By Cliff Corcoran
According to multiple sources out of Japan, 23-year-old two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani has expressed his intention to play in the Major Leagues in 2018. Ohtani's Nippon Professional Baseball team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, has said it will abide by his wishes, but exactly where he lands, and how he is deployed by his new team, remains to be seen. As a pitcher, he is a legitimate rotation prospect, a right-hander with a fastball that hits triple digits who has struck out 605 men in 528 NPB innings, posting a 2.57 ERA in 80 starts and three relief appearances. As a hitter, Ohtani has batted .286/.359/.505 with 47 home runs in 995 at-bats, including a .330/.416/.584 line with 29 homers in 567 plate appearances over the past two seasons.
The temptation to continue to use Ohtani as a two-way player will be great, but the history of successful two-way players in the Major Leagues is limited, to say the least. Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Martin Dihigo and Monte Ward are notable exceptions, but Ruth was only a true two-way player for two years (1918-19), Dihigo was a Negro Leaguer who never had a chance to play in the Majors and the bulk of Ward's career took place in the 1880s, when professional baseball was still in its infancy and two-way play was still relatively common. Not counting Orioles manager Earl Weaver's shenanigans in 1980, when he started American League Cy Young Award winner Steve Stone at designated hitter 12 times, pinch-hitting for him in his first at-bat every time, no player has appeared in 10 games as a pitcher and 10 games at another position in the same season since 1964. You have to go back to 1935 just to find five such seasons in the Major Leagues.
Going back all the way to 1900, there have been just nine seasons in which a player appeared on the mound 10 times, in the field 10 times, and posted both an OPS+ and an ERA+ of 100 or better. Most of those seasons were clustered in the Dead Ball Era, and not all of them were true two-way performances. Nonetheless, here are those seasons ranked in ascending order of the average of each player's OPS+ and ERA+ that season.
9. George Sisler, 1915 Browns, 106 OPS+, 101 ERA+
Hall of Famer Sisler was a pitching star at the University of Michigan under head coach Branch Rickey, who, later, as the Browns' general manager, was also responsible for bringing Sisler to St. Louis. Sisler proved viable on both sides of the ball as a rookie in 1915, posting a 2.83 ERA in eight starts and seven relief appearances, and hitting .285/.307/.369 in 294 plate appearances while starting 33 games at first base and 26 in the outfield, at all three positions, both of those performances just better than average in that low run-scoring environment. The highlight of Sisler's pitching career was the August 29 game in which he outdueled the great Walter Johnson in a 2-1 Browns victory at Sportsman's Park. However, Sisler made just nine more appearances on the mound in his remaining 14 Major League seasons. Instead, he set the single-season hit record with 257 in 1920, hit .420 and won the American League MVP Award in 1922, and was elected to the Hall of Fame as a first baseman in '39.
8. Wes Ferrell, 1933 Indians, 115 OPS+, 107 ERA+
Though he was a strong hitter throughout his career, batting .280/.351/.446, his 13 games in left field in 1933 were the Indians' failed solution to shoulder problems pitcher Ferrell had experienced that season. Cleveland moved Ferrell to the outfield full-time in September, but with his arm aching, he struggled in the field and at the plate, and was traded to Boston the following May after holding out to start the season. Ferrell was used as a pinch-hitter 123 times in his career, but he struggled in those opportunities as well, posting a mere .526 OPS. As it turned out, he did his best hitting in games in which he pitched, and he pitched well enough that many believe that he, not his catcher brother Rick, should be in the Hall of Fame.
7. Jack Coombs, 1908 Athletics, 103 OPS+, 127 ERA+
In 1908, Coombs played 47 games in the outfield and made 18 starts and eight relief appearances on the mound. However, while the game logs don't go back that far, research tells us that Coombs opened the season in right field as a full-time injury replacement for incumbent Socks Seybold, who broke his leg in Spring Training. When Coombs slumped at the plate, manager Connie Mack replaced him with second baseman Danny Murphy, leading to Coombs eventual return to the mound, where he would later star for the 1910 and '11 World Series champions. Ten years later, Coombs would appear in 13 games in the outfield for Brooklyn, but he was washed up on both sides of the ball by then.
