By Jason Wyrick
Photo by Gary Wolf
It is no surprise that being a professional two-way player is tough. Not only is it a grind to reach the high levels of play of a position player or a pitcher, these guys have to do it twice. Oh, did I mention how grueling that work regimen is to be a good hitter and pitcher? How taxing that is on their bodies? Consider this my declaration of the obvious: it is next to impossible.
It is indubitably difficult to overstate how challenging such an endeavor really is. I could go on and on just trying to explain it, but I won’t. What I will do, though, is help you understand for yourself.
First, please bear with me. I will get to Brendan in due time, but it is important to understand what process he is undertaking first.
I want you to think of all the players you have ever heard of playing two ways in the big leagues. I’m talking guys that play a position or DH in their off days pitching, not pitchers who rake (sorry Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard) or hitters who routinely will take the mound in relief. Take a moment to think. I’ll wait.
I am sure most of you came up with two names in particular: Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani. Quite frankly, those two are the only ones to do it regularly and at a superstar level in the history of the league. Sure, there have been a few other failed two-way experiments here and there. A guy will try it to give himself versatility to a ball club, maybe he was afforded an opportunity to pitch in a pinch and actually did well or maybe he was even a pitcher who hit the ball so well he was asked to hit even on days he wasn’t pitching. But it’s rare.
Off the top of my head, I can think of only three or four guys who actually tried playing two ways at the professional level, let alone the Major League level. Outside Ohtani, none of them exactly did it well.
Christian Bethancourt is a prime example. He was a catcher/reliever who spent time with the Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres before leaving the US and signing in the KBO League in Korea. In his Major League career, Bethancourt hit for a .222 average and threw for a 10.13 ERA. These are not exactly stellar numbers for either and that in itself is why he tried playing two-ways to begin with: to give himself maximum versatility in a game where he could and would be sent down if he didn’t perform.
Matt Davidson has a significantly smaller body of work in the bigs. While with the Chicago White Sox in 2018, the third baseman asked to pitch when the bullpen was depleted and the Sox were not contending to win the game. He came in and pitched the 9th inning without surrendering a run. This made him confident that he could actually play both ways, so he picked up pitching full time. He would go on to throw three full innings in the Majors in 2018, not allowing a single earned run. However, with a .228 average in 2018, he opened 2019 in AAA with the Texas Rangers organization. He is another example of a guy who tried it because his other options weren’t panning out as well as planned.
Enter Brendan McKay.
You know his name already, so he needs no introduction.
Here is one anyway.
Brendan McKay is more than just a guy who appeared on a baseball card with me. Wait, is that not how this works?
All joking aside, Brendan is the best athlete to ever suit up for the Louisville Cardinals.
Before you jump down my throat with “but what about” responses of Teddy B, Lamar, Asia Durr, Donovan, Kelsi Worrell, Johnny U, Mallory Comerford and others, hear me out.
Brendan was the ace of the Louisville pitching staff for two seasons. This is a staff that in that time produced five starters and five relievers who were all drafted – seven of those 10 in the top 10 rounds and all in the top 17 of the 40 round draft.
He also bat cleanup as the DH or at first base for even longer in a lineup that produced 12 draft picks over that time.
Brendan was the first player to win the John Olerud Award for two-way college players more than once. Not satisfied with that, he went out and won it a third time too, one for each year he played at Louisville. Oh, and he won the Dick Howser Trophy for college player of the year and the Golden Spikes Award for amateur player of the year too. Brendan was in a star-studded Louisville dugout and still managed to shine the brightest as both a pitcher and a hitter.
He was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2017 and since the end of the Louisville run in the 2017 College World Series, has been playing two-ways in the Rays’ organization.
For the entirety of his professional career, the Rays organization has been developing him as a two-way player. That is what sets him apart from guys like Matt Davidson and Christian Bethancourt who picked up pitching when they were already there.
He opened his career with the Hudson Valley Renegades, a short season team who plays the back half of the summer and is mainly comprised of drafted rookies who just finished their final seasons of amateur baseball. He hit a solid .232 in his 36 games there, but he pitched to a 1.80 ERA in six starts.
He opened 2018 with Class A Bowling Green and lasted all of a month hitting .254 and allowing a 1.09 ERA before being promoted to Advanced A Charlotte. Playing for the Stone Crabs, Brendan hit .210 and had a 3.21 ERA before a lingering oblique issue cost him a month in the middle of the summer and also ended his season prematurely in August.
