Hitters converting to pitchers, and vice versa, is nothing new in Major League Baseball. One of baseball's all-time best hitters — Babe Ruth — began his career as a successful pitcher before becoming a full-time hitter and eventually landing in the Hall of Fame mainly for his exploits at the plate. That said, Ruth – who played between 1914 and 1935 – is clearly an anomaly when it comes to his performance given how tough it is to succeed at one role, let alone two.
The conversion from hitter to pitcher is generally considered to be a little easier due to the smaller learning curve and fewer skills that need to be developed. Some of the recent examples of hitters-turned-pitchers include Sean Doolittle of the Athletics, Jason Motte of the Cardinals, and Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers.
There are a number of interesting conversion stories developing throughout the minor leagues as prospects desperately cling to their dreams of playing in The Show by redefining their roles.
Stetson Allie, 1B, Pittsburgh Pirates
As alluded to above, switching from hitting to pitching is a very difficult thing to do and many nameless minor leaguers have washed out attempting to make the bold move. Some of the more recent successes include the likes of Rick Ankiel, Adam Loewen and Brian Bogusevic but that group of players has experienced moderate success at the plate at best. Pirates prospect Stetson Allie is looking to become more than just a role player, Quad-A slugger, or curious oddity.
Originally signed for $2.25MM due to his big-time fastball, the Ohio native made just 17 appearances on the mound before it became apparent his best hope for a big league career would come while standing in the batter's box. As a pitcher, Allie posted a 7.76 ERA while walking 37 batters in 26 2/3 innings of work.
The decision to turn Allie into a first baseman was not a desperate grasp at straws to try and recoup a hefty investment. Baseball America is one of the best in the business when it comes to covering the annual amateur draft, and Allie's pre-draft scouting report touched on the young player's prep hitting abilities (subscription required). "[Allie] had expressed a desire to hit, and he does have some of the best raw power in the draft… With his size, power and arm strength, he could be an early-round pick as a third baseman, but he now accepts that his future is on the mound."
He began his journey as a hitter in 2012 and had a modest first season as a hitter in the Gulf Coast League. Moved up to A-ball in 2013, the 22-year-old Allie got off to a hot start in his first two months of the season (.342 batting average and 13 home runs) although there are some red flags. He's age-appropriate for his league and there would be more enthusiasm for his numbers if he were a year or two younger. Additionally, a strikeout rate of 28 percent in Low-A ball is worrisome, although Allie will likely earn a mulligan due to his lack of experience. Improvements in his contact rate will have to be made if he hopes to succeed against better pitching and improved breaking balls at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. When asked about the Pittsburgh prospect's chances of reaching the Majors, ESPN's prospect expert Keith Law referred to him as a "longshot" on Twitter.
Allie is not the only prospect in the Pirates system attempting to reinvent himself. Jared Lakind, 21, was originally given a $400K contract to forgo a two-way career at the University of Arkansas because of his intriguing raw power. He never tapped into it in pro ball with just five home runs in three seasons. He also hit just .148 and .169 over the past two seasons.
Kyler Burke, LHP, Chicago Cubs
Toiling away in the near obscurity of the Florida State League (High-A) — where crowds are announced in the hundreds rather than the 10s of thousands — is another conversion project in Kyler Burke of the Cubs. The Padres originally selected the prospect 35th overall during the 2006 amateur draft out of a Tennessee high school. He spent more than five years as a hitter in the low minors and was traded to the Cubs in 2007 as part of a package for former big league catcher Michael Barrett. Burke's best season as a hitter came in 2009 at the A-ball level when he posted a .911 OPS.
Contact issues plagued the young prospect throughout his career and he made the decision to give pitching a try after he struck out 131 times in 135 High-A ball games in 2010. Still just 25, he's moved methodically through the system as a pitcher and he's currently in the Daytona Cubs' starting rotation. Burke has made two starts so far after opening the year rehabbing an injury in extended spring training and he's allowed five hits in 10 innings of work and features a 0.90 ERA.
The prospect recently told writer Jake Seiner of MiLB.com he was willing to do anything asked of him to realize his dream of playing in the big leagues. "I just want to get to the big leagues," he said. "I love starting and I love the routine of going out every fifth day and getting my work in between. If it works out as a reliever, that's fine, too. It really doesn't matter to me."
The Cubs will face a difficult decision with Burke this fall. If he's not added to the 40-man roster, he'll not only be available in the annual Rule 5 draft, but he'll also be a minor league free agent, allowing him an opportunity to search out the clearest path to a Major League opening.
Justin Jackson, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Like Burke, Justin Jackson was a highly-regarded prep hitting prospect out of North Carolina. The Toronto Blue Jays selected the former shortstop 45th overall during the 2007 amateur draft and handed him a $675K bonus. He spent six seasons as a hitter but never hit more than .249 in a season and played just 94 games above the A-ball level. Ashley Marshall of MiLB.com sat down with Jackson, 24, and spoke to him about the decision to switch roles — which was borne out of a conversation between his agent and the Jays front office.
He opened 2013 in extended spring training in an effort to give him as much time as possible to polish his repertoire before making his pro debut as a pitcher. That moment finally came on May 4th when he worked 2 2/3 innings out of the bullpen for the Lansing Lugnuts of the Midwest League (A-ball). Sam Dykstra of MiLB.com spoke with Jackson shortly after his first appearance. Since then, Jackson has accumulated 11 1/3 innings in seven appearances and features a 1.59 ERA with eight strikeouts.
His control continues to be a work in progress with six walks issued but he flashes an intriguing repertoire that includes a low-90s fastball, slider and changeup. If he's not added to the Jays' 40-man roster after the conclusion of the 2013 season, Jackson will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft in November and he'll also become a minor league free agent after six full seasons in the minors.
Jackson's former Lansing teammate Markus Brisker is also switching from hitter to pitcher, although he's still working out in extended spring training. The 22-year-old outfielder was originally a sixth round draft pick out of a Florida high school back in 2008. After hitting .306 in his debut, the athletic and strong-armed outfielder managed to hit above .200 just once in parts of four seasons in A-ball.
Prospect Tidbits: Like Allie, Micah Owings is trying to reinvent himself as a hitter after reaching the Majors as a pitcher and making 138 appearances (68 starts), mostly with the Diamondbacks. The born-again rookie currently has a respectable .770 OPS at the Triple-A level for the Nationals. He's slugged 15 extra base hits in 40 games but his 32 percent strikeout rate is a concern. Owings, 30, owns a career .813 OPS with nine homers in 205 big league at-bats — despite a strikeout rate of 33 percent…..Royals outfield prospect Brett Eibner, 24, was selected in the second round of the 2010 amateur draft after a strong career at the University of Arkansas as a two-way player. After parts of three years, though, he has yet to hit higher than .213 in any one season and struck out 165 times in 120 games last year in High-A ball. During the 2010 pre-draft scouting report on Eibner, Baseball America stated (subscription required): "Eibner is the best two-way prospect in the 2010 draft. Teams are evenly split about whether he has more potential as a pitcher or an outfielder… Eibner's preference is to hit, but it remains to be seen if he'll get his wish." The publication noted that his fastball velocity ranged anywhere from 88-97 mph. If he continues to struggle with the bat, the outfielder could take to the mound in the near future.