6. Doc White, 1909 White Sox, 105 OPS+, 137 ERA+
Known as "Doc" because he was a practicing dentist, White is best remembered as the pitcher whose scoreless inning streak was ultimately broken by Don Drysdale. White appeared at another position in 12 of his 13 Major League seasons, including 19 games in the outfield in 1902 and 14 in '10. In 1909, however, he was a true two-way man, appearing in 40 games in the outfield, hitting .234/.347/.292 (in a season in which the league hit .244/.303/.309) and posting a 1.72 ERA in 177 2/3 innings.
5. Willie Smith, 1964 Angels, 125 OPS+, 118 ERA+
Smith was a two-way player in the Negro American League before being offered a Major League contract by the Tigers. Detroit used him exclusively as a pitcher in his first Major League season, then traded him to the Angels, who used him primarily as a pitcher and pinch-hitter until mid-June, when they made him a full-time corner outfielder, the result of a confluence of a few poor outings on the mound and an improved performance at the plate. Smith rose to the occasion, hitting .301/.317/.465 with 11 home runs in 373 plate appearances on the season, but lost was the pitcher who had posted a 2.84 ERA in 31 2/3 frames. Smith would make just three more Major League pitching appearances, all in 1968. He didn't allow a run in 7 2/3 innings in those appearances.
4. Joe Yeager, 1901 Tigers, 106 OPS+, 147 ERA+
Yeager was a 19th century holdover who pitched and played second, third, short and the outfield in his first six Major League seasons before becoming a full-time infielder. His best two-way season was 1901, the Tigers' debut season in the new American League. He hit .296/.343/.416 in 136 plate appearances and posted a 2.61 ERA in 25 starts and one relief appearance spanning 199 2/3 innings.
3. Jesse Tannehill, 1902 Pirates, 118 OPS+, 140 ERA+
Another fin de siècle curiosity, Tannehill was an excellent left-handed pitcher who also played 87 games in the outfield during a career that stretched from 1894-1911. An excellent all-around athlete despite his small stature (5' 8", 150 pounds), Tannehill played 33 games in the outfield for the Pirates in 1897, but his best year at the plate, per OPS+, was 1902, when he played 16 games in the outfield, hit .291/.348/.365 in 162 plate appearances and posted a 1.95 ERA in 24 starts and two relief appearances over 231 innings.
2. Babe Ruth, 1918 Red Sox, 192 OPS+, 122 ERA+
1. Babe Ruth, 1919 Red Sox, 217 OPS+, 102 ERA+
Ruth made his first career start at a position other than pitcher on May 6, 1918, playing first base for the Red Sox against the Yankees at the Polo Grounds. He hit a home run, of course. Ruth then started at first base again the next day, in Washington, and hit another home run. In his next start on the mound, he pitched a 10-inning complete game and went 5-for-5 at the plate with three doubles and a triple. Ruth so fell in love with hitting that season that he refused to pitch for most of June and jumped the team in early July to try to avoid a fine from manager Ed Barrow. Threatened with legal action by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, he returned to both the team and the mound and was a true two-way man the rest of the way, posting a 1.76 ERA over his final 11 starts while playing the outfield between turns.
Ruth held out in Spring Training in 1919, then struggled on the mound in May. After July 30 he made just three starts as a pitcher. During that portion of the season, Ruth hit .335/.488/.713 with 13 home runs to set a new single-season home run record with 29. Sold to the Yankees after that season, he would make just five more pitching appearances in his career, though the last two complete game wins over the Red Sox in 1930 and '33.
As the remainder of this list shows, there really hasn't been another two-way Major Leaguer within a mile of Ruth since the 19th century. That makes Ohtani's impending arrival in the Majors in the 21st century all the more compelling.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.