It wasn’t the full opening season he or the Rays were hoping for, but his numbers still spoke what baseball circles already knew very well: Brendan McKay is good at baseball.
After taking the offseason to get healthy again, he opened 2019 with the AA Montgomery Biscuits. The organization decided to end his career playing first base, limiting his hitting to DH duties only beginning this season in what was the first domino to fall in the story of Brendan’s rise through the minor league ranks.
From the outset, his pitching has far surpassed his hitting. This isn’t to say he was ever a bad hitter at all, he held his own just fine for the most part. What this does not say about his hitting it does say about his pitching: he is dominant, unhittable, masterful, filthy. Pick a superlative, any will work.
That trend has been epitomized this season in Montgomery. He slashed a measly .167/.256/.192 at the plate, but on the mound, he was better than ever. He held hitters to a .172 average and kept a 1.30 ERA through eight starts. This was easily enough to show he was overmatching hitters at the level and, if it was not painfully obvious at the other three levels, it sure was in AA: the Rays wanted to hold him down so that his bat could progress to its own level high enough to warrant a promotion. However, at some point, an organization must acknowledge that it is wasting a pitcher’s bullets at a level by holding them down. This is true for both pitchers who are blocked at the next level by other pitchers or in Brendan’s case by waiting to develop his bat. For Brendan McKay and the Rays, that moment came yesterday. Of course his bat was lagging behind, but when you have a guy dealing at the level that he has this season, that player will force the organization’s hand.
Forcing the Rays’ hand is exactly what he did. He was promoted to the AAA Durham Bulls last Thursday night despite his bat woes. Brendan’s pitching has carried him this far and there is no reason to doubt that he will continue to bring the lights-out stuff that made him a star at Louisville, draft day and every level of the minors that he has been through to this point. He will be in the rotation in AAA, and this will be a true test for him. AAA is comprised of two types of players: prospects on their way to the Majors and former big leaguers making their way back. He is going to face multiple hitters in every start that have been to the Show and know how to attack pitchers. He will probably get some opportunities to DH still because the Rays still want him to find his way as a hitter, let me be perfectly clear. The two-way experiment and development of Brendan McKay is not over and there is no reason to believe it will be anytime soon. However, when one of the two skill sets is so vastly superior to the other, an organization has to make a decision on the importance of the development of the secondary skill.
Thankfully for Brendan and the Rays, it is much easier to find your way as a hitter than as a starting pitcher in the Major Leagues. Limiting him to a designated hitter role in his pitching off days has also streamlined his development as a hitter, so this decision to promote him to Durham undeterred by his bat vicissitudes was made easier in that respect.
Despite being a truly unique player being developed two ways, McKay’s situation is not much different than that of many other minor leaguers being promoted with holes in their games. Position players and relievers regularly get promoted with a deficiency that is simply overshadowed by how good they are in another aspect of the game. For example, a defensive specialist that has issues hitting, a slugger that is a liability in the field or a reliever that throws triple digits but has problems with command all come to mind. They regularly get thrown into the fire, organization and player knowing full well that the prospect’s plus tools have bought them plenty of time to figure it out everywhere else.
Starting pitchers, however, are developed differently. They generally have the most complete and refined game by the time they make it to the big leagues, and Brendan has shown that he has mastered the AA level with flying colors as a starter on the hill. Think about him this way: he has done the hard part (pitching) well. Now, as a designated hitter only, he is like any other prospect still finding their way at the plate, except he isn’t just a defensive specialist. He is well on his way to cementing his future as a future Major League ace.
Even with his bat lagging behind, this promotion does not necessarily signal an inevitable end to his two-way development in the future. His pitching prowess was simply too great to waste in Montgomery anymore. His plus-plus pitching is set to face another new challenge in Durham at the AAA level. AA is the last real development stage in a minor leaguer’s stops, whereas AAA is the closest test to Major League readiness. Even being thrown into the fire to figure it out and find his way as a hitter, if he can continue this blistering pace and meteoric rise in the rotation, he will find himself in Tampa Bay sooner rather than later, suiting up for Kevin Cash’s Rays. In the meantime however, he will take his talents to the AAA mound, his first start coming tomorrow night in Durham against the Louisville Bats.
Jason Wyrick is a co-owner and contributor to River City Cards. He can be followed on Twitter @Steagles1.
RCC would also like to thank Gary Wolf for his photo contribution to our site.