A while ago this blog looked at men who have taken on both the player and manager roles at the same time. I think people rarely even think of the possibility of the player-manager role returning to MLB, but we’ve recently seen Micah Owings and Rick Ankiel switch out of their pitching roles to become position players. But neither the Cardinals nor the Diamondbacks tried to have Ankiel or Owings serve as pinch-hitters, much less first basemen or outfielders, in between their starts. First they failed to make it as pitchers, and then their teams tried to convert them to position players. Are we going to see any team do this-not having a pitcher serve as an emergency pinch-hitter in an 18-inning game, but reliably using him as a pinch-hitter during the regular season?
A while ago, I read on Bill James’ website James saying: “I think the last real two-way player in the majors was Hal Jeffcoat in the 50s. In the 60s there were a couple of players who made it to the majors as pitchers and then converted to position players at the major league level, Willie Smith and Bobby Darwin.”
A couple reasons for the disappearance of the true two-way player come to mind: baseball has become more and more specialized over the decades. Think of relief pitchers, platoons, defensive replacements, catchers paired with a specific starter, and, of course, the ever-growing use of advanced statistics to attempt to gain an advantage in a given pitcher-hitter matchup. Second, the salaries paid to players have gone up so much that teams seem less and less inclined to take risks with their starting pitchers in particular. Why risk losing your no. 2 starter to a hit-by-pitch, a foul ball off his foot, or a muscle strain from him, as a pinch-hitter, trying to power out a homer to win a game in the late innings?
Owings is the last starting pitcher I know of (does Carlos Zambrano qualify?) who was such a good hitter that you could readily envision his team using him as its primary pinch-hitter, or even as a late-game first baseman. The Diamondbacks weren’t interested, so fans lost an opportunity to see a revival of a strategy that was not at all unusual in MLB’s early decades.