Bulls experiment with pair of two-way players

Brendan McKay, Jake Cronenworth try to juggle pitching and playing field

The Durham Bulls’ Brendan McKay, one of the Tampa Bay Rays’ top prospects, is one of two players on the team attempting to become a two-way player. (Shawn Krest / North State Journal)

DURHAM — In 1919, Babe Ruth pitched 133 innings as a starter for the Boston Red Sox. In between his days on the mound, he batted 432 times, becoming the last MLB player to log at least 100 innings and 200 at-bats in the same season.

After a mere 100-year hiatus, the era of the two-way player appears to be returning.

Shohei Ohtani won Rookie of the Year last year, playing two ways for the Angels, before an arm injury derailed his two-way efforts — he’s spending this year as a DH only.

Several organizations, including the Tampa Bay Rays, are working hard to get two-way guys to the big leagues. Tampa currently has a pair of them with the Triple-A Durham Bulls.

Brady Williams is the manager tasked with the daunting job of juggling the pair of two-way guys, presumably without putting them at risk of an Ohtani-type setback.

“Talking to them is important,” he said. “Obviously checking on their day-to-day, how they feel. Pitching takes a lot out of you. It’s quite demanding. It’s a full-body workout every time you throw a pitch. Making sure those guys are staying healthy, not getting fatigued, is the main thing. Managing their workload is important.”

One of the two versatile Bulls is Brendan McKay, who is one of the top two prospects in the Tampa organization. Since being drafted fourth overall by the Rays in 2017, McKay has rocketed through the system. He arrived in Durham in May after going 3-0 with a 1.30 ERA in Double-A Montgomery, striking out 62 in 412/3 innings.

McKay brought a scoreless inning streak with him to Durham, which was finally snapped at 29 innings in his second start with the Bulls. While he homered for his first hit as a Bull, he admits that his hitting trails his pitching on the development schedule.

“It’s there in the statistics and everything,” he said. “I still want to do it, but I’ve got to keep going along, make adjustments and keep working at it. … I want to do the two-way thing and have success with it, to prove it can be done.”

The team is being cautious with McKay. He’ll only appear as a DH on nonpitching days — not in the field. He’s pitching on a six-day schedule, instead of the normal five, and he has the days immediately before and after each start off.

He’s got company on the Bulls. Jake Cronenworth, who has spent his first four years in the Tampa organization as a full-time shortstop, has spent the season preparing for the two-way life. He’s had a pair of one-inning stints on the mound this season, hitting 96 mph on the radar gun.

It’s safe to say the experiment hasn’t harmed Cronenworth at the plate: He’s currently the International League batting leader with a .362 average.

That raises the natural question: Will the Bulls ever go with a Cronenworth-McKay tandem on the mound for a game, possibly allowing the team to go without a DH for a day?

“I can envision that,” Williams said. “In fact, it’s probably gonna happen. We can attack a game with those two guys. We want to develop both of them. If that’s the best way to do that, we’ll do it. Brandan needs to be a guy who can do that — he might not start the game. He might come in and be the long (relief) guy. Cronenworth might be an opener in the future.”

The method behind all this madness is a rule change coming to MLB for the 2020 season. Rosters will be limited to 13 pitchers at the big league level. Having a position player who can also pitch is a loophole that was designed into the rule (it’s called the “two-way” exception).

“I think it’s turned into the way to help manage your roster,” McKay said. “If you need an extra guy — I think teams are realizing that having multiple people is a good thing. You can be able to hold another pitcher back, give guys rest or be able to roll through pitchers a little more, rather than wearing one guy out and having to sit him for two days.”

Teams have always turned to position players in blowout games to pitch the final inning, rather than wearing out a reliever’s arm in a lost cause. That has also become more common as teams look for ways to cope with the coming roster limitations — and perhaps stumble across a potential two-way guy.

Last season, there were 48 games in MLB where position players pitched (not including Ohtani), which was more than double the previous season’s total. There have already been more than 30 of them this season in just over two months.

Tampa and the Bulls were ahead of that trend, too. In 2016, four Bulls position players pitched in a total of seven games, posting a 2-1 win-loss record, showing that they weren’t just showing up for mop-up work.

Regardless of whether it’s a spot appearance or, like McKay and Cronenworth, something that will become part of the job description, two-way work still takes a special type of player.

“You’ve got be careful,” Williams said. “It’s not for everybody. If one guy can do it, that doesn’t mean another guy can. I think it’s skill set, the strength of the player, not overworking them too much. Because there have been a lot of great athletes in this game that could have pitched and played the field. But it was too hard to do both.”

In other words, there’s a reason it took 100 years to try it again.