I’ve had a chance to attend some really cool baseball games live. Cal Ripken tying Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak. The 2013 NL Wild Card Game. The 2014 and 2015 NL Wild Card Games, for that matter, if you want to appreciate the dominant performances on the other side.
One of the more memorable games is an obscure one — August 23rd, 2004.
Just before going back to college, I drove from Virginia to Pittsburgh to see John Van Benschoten, the number 38 ranked prospect that year by Baseball America, and one of the hopes for the future of the Pirates at the time.
I was just getting into following the Pirates. I loved PNC Park and the view of the city from the third base lower reserved section, which seemed like an incredible value at $27 a ticket at the time. I remember similar seats in Baltimore costing 3-4 times as much.
On this day, sitting on the third base line, I saw John Van Benschoten make his home debut. In the bottom of the second inning, he came to the plate for the first time at PNC Park. I explained to the person I was with about how he was drafted as a pitcher, but was actually a really good hitter with power.
A second later, JVB launched a two-run home run to center field, his first and only home run of his MLB career.
Fun fact about that game: In the top-half of the same inning, JVB gave up a two-run homer to future Pirates catcher Chris Snyder.
The funny thing is, I mostly followed JVB for two reasons. Number one, he rose on the prospect ranks while playing A-ball in Virginia. I missed out on seeing him before he was promoted, which was the trend with every pitcher that went through Lynchburg. The second reason was the constant debate from Pirates fans about how JVB should have been drafted as a hitter.
The thing about that debate is we never know. JVB didn’t work out as a pitcher, in part due to injuries. Those same injuries ended the hitting side of his game. We assume with a two-way player that if he fails at one side of the game, it just meant that he would have succeeded on the other side. The team made the wrong choice, right?
Looking back, I’m not sure this organization had a track record of developing anyone to be able to say that JVB would have worked out in any form. He probably would have been a highly rated prospect still as a hitter, but I don’t think the Pirates would have had better results.
That said, to this day I wonder why it’s not standard practice to have a two-way player remain a two-way player in his pro career.
Take Bubba Chandler, as a present-day example.
Chandler has started his career as a shortstop, though he was drafted as a two-way player. To this point in his baseball career, he’s been a two-way player. Keeping him in a situation where he plays shortstop, but also gets work in as a pitcher is just keeping him on a routine that he’s used to.
Teams like to narrow down a focus. There’s an advantage to this. If Chandler focuses on both sides of the ball, he’s got options, but he might not excel in one area. It’s fighting a war on two fronts, and teams typically want a player maximizing a single front. Yeah, it would be amazing if someone like Chandler could arrive in the majors as a pitcher and hitter. But it’s so difficult to do just one of those things, that assuming a player can do two is extremely optimistic. That assumption might also hurt the player’s chances of doing just the one thing.
But what if two-way players like Chandler are wired different? What if they are so advanced that they need the distraction of being overloaded with development work on both sides of the ball in order to excel? That’s not to say that Chandler can’t develop as a top position player prospect if he focuses on that individually. It’s wondering if he might be better off with his position player development if he also focused his mind on pitching from time-to-time.
Keeping Chandler as the example, he was rated a mid-first round talent with the ability to play either side of the ball. He’s already shown the ability to be able to take on more than most prep players, and excel on both sides of the ball while taking on a bigger workload. Why do we just assume that will end in pro ball?
We don’t know that the Pirates won’t make Chandler a two-way player. That said, they didn’t do this with Jared Jones, who was another two-way player. I’d be surprised if they made this move with Chandler.
That won’t stop me from wanting to see two-way players continuing to be developed as two-way players in pro ball.
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