Are Two Ways Better Than One?


Are Two Ways Better Than One?

I haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to the two-way players that have been in this league. I tend to look at them as a novelty, a gimmick. In most cases I see a player who is better one way than the other, being pushed by his team into a two-way role when there might be better options available.

I’ve had two potential two-way players on my team. Although both pitched and both played the field for me, I never used either in a substantially two-way role.

Marvin Cooper was one of my mound stalwarts in the late ’50’s, a 20-game winner four years in a row (1956-1959). He could also hit, so I used him as a pinch hitter a lot during those years. He never had great control, but by 1960 it had become a real problem, and by ’61 he had pitched his way out of the rotation. That year I lost future HoF 1B Harry Osborn at the beginning of the season, and I had no viable replacement for him. So Cooper, who I was keeping around exclusively to pinch hit, became my starting 1B. He hit .274, which is a damn good average for a former pitcher, but he didn’t walk and had little power (.702 OPS), so he wasn’t going to produce the kind of offense a contending team needs from a corner infielder; he was only temporarily filling a role because I didn’t have anybody better. He finished out his playing days as a pinch-hitter/spot 1B/mop-up reliever. Over the course of an interesting 13-year career he won 126 games as a pitcher and hit .278, playing on two World Championship teams.

Lewis Smith became a “story” in this league a year ago when he briefly held the position of the highest-paid player in league history. Seven years earlier, as a rookie on my team, I had him pitching in relief and pinch-hitting once in awhile. I also gave him four starts, but for some reason I never looked at him as strong candidate for the rotation. Can’t remember why; knowing me, I probably didn’t like his control. The following season I changed course (I think his hitting ratings might have spiked a bit during the off-season) and abandoned the idea of making him a pitcher at all; he played in 101 games, all in the outfield, and hit .314. The following season he was even better, playing a little bit more (125 games; I never played him much against lefties) hitting .345 with a 5.05 WAR.

By the following season (1962) I was desperately trying to keep an aging team viable as a pennant contender so I traded Smith, the best young player on my team, to Dallas for Mike Myers. The Wranglers immediately turned Smith into a full-time two-way player, and for a time I felt a little like I had traded away two good starters to get one. Smith hit .290 and went 14-10 for the Wranglers that year. It ended up working out okay for me, though, as Myers became my ace and an indispensable piece on my last Championship team in 1963.

As for Smith… well, he’s been a bit hit or miss as a two-way player. He’s really only had two good years as a pitcher, and they were nowhere close to great years. For his career (still ongoing; he’s 30), he’s 50-48 with a 3.80 ERA; on the good side of mediocre, but not by much. As a hitter he’s been a little better, but here’s something interesting—his two best years with the bat, by far, were the only two years he didn’t also pitch. Those were his two years as a platoon outfielder on my team. They were the only times he hit over .300, and the only times he had an OPS of .800 or better (he was well over .900 both years). It’s a small sample size, but it suggests the possibility that OOTP “punishes” players when used in a full-time two-way role.

I don’t know how many other two-way players there have been in the league, but two stand out in my memory, Jose Juarez and Tony LaDuke.

Juarez probably wasn’t the first, but he was the first I remember. Juarez was a really good pitcher, winning over 200 games and twice finishing in the Top 3 in the Royal Ricketts Award voting. He wasn’t a great hitter, and he wasn’t a great defensive center fielder, but he was decent at both, so Seattle had him going both ways from 1949 to 1955 (he played the outfield about half the time). His best year as a two-way player was 1953, when he went 19-6 with a 2.64 ERA while slashing .274/.335/.423.

But like Smith, he was usually better when he wasn’t trying to do two things at once. He had some pretty poor years as a hitter (.225 in 1949, .221 in 1952) and wasn’t always at his best on the mound (10-10, 3.87 in 1951, 13-10, 4.69 in 1954) during his two-way years. Conversely, his best seasons occurred once he got to concentrate on pitching: 19-8, 3.14 in 1960, 18-8, 3.31 in 1962, 16-5, 1.94 (led league) in 1963, and 17-6, 3.02 in 1964. He was in his mid-30’s when he had his best stretch as a pitcher, his years of playing the outfield far behind him.

LaDuke’s 1961 season beats Juarez’s 1953 for the best-ever by a two-way player. It was far and away his best as a pitcher (23-6, 2.52; led league both in Wins and ERA), and he wasn’t bad with the bat, slashing .272/.333/.390; he was also outstanding in right field (1.073 Eff, 6.04 ZR). While LaDuke (who’s still active, just 32 years old) has posted a string of good ERA’s (career 3.02) and WHIP’s (career 1.19), he’s been a barely-above .500 pitcher if you throw out 1961. Some of that is just pitching for sub-par teams, but one can’t help but wonder, based on the data on Juarez and Smith, if LaDuke’s two-way workload hasn’t made a negative impact on his effectiveness as a pitcher.

One way in which LaDuke differs from Juarez, Cooper, and Lewis is that he is a truly outstanding defensive player. Cooper and Lewis were/are average defenders at best, Juarez was good for a few years but continued to play the outfield after his abilities had considerably declined.

None of these guys were outstanding hitters, ever, with the exception of Lewis in 1960-1961, when he was enjoying the benefits of not having to hit against left-handed pitchers, and perhaps just as importantly, not having to overextend himself by pitching. The possibility exists that teams with nominally “two-way” players might not be doing themselves much of a favor by attempting to stretch those players to fill both roles full-time.

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