Anyone who has ever played, watched, or coached Little League baseball knows that every player plays every position for the most part. Position players are often called from their position to pitch and pitchers are sent from the mound to the field. This generally carries on through travel leagues, AAU ball, and high school. In some cases, pitchers and position players are interchangeable even in college.
Yet somewhere between amateur baseball and professional baseball, It is widely assumed that pitchers lose the ability to hit. Once these pitchers start their professional careers, the opportunity to hit is greatly reduced. They are almost exclusively used for what they’ve been paid to do. But in reality, many of these pitchers can still hit.
To make it to the Major Leagues, players clearly have athletic talent. They retain the ability to do all the things they did in Little League, high school, and college. So why is it pitchers who lose the ability to pitch aren’t converted to position players more often?
I’m not under the delusion that all pitchers have a natural, extreme athletic ability, but it has been shown time and again that there are pitchers who have enough talent to play elsewhere on a baseball field. Adam Loewen of the Toronto Blue Jays proved that once again yesterday as he made his debut in right field. Three years ago his pitching career was over due to injury and he was on his way to being out of the game altogether. But he committed and made the decision to try and comeback as a position player. Rick Ankiel did the same thing with the Cardinals, and he is continuing that resurgence with the Nationals. And there are others with the athletic ability to make such a transition.
Carlos Zambrano could if he needed. Mike Leake of the Reds can swing the stick too. Arizona’s Micah Owings is constantly used as a pinch hitter. Then there’s Dontrelle Willis. That’s where our story really begins.
With his unorthodox delivery and his knee-buckling pitches, Dontrelle Willis quickly made a name for himself in Florida. The D-Train. He just missed capturing the National League Cy Young in 2005 with 22 wins, 7 complete games, and 5 shutouts. He led the league in each category, but finished second in voting to Chris Carpenter. Willis would go on to one more decent season before he seemed to lose his ability to get outs. He joined a small but notable group of pitchers to develop the yips, or a mental block causing pitching failure.
After posting no worse than 3.25 walks per 9 innings, Willis began to lose control of the strike zone in 2006. Here are his BB/9 ratios for each year from 2006 on:
2008: 13.13 (spent much of the year in Triple-A, so this is a small sample size)
During this period of control loss, Willis has struggled to remain a Major Leaguer. His 0-5 record with the Reds this year isn’t helping any. But maybe his bat can.
He’s already proven he can hit reasonably well. In 383 at-bats, Willis has a triple slash of .243/.287/.376. He has 9 home runs in that time as well. With his focus directed toward hitting rather than pitching, there’s no reason to believe he can’t build upon those numbers as well. Just take Rick Ankiel for example.
Prior to Ankiel’s mysterious loss of control on the mound, he had 87 at-bats. He triple slashed .207/.276/.310 with 2 home runs. Numbers that are very much in line with Willis’s considering the far fewer at-bats Ankiel had. Since converting to a position player, Ankiel has performed above average. He has 61 home runs, 373 hits, and 132 walks in the six years of full time position player duties. He has also accumulated 5.9 WAR during that time, proving he is better than replacement level since converting.
Dontrelle Willis is a gifted athlete, more so in my opinion than Rick Ankiel. Rather than let him waste away as a pitcher, some team should give him a chance to play the field. Let him hit, and let him prove his worth elsewhere. Otherwise, Willis will likely find himself out of the league very soon.