Has Shohei Ohtani set the bar too high for future 2-way players?

When Jared Walsh reported to spring practice as a two-way player in 2019, he was pretty confident about his chances of playing first base and getting out of the bullpen in the big leagues.

Then Walsh witnessed Shohei Ohtani’s historic 2021 season, when the two-way phenom hit 46 homers with 100 RBIs and was 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA in 23 starts on the mound, and he realized the folly of his two -way aspirations.

“Oh yes, absolutely!” Walsh said when asked if he thought he could be a two-way player ahead of Ohtani’s breakout season. “I thought, ‘This won’t be a problem.’ Then I saw him and I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t want to work that much,’ so I’m not doing it.”

Ohtani transformed into a worldwide sensation last season, his ability to throw baseballs at 100 miles an hour and hit them 450 feet, resulting in a season not seen in the sport since Babe Ruth a century ago.

The left-handed Ohtani batted .257 with a .965 on-base plus slugging percentage, 26 doubles, eight triples, 26 stolen bases and 103 runs. The right-hander, limited to 1 2/3 innings in 2019 and 2020 by elbow injuries, batted 156 and walked 44 in 130 1/3 innings.

The growing consensus in baseball was that Ohtani’s remarkable power on the plate and dominance on the mound, which made him a unanimous choice for the American League’s Most Valuable Player, would motivate more young players to pursue two-fold glory.

However, some players in the Angels camp are wondering if perhaps Ohtani has set the bar so high that he could actually stop kids from riding a two-way route to the big leagues.

“Kids will want to do it for sure, but it’s the front office that’s going to set the bar too high,” said new Angels pitcher Michael Lorenzen, himself a capable hitter with a .233 average, .710 OPS, seven homers and 24 RBIs in 147 career record appearances.

“The thought is, ‘Oh, if you’re not shohei, you’re not successful,’ and that doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re not Max Scherzer, aren’t you a successful starting pitcher? That does not make sense.”

“Two-Way Player” became an official MLB roster classification in 2020, a player who qualifies for such status if he pitched at least 20 innings and appeared in at least 20 games as a positional player or batsman-designated in the previous season at least three plate appearances in each game.

Lorenzen, who was often called up as a pinch hitter and made six outfield starts in seven seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, is the only player along with Ohtani who has come close to meeting the criteria.

Brendan McKay, the fourth overall pick in 2017, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays as a two-way player but has only served 49 innings and made 11 plate appearances. He underwent thoracic outlet syndrome decompression surgery last November, which further slowed his progress.

There are a handful of minor league prospects – Masyn Winn (Cardinals), Bubba Chandler (Pirates), William Holmes (Angels) – who are being nurtured as two-way players.

“You saw Shohei – he can hit balls on the rocks in batting practice [in Angel Stadium] and he can throw 100 miles an hour,” Walsh said. “If you have any of those skills, it’s you [Noah] Syndergaard or Mike Trout.

“He probably set the bar too high, but as long as your health allows, you’re really a baseball player if you hit and throw. So, I say everyone should do it. But you probably won’t have a 3.00 ERA with 50 homers, so don’t get your hopes up.”

Angels' Shohei Ohtani sits in the dugout during the team's spring training session.

Angels’ Shohei Ohtani sits in the dugout during the team’s spring training Monday in Tempe, Ariz.

(Matt York/Associated Press)

Walsh’s pitching career ended in 2020 with an arm injury and a breakout season on the plate. The first baseman hit .293 with .971 OPS, nine homers and 26 RBIs in 32 games of the pandemic-shortened season.

He was a 2021 All-Star, batting .277 with .850 OPS, 29 homers and 98 RBIs.

“Luckily, I was starting to hit better, but if I was sane and thought it was in my best interest to pitch, I would,” Walsh said. “My arm wasn’t okay with being a two-way guy. I love the competitive aspect of it, but I’d rather bat 600 than pitch.”

After watching Ohtani in the weight room, batting cage and bullpen for seven months last season, Walsh doubts he could handle the physical rigors of a two-way player.

“It was absolutely mind-blowing,” Walsh said. “I think he did such a great job of handling his workload, he knew when to go in the weight room, when to go in the cage and when to stay out of the cage. He’s a worker, so I think he probably had to take it back a little bit, which allowed him to be so special.”

Angels general manager Perry Minasian believes that budding two-way players will need a similar drive and determination to succeed in the majors, even if it’s not at the Ohtani level.

“I think a lot of that is intentional,” he said. “You have to have the talent to do that, but the workload is incredible in terms of preparation.”

Minasian said he would have “no problems” with a player pursuing a two-way role as long as his work rate is high and his expectations are realistic.

“I do not think so [Ohtani] is what you’re trying to emulate,” Minasian said. “Maybe it’s certain people, but you don’t have to do it at this level to be productive. And if you ask managers if you can perform on the field [as a pitcher]it opens up a lot of flexibility from a roster standpoint.

“I think it will be more of a focus and there will be more routine to train for. You might not see it next year or two years, but I think in five or ten years you will see a wave of two-way players that you haven’t seen in the past just for the sake of achieving what shohei could.” Has Shohei Ohtani set the bar too high for future 2-way players?

Andrew Schnitker

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