GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The constructs that define professional baseball infuriate Michael Lorenzen, enough to keep him up some nights. Lorenzen, an established reliever and a hopeful outfielder, likes to say that his sport’s two favorite words are “just because.” He made his point by rattling off a series of questions that lack definitive answers.
Why do we stand outside for 45 minutes before every game?
Why do we show up six hours early if we play every single day for six months?
How come someone can’t pitch and hit in the big leagues?
“Just because,” Lorenzen said, repeating a response he has grown tired of hearing. “‘You can’t do it. It’s too hard.’ The only one who has the right to say it’s too hard is Shohei Ohtani because he’s the only one that’s done it. No one else has the right to say anything, really. It drives me nuts. Since when is that a way of thinking in sports? The four-minute mile was impossible until it wasn’t. I just don’t get how we haven’t learned from that time and time again.”
Ohtani came over from Japan last year and accomplished something that hadn’t been done in nearly a century, emerging as a dominant starting pitcher and an exceptional designated hitter in being named the American League Rookie of the Year.
He will spend the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, unable to pitch but still allowed to hit for the Los Angeles Angels. In his wake, a wave of aspiring two-way players has emerged. Four of the players — Kaleb Cowart, Jared Walsh, Bo Way and William English — also are employed by the Angels organization. Lorenzen is attempting something similar with the Cincinnati Reds, as are Matt Davidson with the Texas Rangers and Brendan McKay, the fourth overall pick in 2017, with the Tampa Bay Rays.
ESPN’s ranking of MLB’s best players in the new season. Nos. 1-50 » | 51-100 »
Surprises, reaction » | More MLB Rank »
ESPN’s ranking of MLB’s best players in the new season. Nos. 1-50 » | 51-100 »
None has the capabilities of Ohtani — aside from Lorenzen, they’re all either learning to pitch out of self-preservation or developing slowly in the lower levels — but it’s a start. Ohtani, speaking through an interpreter, said it “wasn’t one of my goals” to inspire others, “but it’s a good thing if people start doing it because of me.”
Ohtani’s performance created a blueprint for how a two-way player could exist in the modern game, spawning an open-mindedness that has otherwise been absent in the major leagues. It broke down barriers.
“Professional sports evolve and adapt, and that’s all this is a case of,” Angels general manager Billy Eppler said. “It’s challenging convention and not being afraid to look at a problem differently. I’ve always believed that success in business or success in an organization or what have you is having thoughtful opinions that you hold on to loosely — meaning it’s OK to change your mind, it’s OK to adapt and evolve as you get more information. The notion of ‘this is how we’ve always done it,’ I think, is a losing mindset.”
It was the night of July 30 in Salt Lake City in the 11th inning of a game that was beginning to slip away. Jared Walsh had spent the first 10 innings in left field for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. But the half-inning didn’t want to end, and the bullpen was thinning out, so with two on, one out and three runs already across, Salt Lake Bees manager Keith Johnson emerged from the dugout and pointed in Walsh’s direction.
Walsh was baffled. The Angels had already spoken with him about the possibility of juggling a two-way role, and only six days earlier, he went from the starting right fielder to the ninth-inning reliever. But this, in the middle of an inning, was different.
“Straight Little League style,” Walsh said with a smile. “It was crazy.”
“Professional sports evolve and adapt, and that’s all this is a case of. … The notion of ‘this is how we’ve always done it,’ I think, is a losing mindset.”
Angels GM Billy Eppler, on the use of two-way players
Walsh is a 25-year-old minor leaguer who is still trying to develop as a hitter and is now also learning to pitch at the professional level. Cowart, drafted 18th overall as a high school third baseman in 2010, is hoping to extend his career with a big fastball. Davidson, drafted 35th overall as a high school third baseman in 2009, has a distinguishable feel for pitching that might maximize his versatility. Lorenzen is navigating the opposite path, as an experienced major league reliever who is trying to establish himself as a position player.
Lorenzen didn’t pitch until his sophomore year of college and always identified as an outfielder, contributing as a late-inning reliever only because he threw hard. The Reds drafted him as a pitcher, with the 38th pick in 2013, and Lorenzen was upset by it.
