MLB Power Rankings: The Top 12 Pitchers Who Became Position Players
The game of baseball is filled with clear-cut distinctions. Fair or foul. Ball or strike. Safe or out. Left-handed or right-handed. Pitcher or position player.
But throughout its history the sport has been marked by exceptions to some of these rules, notable for their rarity.
For the most part, players choose a career path early on. They establish themselves and their place in the game by adopting particular stances, motions and especially positions. And while there are countless examples of players moving around the diamond because of versatility or out of necessity, only a few have made the transition from pitcher to another position.
It's a rare achievement in part because pitchers have traditionally been the best athletes. If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. And if you couldn't, you didn't necessarily have the skill set to make it anywhere else.
But the dozen players on this list proved that it is possible to re-invent oneself and enjoy success after pitching. Starting with the game's early days, here are the top 12 players to make the transition from pitcher to another position.
Old-Timers: No. 12 John Montgomery Ward
Hall of Famer "Monte" Ward played prior to the turn of the 20th century, missing the "modern game" by several years. But for his time, he was a great athlete who enjoyed a long career as a pitcher, an infielder and an outfielder.
As a pitcher: Ward tossed the second perfect game in baseball history back in 1880. Only 20 at the time, he remains the youngest player to have accomplished the feat. Ward compiled an ERA of 2.10 in 293 appearances over seven seasons on the mound. But an injury in 1885 forced him to stop splitting time and become a full-time infielder.
As a position player: Ward played the outfield and several infield positions over his 17-year career, batting .275 and smacking a whopping 26 home runs. Perhaps his most impressive feat was swiping a league-best 111 bases in 1887.
Yes, the game has changed pretty substantially since Ward's heyday.
Old-Timers: No. 11 Lefty O'Doul
Hardly a household name, O'Doul is nevertheless a very interesting story. In 1919, he began his career with the Yankees as a rather mediocre pitcher, struggling for several year before taking a long hiatus from the game. When he returned he was 31 years old but had found his true calling. For another seven years, O'Doul acquitted himself quite well as a hitter, becoming an All-Star and an MVP runner-up.
As a pitcher: O'Doul made 34 appearances over four seasons from 1919 through 1923. He didn't play in 1921. His lifetime ERA of 4.87 looks ugly now and was much worse back then. Simply put, O'Doul couldn't hack it as a hurler.
As a position player: Following a four-year break, O'Doul returned to professional baseball. Over the next seven years he played as an outfielder for the New York Giants, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. He hit .349, won two batting titles, earned an All-Star selection and finished in the top three for MVP voting two times.
Needless to say that if O'Doul had played outfield full time from the start, his would be a far more famous name.
Old-Timers: No. 10 Rube Bressler
From a performance standpoint, Bressler fared better than O'Doul on the mound. But repeated arm injuries kept him from regularly contributing, and after a few years, the wear and tear was simply too much.
In 1920, Bressler gave up pitching and devoted his time to the outfield. There he was a solid player for more than decade with the Reds, Brooklyn Robins, Phillies and Cardinals.
As a pitcher: Bressler was impressive as a rookie in 1914, positing a 1.77 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 29 games. But he suffered the first of his many arm problems, and over the next six years would pitch sporadically. His career ERA of 3.40 is respectable, but as Bressler realized, he could do better at the dish.
As a position player: Bressler manned the outfield with an occasional game at first. Though he was never an elite hitter, he did finish his 19-year career with a .301 average.
Like O'Doul, Bressler might have been better off avoiding the mound from the beginning.
Old-Timers: No. 9 Smoky Joe Wood
Unlike others on this list, Wood was a pitcher first and foremost. And he excelled at it. The only reason he was forced to take up an alternative position was a dead arm suffered in the prime of his career.
Not wanting to give up on baseball, Smoky Joe took to the outfield and played well enough to hang around. But he didn't make the same impact with a bat as he had with his arm.
As a pitcher: Wood enjoyed eight strong seasons with the Red Sox from 1908 through 1915. He sported the league's best ERA in 1915, posting a sparkling 1.49. Overall, he finished at 2.03, a very good number even in the Dead Ball Era. His career ERA+ of 146 will attest to that.
