the plate and taking their licks. Pitchers sit while a designated player hits in their turn.

In the Major Leagues, the National League is the outlier, still allowing pitchers to hit for themselves (most often ineptly).

Certainly, the best pitcher/hitter of all time was “the Babe,” George Herman Ruth, who very likely would have qualified for the Hall of Fame as a pitcher had the Yankees not stuck him in the outfield every day and batted him third in the lineup — and told him to stay put!

Babe Ruth (pictured, left) had a 94-46 record on the mound with a 2.28 ERA before he became the greatest power hitter in baseball history. In 1916, at age 21, he won 23 games, nine were shutouts, and the next year he started 38 games, finished 35 of them, and won 24. He simply was the best left-handed pitcher in the game — and was still just a kid (24) when he was sold to the Yanks.

All he did in his two World Series, 1916 and 1918 (Red Sox won both), was win all three games he started, giving up three runs in 31 innings (0.87 ERA).

Since Babe Ruth, the convention in professional baseball is to ask gifted and versatile players to choose between being a position player or a pitcher (and the choice is usually not the player’s to make): one or the other, never both, not possible.

Many players have been forced to make that choice. The Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland was an outstanding college pitcher at Mississippi State, their closer. In the 1990s, All-Star first baseman John Olerud (.295 MLB lifetime batting average) was an All-American pitcher, a lefty, at Washington State University. He was 15-0 in his sophomore year.

The most exciting player in the game today may be Shohei Ohtani, the 23-year-old Japanese star who is attempting to be a two-way player in defiance of encrusted baseball tradition.

He seems like a fictional character who burst on the scene from a faraway place: a marvelous athlete, 6 foot, 4 inches tall, 205 pounds, long and lean, a left-handed pitcher and batter, who throws the ball 100 miles an hour and hits prodigious homers.

Despite his youth, he tore up Japanese baseball and early on set his sights on the Major Leagues. Through some convolution of baseball’s arcane international rules, Ohtani was able to select the Major League team he wanted to join. The rigid prerequisite was that he be able to both hit and pitch. The Los Angeles Angels, prime among many suitors, complied.

Ohtani had a miserable spring training, couldn’t hit or pitch, and the skeptics — and there were many — seemed right.

Yet, now one month into games that count, he has performed brilliantly. On the mound, he is 2-1 in four starts (his only bad performance against the Red Sox) with 26 strikeouts in 20 innings.

He pitches once a week and is the Angels DH in three or four games a week. He’s batting .333 with four homers and 12 RBIs in only 48 at bats. The comparisons to the Babe, though wildly premature, are inevitable.

Ruth is the only Major League player in Cooperstown with comparable batting and pitching skills, extraordinary skills, but he’s not the only player there with great pitching and hitting records.

In fact, there are three others: Martin Dihigo (inducted 1977), Bullet Joe Rogan (1998), and Leon Day (1995).

Don’t recognize those names? All three played in baseball’s Negro Leagues. The game was segregated at the highest level for 60 years (1887-1947). While the Negro Leagues were inferior in resources, they certainly were not in talent. For financial reasons, black teams carried fewer players so they had to play multiple positions.

Dihigo (pictured left), a Cuban, played for the New York Cubans and the Homestead Grays in the United States and then all over the Caribbean and Latin America in the 1920s and ‘30s. Tall and agile, he was magnificent: a pitcher, an infielder, and an outfielder — and a terrific hitter. Undoubtedly one of the very best players of all time, he was known as El Maestro.

Of Leon Day, fellow Hall of Famer Monte Irvin said: “People don’t know what a great pitcher Leon Day was. He was as good or better than Bob Gibson. He was an even better fielder, a better hitter, could run like a deer. You should have seen Day!”

When Bullet Joe was not mowing them down on the mound, he was playing the outfield and hitting homers for the Kansas City Monarchs, perhaps the greatest of all the Negro League teams.

In this time of such specialization, it’s fun to recall these great players, while we wish well today’s dynamic hybrid, Shohei Ohtani.

It’s baseball weather. Finally. Let’s play two!

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