Will Shohei Ohtani spark more two-way players? Experts on if Jac Caglianone, more draftees will get a chance

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Around the time William James became a giant in western psychology, he took an interest in psychical research. It was then, during the course of that pursuit, that he made the following assertion: “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.” Whatever one makes of James’ efforts on the psychical front, there is an undeniable logic to his claim: oftentimes, discovery of a lone outlier is all it takes to challenge conventional knowledge, to shake long held beliefs. What it doesn’t do, necessarily, is change behaviors or the course of a multi-billion dollar industry.

If the mere existence of a white crow did do those things, then Shohei Ohtani’s continued success would have resulted in more two-way players strewn across Major League Baseball. Instead, when Ohtani resumes pitching next spring, he’ll remain the only one of his kind at the game’s highest level. The chances of that changing anytime soon aren’t particularly favorable, either.

Consider the upcoming draft class. There are a handful of players who both rank in CBS Sports’ top 30 and have an appreciable amount of two-way talent. That group includes the likes of Jac Caglianone (Florida), Braden Montgomery (Texas A&M), and Carson Benge (Oklahoma State), each who has hit and pitched for a prestigious college program. Yet talk to scouts around the game, and no one seems convinced that those players (or any others) will get a real look in a two-way role. 

Just why is that? To find out, CBS Sports has spent the last few weeks asking a variety of front-office personnel about the league’s maintained ambivalence toward developing two-way talents. 

It should come as little surprise that the most common explanations concerned priorities. Teams are focused on winning games at the big-league level. To do that, they have to sort players in a binary fashion. Nurturing big-league-quality skills as a hitter or a pitcher is a lot easier and quicker than fostering them as a hitter and pitcher simultaneously. Besides, most players are better at one aspect than another, and no team wants to delay the arrival of a second-division outfielder or a mid-rotation starter because they’re waiting on their lesser half to catch up to a playable level.

“I think we’ve seen enough evidence that it’s not going to work unless you’re a supreme talent on both sides,” a veteran talent evaluator told CBS Sports, “especially when you’re talking about guys in the draft who have developmental needs before they’re ready to contribute major-league value.”

Caglianone serves as a good example of developmental needs and divergent timelines at play. He’s an imposing left-handed hitter who clobbered 75 home runs during the course of his college career with the Gators. He has a special combination of bat-to-ball skills and strength, making him a fascinating hitting prospect with tantalizing right-tail outcomes. 

The catch with Caglianone is that he’s not without risk as a hitter. He likes to swing the bat, even if that means expanding his strike zone. Evaluators have questioned if his swing decisions will be exposed against professional pitchers, causing him to fall well short of expectations. If Caglianone can prove otherwise, or if he can fortify his approach to where it’s no longer an issue, he could reach the majors in relatively short order. Perhaps not as quickly as Nolan Schanuel (the same season) or Wyatt Langford (the following spring), but maybe within a year to 16 months of being drafted.

Asking (or allowing) Caglianone to continue pitching all the while would complicate matters — not only by splitting his focus, but by potentially slowing his path to The Show. He certainly has some interesting traits as a pitcher. He’s been clocked into the upper 90s from the left side, and he’s shown promise with his secondary pitches. Alas, Caglianone projects as a reliever because of his well-below-average command. He walked more than six batters per nine in 34 collegiate outings. Perhaps a shift to the bullpen would see him make immediate command and stuff gains; if not, he could require even more developmental time than as a hitter. 

A team that attempts to develop Caglianone as a true two-way player would likely experience the same issues that the Mets have encountered with Nolan McLean, where one part of his game is further along and looks more promising than the other. Teams can wait and allow the other half to catch up, but there is no guarantee that the desired outcome transpires. Plus, doing so deprives the big-league club of a potentially solid contributor, all for the sake of a marginal advantage.

That doesn’t mean evaluators see no value in having players begin their careers in a two-way role. The San Francisco Giants, for example, allowed high draft picks Bryce Eldridge and Reggie Crawford to clock two-way action before settling them into a single role. (Eldridge is now a hitter; Crawford a pitcher.) The only draftee who has been permitted to continue playing both ways up to the majors was Tampa Bay Rays lefty/DH Brendan McKay — and injuries have since cost him a real career. One source reasoned that “it doesn’t really hurt” for a player to play both ways “until it doesn’t work.” At minimum, they reasoned, experiencing failure as a hitter/pitcher in the professionals can help remove any consternation the player might feel about not being given a shot at doing both. (Ego is, has, and always will be part of professional sports.)

Priority comes into play in other ways, too. Multiple sources interviewed for this article expressed frustration with the mindset of player development departments. Among those was a player development specialist with experience at multiple levels of the game. Too many of their peers, they felt, were more interested in playing things safe and going by the book to maintain job security rather than experimenting and potentially gaining advantages through unconventional approaches. 

Of course, the flip side of that argument is that the reward has to be worth the risk — a sentiment that serves as a point against the two-way player becoming more prevalent. What makes Ohtani special is his ability to do both at an elite level; few players are going to be able to match him either way, let alone at both. Is an average two-way player highly desirable, or simply a novelty? What if they require permanent residence in the DH role, or as part of a six-pitcher rotation? 

That’s to say nothing of the presumed added injury risk a player shoulders by trying to do both week after week, month after month, year after year. From the teams’ perspective, the advantage of having a two-way player is muted by those larger dynamics. That’s why players with compelling arguments for being deployed as two-way talents — be it Hunter Greene, Spencer Schwellenbach, Masyn Winn — are often shoehorned into one aspect of the game or the other. 

Perhaps the best way to illustrate MLB front offices’ attitude toward two-way players is to recognize that the search for an American Ohtani belies one reality: Ohtani wouldn’t be Ohtani if he came up through the American player development system. Almost everyone CBS Sports polled for this piece agreed that Ohtani would have been pushed into hitting or pitching had he joined an MLB organization as an amateur, as he had originally intended to do.

Behold the chorus. 

  • Player development specialist: “I think Ohtani would’ve been funneled into hitting. He’s very dangerous when he comes to the box, and, to me, the likelihood [would have been that] a coordinator, coach, agent … whoever it may have been … would have led him that way.”
  • Veteran analyst: “Ohtani almost certainly would have been funneled into one or the other if he didn’t have that track record of performance at a high level in Japan.”
  • Veteran scout: “Very good chance we’d have beat it out of him.”

Instead, Ohtani stayed in Japan and partook in Nippon Professional Baseball’s draft after he received a promise from Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama that he would be given a chance at being a nito-ryu (two-way player). Most of his counterparts don’t have the leverage to extract such a wish — particularly when they’re already being placed on the fast track. 

“Ohtani was nationally famous in Japan even in high school, and then went straight to the pros — so he was either going to fail at one or the other [at the highest level.],” a different scout told CBS Sports. “That might be the difference since that rarely happens here.”

In other words, while no one can deny the existence or dominance of baseball’s white crow, you would be unwise to expect similar hatchlings anytime soon.

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