TEMPE – For generations, two-way players haven’t been given much of a chance in professional baseball. When ASU baseball coach Willie Bloomquist was coming up the ranks as a player, he saw two-way prospects forced to pick between their talents. Bloomquist’s close friend Jason Ellison was told to stick to pitching.
“They pigeonholed him kind of at that 17-, 18-year-old-age group,” Bloomquist said. “He ended up making it to the big leagues as a position player later on. I thought it was a mistake that they were trying to pigeonhole him to just be a pitcher at that young of an age.”
That dynamic has begun to change. Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani has revolutionized America’s pastime in the last two years. Ohtani’s excellence has changed the perception of what’s possible on the diamond. As arguably the best pitcher and hitter in MLB, Ohtani, the Japanese player who is about to hit the open market as a free agent, is dominating in a way no ballplayer has before.
Ohtani’s influence is having a tremendous impact on baseball at all levels. At the MLB Draft this past July, eight two-way players were selected, the most in a single draft and twice the amount selected in the last four drafts combined. This included San Francisco Giants first-round pick Bryce Eldridge, ranked as the 23rd overall prospect entering the draft.
Young baseball players are gradually getting the opportunity to develop their two-way skills for longer, as coaches warm up to the idea.
“They’re not going to be so quick to pull the plug on one or the other would be the hope,” Bloomquist said. “That’s one thing that Ohtani has done is prove that, ‘Hey man, you can not only do it but you can be pretty frickin’ good at it.’ To me, that’s going to open some coaches’ eyes to, whoa, don’t put the brakes on some of these kids if they show that they can do it and be successful.”
Before entering the coaching world, Bloomquist had a 14-year MLB career, playing for four different teams. Like his friend Ellison, the former Mariner saw two-way players pushed to become one-dimensional.
At ASU, Bloomquist is making sure to avoid the mistakes of previous generations. He does not shy away from recruiting two-way players, emphasizing the potential value they provide to the squad.
One of those recent two-way recruits for the Sun Devils has come onto the scene recently. Brandon Compton was primarily recruited as a pitcher, despite hitting .597 as a senior out of Buckeye Union High School. He underwent Tommy John surgery this past year and redshirted his freshman season in 2023.
This summer, Compton returned to competition with the Duluth Huskies of the Northwoods League, a premier collegiate summer league. It took Compton only a few games to impress his Huskies manager Marcus Pointer. Despite the long layoff, his talent was immediately noticeable.
“It was his fourth or fifth game in,” said Pointer, who is also the pitching coach at Skyline College in San Bruno, California. “There was a guy that was pretty solid and he worked a quality at-bat and hit a backside double into the left-center gap. It wasn’t just showcase pop or power, but his understanding and awareness as a hitter.”
The Buckeye native went on to have one of the best statistical seasons in the Northwoods League’s recent memory. In 60 games, Compton hit .320 with 13 home runs and 71 RBIs, breaking Huskies’ records in the latter two categories. He was also named Northwoods League All-Star Game MVP.
Still recovering from surgery, Compton was entirely focused on developing his abilities at the plate. That experience proved extremely valuable.
“What I was able to do this summer, that made me really learn to love hitting,” Compton said. “Before Tommy John (surgery), I didn’t have the power and the different tools I have now on the hitting side. I was definitely leaning more on the pitching being a left-handed thrower, but being able to see what my offseason did for the summer was huge. I found out I had more tools than I thought I did, and I feel like hitting is a lot more fun now.”
Compton spent the spring season rehabbing, building strength he never had previously. This allowed him to develop tremendous power in his bat. He sees the surgery as a blessing in disguise.
“It can be a gift having a full year off, just to focus on your development,” Compton said. “Not a lot of people get a whole year to focus on their body, their nutrition and their flexibility. I feel like that really helped set myself apart.”
Bloomquist expects Compton to be a major contributor in the heart of the ASU lineup next spring and is confident in his ability to pitch as well.
ASU also has a pair of two-way players coming in this season who excite Bloomquist as he plans to continue recruiting two-way players: Cole Carlon from Corona Del Sol High School in Tempe, and Bennett Fryman from Frisco, Texas.
“We don’t have the minor leagues to choose from,” Bloomquist said. “So if I can get a player that can do both, then to me I feel like I’m potentially getting two players in one.”
The biggest concern that emerges with two-way players is durability, considering the immense toll it takes on your body.
Only one thing has slowed down Ohtani since arriving from Japan: injuries. The Angels star was recently shut down for the season after tearing a ligament in his pitching elbow. Ohtani recently had elbow surgery and is expected to be ready to hit in 2024, but won’t pitch again until 2025. With the latest injury, many have questioned whether Ohtani can stay healthy with the physical strain of being a two-way player.
Pointer doesn’t see there being any increased risk of injury with two-way players.
“You always have to workload manage all players,” Pointer said. “If anything it’s just a combination. You’re putting two and two together. There are options, you know. You just got to work with your staff and the athlete themselves to come up with a plan that’s going to allow you to play and still be fresh.”
Compton recognizes the physical strain of playing on both sides. After his experience, though, he is hopeful young players will increasingly get opportunities to explore their abilities like he did.
“You don’t know if people are going to blossom and turn into some type of athlete,” Compton said. “So you just have to give them the time to do so.”