“That was probably one of the hardest times in my baseball career was having to say that I was a pitcher because at Cal State Fullerton, we called pitchers the kickers of the team,” Lorenzen said. “And now I’m thinking, ‘I’m a kicker. No way.'”
In the dugout one afternoon in Dayton, Ohio, Lorenzen mentioned the possibility of returning to a two-way role to Eric Davis, the former Reds All-Star who called his name on draft day. Davis didn’t think it was possible at the highest level, but he told Lorenzen not to let the cynicism stop him. It was enough for Lorenzen to keep the idea alive. After his first full season in the minor leagues, he began taking batting practice regularly and shagging fly balls with intent.
He lobbied for a chance to hit and play defense at every turn and finally began to get the opportunity last season.
Often in 2018, the Reds would call into the bullpen and bring on Lorenzen as a pinch hitter. He would hustle into the dugout, take swings off a tee and scramble toward the on-deck circle. Sometimes the opposite occurred. Lorenzen would be taking swings in the batting cage and get called on to pitch, with no time to even head to the bullpen. He threw into a net, inside the cage or behind the dugout, then walked to the mound.
Lorenzen believes pitching has helped make him a better hitter. All hitters fall into one of a few categories, he said. He identifies as a free swinger and knows exactly how he would attack himself: breaking balls away, hard stuff in, expand late.
“All year last year I was going up there with that information in mind, playing out what I thought was going to happen, and it helped a ton,” said Lorenzen, who put up an impressive .290/.333/.710 slash line in 34 plate appearances.
With Billy Hamilton gone, Lorenzen is probably the fastest player and the best defensive center fielder on the Reds’ roster. He already has a role — as a right-handed reliever pitching in mid- to high-leverage situations — but it will expand significantly if he shows consistency at the plate. Lorenzen will let it play out organically and knows the opportunities will hinge on his initial success. He admits that there is “a ton of pressure” on him.
“But I love it,” he said. “You have to love it. You have to embrace it.”
Cowart threw a bullpen session for Angels executives in October and experienced a roller-coaster offseason through the waiver wire, going from the Angels to the Seattle Mariners to the Detroit Tigers and back to the Angels — three waiver claims in 11 weeks, all from teams that wanted him to try pitching.
Cowart began throwing again on the first day of November, the earliest he had ever started his offseason routine. Walsh, who went from mop-up duty to high leverage in Triple-A, worked with devices that tracked his spin rates at the Norcross Sports Training Academy near Atlanta and began training at EVO UltraFit in Phoenix, soliciting advice from established major league pitchers such as Ryan Madson and Zack Godley. Through that, Walsh learned to lengthen his muscles and worked to consistently put his body in favorable positions.
Lorenzen has taken that concept to the extreme. Two years ago, Ido Portal, a prominent Israel-based movement specialist who trains Conor McGregor, mapped out an offseason program for Lorenzen online. Last year, Lorenzen flew Portal to Southern California to train him personally, sparing no expense.
Matt Davidson began an arm-care program last offseason, but the uncertainty of free agency, which spilled into early February, kept him from fully committing to a two-way role. He arrived in Rangers camp without having thrown off a mound, but he had already done so four times — one of them an entertaining live batting practice session against Hunter Pence — by March 12.
Rangers manager Chris Woodward has marveled at the bite on Davidson’s curveball and the ease with which he locates pitches. That’s what separates him from all those position players who have increasingly been called on to pitch in recent years. Woodward projects that Davidson will pitch somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 innings in 2019.
“That’s a lot,” Woodward said, “but it would help a ton, just having that on your roster, knowing that if games get out of hand, you can trust him to come in and throw strikes, save some of the rest of our bullpen. It’s huge.”
On the morning of March 13, Walsh poked his head into an office at Tempe Diablo Stadium and asked Triple-A pitching coach Pat Rice if he could throw a bullpen session.
“You are throwing a bullpen,” Rice told him. “Didn’t you read the sheet?”
