Toronto Blue Jays News

Blue Jays: Would John Olerud have been a two-way player today?

DUNEDIN, FL - CIRCA 1989: John Olerud #9 of the Toronto Blue Jays poses for this portrait during Major League Baseball spring training circa 1989 at Grant Field in Dunedin, Florida. Olerud played for the Blue Jays from 1989-96. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
DUNEDIN, FL - CIRCA 1989: John Olerud #9 of the Toronto Blue Jays poses for this portrait during Major League Baseball spring training circa 1989 at Grant Field in Dunedin, Florida. Olerud played for the Blue Jays from 1989-96. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /
facebooktwitterreddit

The idea of being a two-way MLB player has been discouraged in the past, but if John Olerud were coming up today, would he have kept up the pitching?

Some folks are seemingly born into the wrong era, which is something I often told my Dad as a kid as I obsessed over his records from the 60’s and 70’s.

I occasionally think about the same concept when it comes to athletes, often wondering how they might have fared in another era. For example, what would Pedro Martinez‘s numbers have looked like if he hadn’t pitched during the PED era of Major League Baseball? It’s a scary thing to think about.

As I was flipping through Twitter on Saturday, I was reminded about how the Blue Jays had a multi-talented prospect in the late 80’s, and I can’t help but wonder how much his career would have differed if he had been coming through the system today. That’s because John Olerud was not only a lights out hitter while playing collegiate baseball, he was an excellent pitcher as well. In fact, he was so good, there’s an award named after him called the “John Olerud two-way player award”.

More from Jays Journal

You don’t get an award named after you for no reason, and Olerud certainly earned the respect of the collegiate baseball community during his time at Washington State. He began as a freshman in 1987 by hitting an impressive .414 with five home runs and 20 RBI. On the mound he was just as dominant though, finishing 8-2 with a 3.00 record and was named as an All-American.

His sophomore year showed that Olerud was anything but a fluke, as he absolutely crushed the ball at the plate to the tune of a .464 average with 23 home runs and 81 RBI. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the southpaw was 15-0 on the mound with a 2.49 ERA, racking up 113 strikeouts against just 39 walks over 122.2 innings. This time he was a consensus All-American as both a pitcher and a hitter, and was also named as the Baseball America Collegiate player of the year. He was also the first college player to hit 20 or more home runs and win 15 games in the same season.

If it wasn’t the era that Olerud played in that derailed his chances of being a two-way player, it might have been the unfortunate health scare he had in 1989 that finished off the idea. That year Olerud ended up with a subarachnoid hemorrhage, and more testing later revealed a brain aneurism. Thankfully he made it back to the field by April for his Junior season at Washington State, but he wasn’t quite as dominant as he worked his way back. That year he hit .359 with five home runs and 30 RBI in 78 plate appearances, and he struggled on the mound a bit with a 3-2 record and a 6.68 ERA.

Had Olerud returned to Washington State to play his senior year, I imagine he would have found his groove on the mound again. However, the Blue Jays selected him in the third round of the 1989 draft, and agree to pay him a big enough bonus that he would forego his final collegiate season. He ended up signing with the Jays in August, and actually collected his first MLB at-bat in September, and even became the majority DH the following year without any time spent in the minor leagues.

Once he had turned pro, the idea of Olerud being a pitcher was put on the shelf. He talked about the decision in an article that was published in 1990 in the Syracuse Herald American:

"“I knew sooner or later I’d have to give one of the two up,” he said about no longer being a pitcher. “I was expecting it but hoping to postpone it as long as I could. I still dream about doing both every now and then, but Toronto said concentrate on one and become the best I can be.”"

That’s just the way things were done at that time, as the belief was that you couldn’t fulfill your potential at two positions when it took so much effort to excel at just one. These days we’re seeing a bit of a shift in that philosophy, with guys like Shohei Ohtani, Brendan McKay, and more coming. It remains to be seen if it’s a direction that will continue, but teams are more open-minded than they have been in a long time.

dark. Next. The All-Time drafted and developed team

As for Olerud, we’ll never know how good he could have been as a MLB pitcher. Who knows, if he had been allowed to do both, perhaps he would have received more than the four Hall of Fame votes he got when he was eligible. Either way though, he’ll go down as having one of the sweetest swings in baseball history, but I’ll likely always wonder what could have been.

facebooktwitterreddit