It’s difficult to envision these types of switches when they are made, but it’s hard not to root for southpaw Jason Lane to pull off his attempt to change from Major League outfielder to Major League relief pitcher. The spirit is willing, but the odds are against him. Yet for those of us on the outside, the attitude of “You go, Jason,” should be the prevailing mood.
Once upon a time Lane was a Houston Astros outfielder. Today, at 35, in the twilight of his career, he is attempting to become an Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher. More power to him. Actually, more power wasn’t the issue since the guy once hit 26 homers in a season. This is a rare thing taking shape. It’s hard enough to make the majors in one specialty. Lane is going around twice.
At the earliest stages of their careers pitchers are almost always the best athletes on their team. This holds true in Little League, the youth leagues teens play in, and in high school ball for sure. It’s unusual to see a pitcher who isn’t also a top tier hitter, or who doesn’t play the field on the days when he isn’t pitching. Specialization creeps in during college years and takes over completely once a player hits the play-for-pay ranks.
If a pitcher belongs to an American League team, and stays in the AL for the duration of his career, it’s possible for him to go years without coming to the plate. The designated hitter rule has benched the hitting pitcher and only rare circumstances conspire to send him to the plate. Those rarities generally occur in extra-inning games when the manager has run out of players. Even rarer is the occasion when a pitcher plays the field. Once every several years when a game goes into the 20th inning or so a pitcher might find himself roaming right field, also because no matter how many pinch-hitters a manager has sent to the plate they didn’t get the game won and now he is out of players.
But permanently shifting from the mound to the field or the field to the mound? Not common at all. The most famous example of all time is an obvious one. Babe Ruth was originally a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. As good as he was as a hurler–and Ruth was very, very good at that task–he was such a great hitter that his bat demanded him becoming a fixture in the everyday lineup. Ruth’s career was already headed in that direction with the Red Sox, and of course he became a full-time right-fielder with the Yankees.
Smokey Joe Wood was the ace of the Red Sox staff in 1912 when he finished 34-5, one of the greatest single-season marks in baseball history. Wood was on his way to a Hall of Fame career on the mound. However, in 1913, Wood slipped on some wet grass as he attempted to field a bunt and broke his thumb. The thumb never healed properly and for three seasons it hindered his pitching form. Wood’s lifetime pitching stats were 117-57 with a 2.03 earned run average.
Wood’s pitching prowess faded and the Red Sox sold him to the Cleveland Indians. But he didn’t want to retire and instead evolved into a starting outfielder. Wood’s lifetime batting average was .283 and he drove in as many as 92 runs in a season.
More recently, the St. Louis Cardinals’ star young pitching prospect Rick Ankiel abruptly lost his skill in getting the ball over the plate. He went from potential rotation anchor to the minors, to starting over as an outfielder, all between 2001 and 2005. Since then Ankiel has been an outfielder for the Cardinals, Kansas City Royals, Atlanta Braves, and Washington Nationals. He was 13-10 as a pitcher and he carried a .246 average into 2012.
A Society for American Baseball Research article studied the phenomenon of pitchers and position players residing in the same body and discovered that there were many of them between 1876 and 1910 when rosters were smaller and the age of specialization lay in the future. The study noted that John Montgomery Ward won 164 games and also stroked 2,107 hits during his long early National League career. Cy Seymour twice led the National League in strikeouts in 1897 and 1898 (with 239 the second time) with the New York Giants and in batting average in 1905 with a .377 mark for Cincinnati. Bucky Walters went 198-160 with a 3.30 ERA as a pitcher and batted .243 in 715 games as a third baseman, mostly with the Reds.
In what must seem like a prior lifetime Lane pitched in the College World Series for the University of Southern California. Then he focused on playing the field. His lifetime Major League average going into this spring was .241 and he had slammed 61 home runs. His best year was 2005 when Lane smacked 26 homers and drove in 78 runs. However, since 2007 he has been mired in the minors, the property of several different organizations. On a few occasions during his minor-league sojourns, Lane handled some relief pitching. Those exepriences gave him the idea to try to make it back to the Show through another route.
Lane throws a 90 mph fastball and he is left-handed, always a premium in the majors. Lane won’t break camp with the Diamondbacks–he is assigned to AAA for now. But if he shines as the spring and summer wear on he could find himself on the receiving end of a happy phone call from the big club.