As a position player: Once his arm died, Wood moved to the outfield and last five season with the Cleveland Indians. He didn't do much of note, finishing with a .283 average in 1922.
Like Bressler, Wood made the switch because he had to. Had his arm held up, he might have gone to the Hall of Fame.
Pac-10 Pitching Flops: No. 8 Dave Kingman
The next few names never made it as pitchers in the big leagues. Instead, their weaknesses on the mound killed their hurling careers and forced changes at the college level. In each case, it was the right move.
Kingman headed to USC as a pitcher in the late 1960s, but the Trojans were smart enough to realize that the towering recruit would fare better with a bat in his hands. The Trojans converted him to an outfielder and he became an All-American before making the majors.
As a pitcher: Kingman's brief career on the mound amounted to little more than a few college appearances.
As a position player: The 6'6" Kingman made a real impact, becoming an All-Star outfielder who twice led the league in homers. In 1979, he peaked with a league-best OPS of .956 and 48 dingers.
If he had had the chops, Kingman would have cut a fearsome figure on the mound. But he was better off for the change.
Pac-10 Pitching Flops: No. 7 Mark McGwire
McGwire was another Trojan pitcher who had his career path altered in a very positive way. It's hard to imagine now, but at one point McGwire aspired to being a pitcher. How many other pitchers would have been grateful if that had worked out?
Instead, Big Mac became one of the Steroid Era's biggest bats and forever changed the game with his raw power.
As a pitcher: McGwire didn't cut it. His USC coach, the widely renowned Ron Dedeaux, decided he would better off somewhere other than the bump.
As a position player: I scarcely need to bother with the details. McGwire's career as a slugger is unforgettable. Drug use notwithstanding, he was one of the game's most feared hitters while compiling a lifetime 583 home runs.
To call this a good decision is a rather absurd understatement.
Pac-10 Pitching Flops: No. 6 John Olerud
It's one of baseball's more indelible images. John Olerud, fielding first base while wearing a batting helmet. The safety-conscious Olerud protected his skull after suffering a brain aneurysm in college. Luckily, it did nothing to diminish his skills on the diamond.
Like Kingman and McGwire, Olerud was a Pac-10 product. Unlike Kingman and McGwire, Olerud could really pitch. At Washington State, he was a two-time All-American, excelling on the mound and at the plate. And though he would ultimately become a position player, the switch was not a commentary on his abilities.
As a pitcher: In 1987 and 1988, Olerud went a combined 23-2 for the Cougars. He posted ERAs of 3.00 and 2.49 en route to being named an All-American and Baseball America's College Player of the Year.
In 1989, he suffered the aneurysm and stopped pitching, in turn becoming one the game's more polished hitters.
As a position player: Olerud was a Gold Glove-winning first baseman in addition to being one the best pure hitters of his time. Had he played 10 years later, Olerud might have been more fully appreciated; only recently have fans and analysts come to see the importance of on-base percentage.
And while his career .295 average is impressive enough, Olerud's .398 OBP is eye-popping.
One the more underrated players in recent memory, Olerud certainly benefited by concentrating on one position. But his pitching talent is worthy of note as well.
Big-League Conversions: No. 5 Bobby Darwin
Darwin began his career as a pitcher in 1962. It was decidedly brief. He appeared in only one game as a 19-year-old before being sent to the minors. He would toil there for most of the next decade before re-establishing himself as a big-leaguer in 1972.
As a pitcher: Darwin appeared in 153 games as a minor league pitcher over the course of nine seasons. Though he enjoyed periodic success, it became clear over time that the mound was not his path to greatness. Darwin eventually switched to centerfield where he was able to stick in the majors.
As a position player: After cups of coffee with the Dodgers in 1969 and 1971, Darwin went to Minnesota where he found a role as an outfielder. With the Twins, and later with the Brewers and Red Sox, he compiled a lifetime .251 average. Never a star, Darwin nevertheless found a way to build a career.
Other than leading the league in strikeouts, Darwin didn't do much that was noteworthy. But lasting for nearly two decades in professional baseball is an achievement unto itself.
