The rules of baseball generally make no distinction between the pitcher and the other eight players on the field, and yet for essentially the whole of its history, they have lived in different universes.
Few players have ever travelled from one universe into the other, and this spring Jordan Schafer is attempting something even more rare: Existing in both simultaneously.
As most of you know, Schafer was originally a Braves outfield prospect who homered in his first big league at-bat and then essentially never made contact again. He came up in 2009, played in parts of six seasons as an outfielder, then spent all of 2016 in the Dodgers minor league system remaking himself as a pitcher.
Alex already touched on the allure of a two-way player. But I thought I’d dig a bit deeper into the history of this kind of role, and what impact Schafer might have - even in a best-case scenario.
It’s such an elegant concept - the player who can both pitch and either hit or field a position. And we all know that back in Little League and even high school, the best pitchers are often the best hitters, and the best shortstops, and the best...
But as simple as the idea may be, you really have to go all the way back to George Herman Ruth to find a player who played an entire season as both a regular pitcher and position player - and Ruth only really did it in 1918 and 1919.
Since 1946, only six players have appeared in at least 30 games as both a pitcher and a position player and/or pinch hitter/runner. All but one of those came before 1959.
I wrote about one such player who played for the Cardinals - Erv Dusak. After spending his career as a replacement level outfielder and utility man, Dusak converted himself into a replacement-level pitcher. Then, for the final season-and-a-half of his career, he switched back to hitting again.
In 1950 and ‘51, Dusak made appearances as a pitcher, pinch hitter, outfielder and even a handful of innings on the infield for the Cardinals and then the Pirates. For his career, Dusak had an 84 OPS+ as a hitter and a 81 ERA+ as a pitcher.
For the last 60 years, the only player to really play both ways was Brooks Kieschnick, who did so with the Milwaukee Brewers at the end of his career. Like Schafer, Kieschnick was a high draft pick - 10th overall, in fact - selected as a position player. While he did pitch in college, it was his power bat that earned him two-time college player of the year honors.
Like most Cubs prospects in the Pre-Epstein era, Kieschnick never quite developed. After less than 200 major league plate appearances in nine seasons of pro ball, he went back to pitching and found his way back to the majors with the Brewers.
Kieschnick would manage 144 plate appearances in 2003-2004 as a combination pitcher/pinch hitter. He also started 3 games as an outfielder and 4 as a DH. For his career, he managed a 93 OPS+ as a hitter and a 95 ERA+.
At this point, you’re probably noticing two things: 1) Very few players have appeared even nominally as a two-way player and 2) The ones who did were not particularly good at either.
So what could we expect from Jordan Schafer? Realistically, about the same... though there may be some reason for hope.
ZiPS projects Schafer with a 64 OPS+ as a hitter and an 88 ERA+, which on the surface looks even worse than Kieschnick and Dusak. But there are a few situational factors which could tilt the odds decidedly in his favor.
I compared Schafer to Kieschnick and Dusak by OPS+, but that’s not particularly relevant as Schafer should not be on this team to hit. His 72 career wRC+ is nearly double that of even the “good hitting pitchers” like Leake and Wainwright, but still awful for a position player. In an extra-inning game, if you’re out of position players, he should be your first pitcher to pinch-hit, but not before that.
What Schafer does bring to the table as a position player is slightly above-average base running and average-ish outfield defense. That’s not an overwhelming package, but it could have value if paired right with his pitching skill... more on that in a minute.
Last year, his first as a professional pitcher, Schafer (a lefty) held left-handed batters to just a .663 OPS. Like all things Schafer, this is drawn from a small sample and he is developing. (He reportedly added almost 5mph to his fastball during the season.) But there’s reason to think he could become an effective LOOGY.
But here’s where it gets interesting: Schafer could be more than a one-out-guy if the Cardinals are willing to deploy the Waxahatchie Swap.
The Waxahatchie Swap - apparently named by Rob Neyer - occurs when the manager moves his pitcher to a position (generally the outfield), brings in another pitcher, then moves the first pitcher back to the mound. Joe Maddon employed it last year with Athletic Lefty Pitcher Guy Travis Wood.
It’s not such a stretch to ask an athletic pitcher to stand in the outfield for a batter or two. Hell, Will Ferrell did it for a full inning. But you are still rolling the dice, and the longer he’s out there the more you’re exposing yourself.
That’s not the case with Schafer.
The Cardinals could hypothetically leave Schafer in the outfield even for a couple innings, bringing him back in to press the platoon advantage. As long as his spot to bat in the order doesn’t come up, he’s not hurting you staying in the game as a position player.
Of course, this possible future where the Cardinals are capitalizing on Schafer’s unique and specific talents is also dependent on having a manager skillful enough to... Jesus, I can’t even complete the sentence.
Mike Matheny is a manager who memorably couldn’t even handle a straight-up LOOGY like Randy Choate, and called him “hard to use.” If Schafer makes the roster, I can just imagine Matheny going to him repeatedly to pinch-hit, leaving him after pitching just to bunt, and so-on.
Of course, to even get to that point, Schafer will have to show this spring that he’s advanced enough as a pitcher to be worth a spot on a 25-man roster, and that’s no sure thing.
A lot will have to go right for Jordan Schafer to be a productive St. Louis Cardinal, let alone even just a novelty. That’s why this kind of thing is so unbelievably rare. But it would be fun, wouldn’t it? I’m rooting for him.