Later, Cowart approached the day’s schedule, posted on a wall between the clubhouse and the showers, and stared at it perplexedly for a couple of minutes. It happens every day.
“I have to look at it, like, three times just to make sure I’m in the right spot,” Cowart said.
ESPN’s Buster Olney leads the discussion of the latest news and notes around baseball with the game’s top analysts. Listen
Asked how he would like to see this all play out, Davidson shrugged.
“I think there are just so many ways it can play out that I’m not really picking one yet,” he said. “I don’t have a model. It might just be too much. It could be too much. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Angels manager Brad Ausmus believes that the biggest challenges two-way players face are “workload balance and getting enough preparation on each side of the baseball.” Woodward’s biggest concern is the risk for injury, which makes him worry about using Davidson to pitch in a game in which he already has played third base. How could he possibly get loose?
“Maybe he can warm up with the ball girl down the line or something,” Woodward said, perhaps not entirely joking.
Lorenzen has played out a similar scenario in his head: He’s in left field knowing he might soon pitch, so in between innings, he plays long toss with the right fielder to stretch out his arm, then asks the center fielder to settle into a squat and fires pitches at him from 60 feet away.
There is no real model for a job such as this, and Lorenzen will tell you that he is perfect for that uncertainty. He has spent his entire life throwing different scenarios at his body and learning how to quickly adjust. One of his favorite quotes is “superstition is fear manifested in a different form.” He never believed he needed a set routine to be successful, which made him unlike the traditional baseball player. He views such an approach as a crutch.
“Improvise, adapt and overcome — I love it,” Lorenzen said. “There’s no blueprint, and I don’t need a blueprint for it.”
Ausmus believes that two-way players will be hurt by the National League adopting the designated hitter, a possibility that almost feels inevitable. But Cowart believes they will benefit from the implementation of a 26th roster spot, which is set for 2020.
Clubs will be limited to carrying no more than 13 pitchers on their active rosters when the new rules are in place, but they will be able to label someone a two-way player so long as he has pitched at least 20 innings and started at least 20 games at a position, including DH, in the current season or the one prior. In the case of Ohtani, who won’t pitch in 2019, the Angels won’t get the benefit of an extra pitcher’s spot until perhaps a month or two into the 2020 season.
74 home runs? 384 strikeouts? A 57-game hitting streak? History could be made this year, but some standards are more attainable than others.
Big offseason changes — capped by the Bryce Harper signing — need to fix a culture that grew problematic in Gabe Kapler’s first year at the helm.
There’s not much debate about who is No. 1. So what would it take for, say, Mookie Betts or Jose Altuve to supplant the star of stars?
Woodward was among those who were initially skeptical of Ohtani.
“I didn’t think he would hit,” Woodward said. “He proved me wrong.”
In 367 plate appearances, Ohtani produced a .925 OPS, 138 points above the major league average. He added a 3.31 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 51⅔ innings on the mound. The discovery of a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in early June halted his ability to pitch, but Ohtani already had proven that hitters and pitchers need not be pigeonholed.
The walls began to come down a few years earlier, with the idea that teams can conserve a pitcher’s workload by putting a position player on the mound when games get out of hand. From 2013 to 2015, the number of position players who appeared in major league games rose from 12 to 18 to 23. Last year, 48 position players combined to make 65 appearances, the most since the expansion era began in 1961, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
Now teams are beginning to take the concept more seriously. The experimentation should only grow, but there’s no telling whether others can follow in Ohtani’s footsteps. Lorenzen, Cowart, Walsh and Davidson are, at most, relievers and part-time position players. McKay and English are being groomed as starting pitchers who can hit, but they’re a long way from the major leagues.
A central question beckons: Is Ohtani the ultimate outlier, or can others follow if the sport remains open-minded?
“I guess my glass-half-full outlook on things is I’m going to bet somebody is going to come along and successfully do it as well,” Eppler said. “Whether they’ll have that level of impact, it just depends on their tools and their athleticism and their commitment. Because make no mistake: Shohei’s an extremely gifted athlete, and I have a feeling he could probably be a professional in some other sports as well. It’s going to take a pretty special package to make that a reality.”