Mel Queen hit 25 home runs as a 21-year in AAA in 1963 and made the Reds in ’64, hitting two in 95 at-bats. By 1967 he was a full-time pitcher and was 14-8 with a 2.76 ERA. Because of injuries he won only six more games but became a well-respected pitching coach. His 20 career wins were seven less than his dad’s, who was 27-40 for the Yankees and Pirates, but his winning percentage was 138 points better and his career ERA almost two runs less (3.14 to 5.09). Sammy Ellis, who shared the 1964 rookie card with Queen, won 10 games, saved 14 and fanned 125 in 122.1 innings in ’64. He won 22 games in ’65 but just 29 more as injuries took a toll. He was done as a major league by age 29.
Jason Lane was the 21st starting pitcher the Padres employed this season, but by far the most unlikely — even more than the rookie from Cuba, another rookie with a name similar to a televangelist’s mistress, another rookie who uses the Jordan Zimmermann look and spells Donn with two ns, and a journeyman veteran with the same name as the Red Sox player (Billy Buckner) who committed the franchise’s most infamous error, and whose career ERA (6.02) isn’t much less than said player’s fielding percentage.
Lane’s start, at age 37, was his first as a pitcher, though he’s made hundreds in the outfield. Less than a decade ago he homered and caught the final out in Houston’s only league championship series victory. Two years after he hit 26 home runs and 34 doubles at age 28 in 2005, he was out of the majors.
Seven teams — one of them twice — used money to acquire Lane, but none could make him hit again. And it was an independent league team that gave him the chance to pitch his way back to the majors.
It’s an oddity of baseball that such switches of position are attempted: Rick Ankiel went from a nervous breakdown of a pitcher to a platoon outfielder; Micah Owings went from a pitcher who supplied power both as a hitter and to opponents’ hitters to a AAA-hitting outfielder; Adam Loewen went from a pitcher who walked too many to a batter who struck out too often back to a pitcher who doesn’t do enough of either (he’s pitching in AA this year for the Phillies, if not well).
In earlier times, Mel Queen, son of a pitcher and brother-in-law of one who won the Cy Young (Jim Lonborg), made the ill-fated ’64 Reds as a 22-year-old outfielder, then became a 14-game winner as a 25 year-old pitcher. After retirement, he became the pitching coach who saved Roy Halladay’s career. Tim Wakefield was a failed minor-league hitter whose knuckleball won him 200 games. Bucky Walters was four years into a career as a mediocre infielder before the Phillies let him pitch twice in the last week of 1934; he won 198 games and three times led the NL in wins, though not for the Phils (with them, he led the NL in losses). Bob Lemon reached the majors as an infielder before World War II but came back from it primarily a pitcher, won 207 games and made the Hall of Fame. And Babe Ruth, who hit 714 home runs, could pitch a bit first: he won 94 games with a 2.28 ERA, and his 0.87 ERA in the Series stood as a record for a couple of generations.
Lane has a ways to go before he’ll match them, and he probably won’t come close, given the timing, It wasn’t until he was 35 that he became a full-time pitcher, and he’s about what you would expect from a player who had 12 outfield assists in seven major-league seasons: a soft-tossing, strike-throwing lefty with a good change. Lane’s fastball is upper 80s tops; if it was a car on a high-speed road it would be in the right lane.
But Lane has a better idea of what’s a strike as a pitcher than he ever did as a hitter. He walked just 22 in 115.2 innings in AAA this year; he walked just 32 times in 517 at-bats in his best major-league season (when he did start walking, 49 times in 2006, he stopped hitting, and his average fell 66 points to .201).
His start — he made two scoreless relief appearances earlier this year — could only have been better if it had been against the Padres. He took a four-hitter into the seventh but lost 1-0 when Evan Gattis homered off him; the 2014 Padres are last in every major offensive category in MLB (only four Padres hit safely, and Lane was one).
But Lane’s start, and success, begs a greater question: why not have your 25th player be a hybrid pitcher/hitter? Like Jason Lane. Every National League team, as of this writing, carries at least 12 pitchers on its roster (the Rockies and Cubs have 13, so clearly that’s not working).
This means the average NL bench consists of five players: a utility infielder, a backup catcher and three extra players, normally platoon pieces. Want to know why the pinch-hitting specialists — Jerry Lynch, Smokey Burgess, Gates Brown, Dave Hansen and Lenny Harris (Harris has a lifetime .667 OPS and 2.0 WAR, but is the all-time NL pinch-hit leader with 212) — are an an anachronism? Because managers opt for one-out lefty relief specialists, or players who can multi-task, instead of someone who can hit.
The Phillies kept Tony Gwynn Jr. this year because he could run, field and play all three outfield positions. When he was recently designated for assignment, he was hitting .163 and slugging .204.
And the higher-ups in baseball wonder why offense is down.
Of course, having all those pitchers doesn’t prevent managers from running out. It seems more position players than ever are pitching in extra-inning games that haven’t been decided. Having more isn’t always having more. The Cubs used seven relievers Tuesday before pitching a catcher in the 16th inning. It doesn’t say much for the Rockies that the catcher, John Baker, pitched a shutout inning and beat them. It also doesn’t say much for Baker, who’s batting .215 and slugging .256, that it’s about as much as he’s helped the Cubs this season.
In that context, Lane makes sense. He can still hit — he was batting .419 and slugging .721 in 43 at-bats at AAA El Paso, where offense is clearly not down (Lane earned his promotion with a 4.67 ERA), and he blooped a single off Ervin Santana Monday. And if he can pitch well enough to be an extra starter/long reliever, wouldn’t it make more sense to employ his versatility rather than Alexi Amaritsa, who can play almost every position, but can’t hit at any of them?
Put it this way: Michael Martinez, who has a career .491 OPS, is back in the majors, with a contender. He can’t be helping them.
A decade ago, the Brewers used Brooks Kieschnick as pitcher/pinch hitter, with mixed success: he hit .300 with seven homers in 70 at-bats in 2003 and had a 3.77 ERA in 43 relief innings in 2004 (he batted .270 with one homer in 2004, and had a 5.26 ERA in 2003). If he could have put them together, the Brewers would have had a great contributor (as it was, Kieschnick earned a combined 2.1 WAR for the two years).
Kieschnick’s major-league career ended there, and like a lot of good ideas in baseball, the combination player expired with him.
The Padres designated Lane for assignment Tuesday, meaning they have 10 days to trade him, release him or send him to the minors. Here’s hoping he’ll be back.