Big-League Conversions: No. 4 Rick Ankiel
Ankiel may not be the best hitter you've ever seen, but his story is remarkable. In a time where Major League Baseball is as competitive and cutthroat as ever, Ankiel has managed to make The Show not once but twice. And in two completely different roles.
Ankiel was a blue-chip pitching prospect when he signed a monster deal with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999. His signing bonus of $2.5 million made him one of the game's highest played amateur players.
And things started off well, as the former All-American was named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year that year. But things went south quickly for Ankiel, and a total reinvention was required.
As a pitcher: Ankiel was stellar in 40 appearances over his first two big league seasons. At ages 19 and 20, he posted ERAs of 3.27 and 3.50, almost unheard of at that age. But in 2001, Ankiel mysteriously lost his command and was virtually unable to throw a strike. His struggles eventually pushed him to the minors, but he was unable to regain his form.
As a position player: Ankiel decided to try his hand at being an outfielder. Blessed with too much athletic ability to simply give up on baseball, he re-emerged in 2007, still with the Cards. He posted a couple of respectable seasons before seeing his numbers start to slide.
Mediocre batting stats and admission of HGH-use have blighted his career, but Ankiel's story is still unusual and compelling.
The Legends: No. 3 George Sisler
Hall of Famer George Sisler was a two-time batting champ, an MVP and one of the best hitters of the 1920s. He manned first base for the St. Louis Browns before spending time with the Washington Senators and Boston Braves, and his career numbers put him in impressive company.
But Sisler came up as a pitcher and actually did well before making the move to first. Had he stayed on the mound, things might have turned out rather differently for both him and the Browns.
As a pitcher: Sisler posted a 2.83 ERA over 15 games as a rookie in 1915. And the following year he had three more appearances as a hurler. But his hitting skills simply couldn't be ignored.
As a position player: Sisler became a household name with career highlights that included a 41-game hitting streak (the pre-Dimaggio record), a pair of batting titles and a career .340 average.
Good thing first base was open.
The Legends: No. 2 Stan Musial
One of the game's true elite, Stan the Man was a three-time MVP, a seven-time batting champ, a shoo-in Hall of Fame choice and a stellar fielder in left and at first base. But before Musial could become one of history's best hitters, he would try his hand as a pro pitcher.
Musial inked a deal with the Cardinals in 1938, and at the time, the team coveted his throwing arm. Over the next three years Musial pitched in the minors, but before he could break into the big leagues, the team shifted him to the outfield.
As a pitcher: Musial went 33-13 with a combined 3.52 ERA over three years in the minors. His best campaign was at age 19 when he posted a 2.62 ERA over 223 innings. He would be called up the following year, but by then, the transition to left field had been made.
As a position player: Musial was a transcendent talent who put together a 22-year career. His lifetime .417 on-base percentage and .331 average speak to his talent, and his 3,630 hits and 475 home runs speak to his consistency.
Musial in a fixture in baseball lore as one of the game's best. And even with all the acclaim he has received, he may still be underrated.
The Legends: No. 1 Babe Ruth
Baseball's most famous pitcher-turned-hitter is also its all-time best player. Ruth's story is well-known. He began as a multi-use player with the Red Sox before being shipped to New York in one of the worst decisions that sports has ever seen.
With the Yankees, Ruth evolved into an unstoppable force, clubbing his way to the home run title and making himself into a legend that will never be surpassed.
As a pitcher: From 1914 through 1919, Ruth tossed nearly 1,200 innings for the Red Sox. His 2.19 ERA and 1.14 WHIP were excellent even when adjusted for the era in which he played.
During this span, Ruth was rarely used as a fielder, appearing in only 44 games in which he did not take the mound. But Ruth loved hitting. It was his power that made him stand out, and as his career progressed, he became more determined to make it as a slugger.
As a position player: Ruth transformed baseball, helping to end the Dead Ball Era and give rise to the Live Ball Era thanks to his unprecedented strength. Defying the experts who claimed he should have stayed on the mound, Ruth dictated his own terms to the baseball world and flourished as a result.
There is little need to recount Ruth's accomplishments. He remains to this day the greatest player ever to step foot on a baseball field.
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