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MLB’s new two-way player rule applies only to Shohei Ohtani, for now

The best and, for now, only two-way player in MLB.

MLB: SEP 11 Indians at Angels

Shohei Ohtani is one of the most well-rounded players baseball has ever seen, excelling both at the plate and on the mound. The strategic advantage he gives the Angels as a two-way player is even more pronounced with Major League Baseball’s rule changes for 2020.

Among the new tweaks to baseball’s rulebook is the expansion of roster limits from 25 to 26 players through Aug. 31. There is a limit, though, on the number of pitchers teams can carry — only 13 can be active at any one time. However, players who are designated by MLB as “two-way players” won’t count against the pitcher limits even in games that they pitch.

A two-way player must satisfy both of these criteria:

  • 20 innings pitched
  • 20 games started as a position player or designated hitter, with at least three plate appearances in each game

These requirements must be met either in the current season or the prior one. For 2020 only, 2018 stats are included as well, a clause which was designed specifically to help Ohtani.

Tommy John surgery wiped out the pitching portion of Ohtani’s 2019 season, but he still hit .286/.343/.505 with 18 home runs in 106 games as a designated hitter. His rookie year in 2018 included 82 starts as DH plus 10 starts and 51⅔ innings on the mound, enough to qualify him as a two-way player for this upcoming season.

For now, that makes Ohtani the only two-way player in the majors, and it means the Angels are the only team that can carry 14 pitchers. Aside from the advantage of Ohtani’s stellar production (he has a 135 OPS+ and 127 ERA+ in the majors), the Halos are a team that could very well use all the extra pitching help they can get. The Angels’ 5.12 ERA ranked 25th in MLB in 2019, and their offseason was spent assembling a rotation full of future Remember Some Guys, including Julio Teheran, Dylan Bundy, and Matt Andriese.

Having Ohtani atop that rotation, at least after his expected return in May, will help the Angels immensely, and being able to carry an extra reliever for the games he doesn’t start is a bonus not afforded any other team. At least for now. While Ohtani might currently be the lone example, two-way players are on the rise.

The next wave

Michael Lorenzen is an extremely capable and durable reliever who also hit four home runs in a mere 34 plate appearances in 2018. He started six games in center field for the Reds in 2019, and would need to pick up some more non-pitching starts to qualify as a two-way player.

The Rays drafted Brendan McKay fourth overall in 2017, and last year he pitched 51 innings and accumulated 11 PA in limited offensive duty. McKay has been used as a two-way player throughout the minors, so maybe at some point he can pick up some time at first base or designated hitter.

On the radar soon could be Oscar Colas, an outfielder with prodigious power and a 95-mph arm. He defected from Cuba and is eager to play in the United States, but for now the 21-year-old is unsigned.

The Angels have a second versatile player in Jared Walsh, who started 21 games at first base in 2019 and pitched in five games, but only pitched five innings so he doesn’t yet qualify for two-way status. Then again, Walsh only hit .203/.276/.329 in his 87 PA, so he’s not helping the Angels much with his bat.

None of the above are anywhere near Ohtani just yet, but there’s no shame in not being able to go toe-to-toe against a man with his own rule.