Baseball’s prospect ranks are full of pitchers who once hit

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SEATTLE — The summer before his senior year of high school, J.P Massey’s parents sat him down for a conversation that would shape his future. In addition to playing on his school’s baseball team, Massey was a member of Chicago’s RBI program, and the scouts involved in that organization believed the teenager’s recent growth spurt and the promise he’d shown on the mound meant he could have a future as a professional pitcher.

Which was great news and all, but at the time, Massey also considered himself a position player working on refining his skills at the plate.

“I was more focused on hitting, and the pitching was just something that came naturally,” Massey told Yahoo Sports.

Six years later, the 6-foot-5 right-hander is pitching in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and was selected to participate in Saturday’s Futures Game — a 5-0 win for the National League — as part of MLB’s All-Star festivities this week in Seattle. Turns out those scouts were on to something. But back then, when his parents delivered the news that someone with the RBI organization had reached out to them suggesting that Massey’s days of hitting should be numbered: “I didn’t want to know who told them because it might have brought a little bit of animosity from me,” he said.

Almost universally, All-Star-caliber players were once the best at every aspect of baseball. Go back far enough in their careers — even if it’s all the way to Little League — and there was a time when their sheer athleticism relative to their peers made it seem like they had potential in all corners of the diamond. But generally, as they progress and the competition stiffens, a path emerges leading either to the mound or to the plate.

Massey didn’t mind that for him, it was the former. “It was just sad to know that I wouldn’t hit as much,” he said.

“And so I held on through high school. Then once I got to college, I went in with expectation to do both, and I started to have a lot of success on the mound. I realized that this is something that I could truly evolve into an MLB career, hopefully and God willing, so now I’m just riding it out and trying to fulfill my dreams each and every day.”

‘I’m not trying to face myself’

For future pro pitchers in particular, there comes a time when they realize they have to leave hitting — and playing the field — behind.

Mick Abel, the Philadelphia Phillies’ first-round pick in the 2020 draft who started for the NL on Saturday, last played first base as a junior in high school.

I was all right,” he said. “I wasn’t anything special.”

Tink Hence, now the St. Louis Cardinals’ top-ranked pitching prospect, only ever pitched on his travel team, but he played shortstop and the outfield and batted third for his high school team.

“My dad might yell at me for not getting a hit or striking out, and I’d be like, ‘That’s OK ‘cause I’m pitching the next day,’” he said.

Jonathan Cannon, a towering, 6-foot-6 pitcher in the White Sox system, said he was the best hitter on his team through senior year of high school. Impressive in his hometown of Alpharetta, Georgia, no doubt, but: “My high school team wasn’t very good.”

“I think if you ask any of the guys in here who are pitchers, they’ll all say they were good high school hitters,” Cannon said. “But if we were good enough, we wouldn’t be doing this.”

Often, what proves to be the breaking point in pitching prospects’ slugging careers comes when they start facing pitchers who are, well, as good as they are.

“I loved hitting,” Cannon said. “I mean, honestly, I went to [University of] Georgia, and I was thinking that I could hit, and then I watched, like, two guys that were gonna go in the first round throw a bullpen, and I was like, no chance.”

“When I got here in pro ball, seeing guys throwing similar to me, I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m not trying to face myself,’” Hence said.

“There’s just not enough time to do both well,” said Will Klein, a pitcher in the Kansas City Royals’ system who could crack the major-league rotation as soon as next season.

And before anyone can protest, he knows exactly whom you’re thinking of — the exception that proves the rule.

“I don’t know how Shohei has time to hit and pitch and be the best at both of them,” Klein said.

‘To us, it’s, like, mind-boggling how he does it’

Shohei Ohtani, the second coming of Babe Ruth — except that Ruth is remembered as the Sultan of Swat, and Ohtani is already guaranteed to go down in history as the greatest two-way player baseball has ever seen. His success — currently, Ohtani leads baseball in home runs while pitching to an ERA of 3.32 — has made it impossible to not wonder whether anyone could follow in his footsteps.

The question of whether Ohtani is a unicorn or a trailblazer is a complicated one that requires consideration of his uniquely superlative talents, as well as his unique path to the majors through Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. But conversations with elite pitchers who had to abandon hitting more recently than their big-league counterparts can provide context for just how Herculean a task it is to do both at the highest level.

“It’s crazy to people that aren’t in baseball, how impressive it is,” Cannon said of Ohtani’s two-way ability. “But, to us, it’s, like, mind-boggling how he does it.”

Their first-hand experience only serves to underscore that baseball fans today are witnessing something that is all but “impossible,” as Klein said. “I don’t know. Give that man his money.”

The problem — if you can call having to ascribe to the constraints of reality a problem — is that it takes more than talent to advance from amateur baseball to pro, up through the minors and ultimately into the big leagues. It takes skill, honed through hours of training and, generally, singular focus.

In 2021, Spencer Schwellenbach won the NCAA’s John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award after hitting .284 with six home runs, playing shortstop and pitching to an ERA under 1.00. He started college as a pure position player but found so much success when he added pitching that by the time the draft approached, different teams were expressing interest in his different skills.

“There were a couple teams that liked me as both and that were willing to try it out. But when the day came, I guess they didn’t want to do it,” Schwellenbach said.

Instead, the Atlanta Braves took him in the second round and asked him to specialize.

“I do miss hitting. But they wanted me to pitch, so that’s what I gotta do,” he said. “And I was ready to become a pitcher. It was so hard, in college, with throwing 40-50 pitches and then playing shortstop the next day. It took a toll on my arm.”

Schwellenbach blames that workload for his needing Tommy John surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament shortly after he signed with the Braves. He returned from rehab this season as a pure pitcher, per the organization’s preference to protect his health, even though he still thinks he could’ve been a two-way player.

But even Schwellenbach has to admit: “If you don’t specialize in one, you’re not going to be as good as you can be at one.”

‘That was my dream: to get an at-bat in college’

The last time Massey swung a bat was in batting practice as a college senior.

“I hit a few bombs,” he said. “You can ask anybody that was there. I put on a little show. So I’m still proud of that to this day, and I’ll stand on that forever.”

Even with their two-way days behind them and their futures on the mound looking bright, baseball’s best minor-league pitchers can’t stop themselves from taking pride in their prowess at the plate — and looking back on it wistfully.

Abel claims he was crushing line drives the other way when he took BP at the end of last season. “It was awesome,” he said.

Back in college, Cannon participated in the annual pitcher’s home run derby.

“I’d give people a run for their money,” he said, managing to hit some out, per his own retelling. “Enough to make it to the finals. Which is, like, four.”

Klein made it into a game once as a first baseman. That was back in the collegiate summer league in Danville, Illinois, after most of the position players had gone home for the year. He claims to have gotten a hit — a single the other way — and upon overhearing this, Cannon sounded wistful.

“That was my dream: to get an at-bat in college,” he said. “Like, I dream about that.”

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