Two-way players do not really exist in Major League Baseball. Many players have converted from hitting to pitching or vice versa and played in the big leagues as both — in fact, it’s the only reason you ever hear Babe Ruth and Rick Ankiel mentioned in the same sentence — but rarely (if ever) is there a player who is a successful pitcher and a successful position player at the same time.
More often, a player with potential on the mound and at the plate will pick one or the other when he enters the professional ranks. The success rate is hit-and-miss — both Dave Winfield and James Loney were coveted prospects on the mound and at the plate; Winfield is a Hall of Fame outfielder, and Loney is a journeyman first baseman. Once in a while, a player or his organization will change courses in the minor leagues — Oakland A’s relieve Sean Doolittle used to be a power-hitting first baseman, and the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen has former third baseman Pedro Baez and former catchers Chris Hatcher and Kenley Jansen all throwing high-90s fastballs in relief.
There’s a reason that players don’t play both ways, and perhaps the most common trend of all is for the player to naturally gravitate one way or the other long before any professional team gets ahold of him. A player who ends up in professional baseball is usually the best player and athlete on every team he plays on growing up. That means he probably has the best arm, which means his probably pitches. There’s generally not enough time, however, to develop into both an elite hitter and an elite pitcher, so most guys focus on one or the other.
That’s the story for Troy Bacon, the fireballing right-hander taken by the Atlanta Braves in the fourth round of the draft last month with the 110th overall pick. In high school, Bacon was a great-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop, to go along with his success on the mound. He was not drafted out of high school, but he was good enough to head to the University of Florida to play baseball.
“I went to Florida out of high school,” Bacon says, “and I went there as a two-way player, so I did both there for a little while. But the coaches wanted to change my pitching mechanics around a little bit, and after a few weeks of that in the fall — I wouldn’t say that I struggled, but I needed to do better. So I had to keep myself away from playing on the other side and instead just focused on pitching to get back to where I needed to be. And really, from then on, I was a pitcher.”
Bacon ended up never playing a spring season at Florida. He transferred to Santa Fe Community College (located, like the University of Florida, in Gainesville). Proximity was part of the reason, and he had heard a lot of good things about Santa Fe head coach Johnny Wiggs. “Santa Fe is where I really hit the ground running with my pitching,” he says. “I got back on top of everything I needed to do and focused all my attention and energy back in the pitching.”
As a senior in high school, Bacon’s fastball was around 88-92 miles per hour, topping out at 93. At Santa Fe, his velocity jumped. He has a couple thoughts on why that happened.
“I think part of it was that I would play shortstop as well in high school,” he says. “I wasn’t focused on pitching between starts, and my arm wasn’t getting much rest when I wasn’t on the mound. So I had to balance it out between playing shortstop and everything else. Once I started focusing on pitching, that’s when my velo jumped.”
The other reason for the jump had to do with Santa Fe’s needs on their pitching staff. “I think being a closer for that first year absolutely helped me with my velo and everything else. Whenever the team needed me to get out there and shut it down, I was ready. Going out there and just filling up the zone as hard as I can, and being able to build up that kind of arm strength through closing, I think that definitely helped me develop as a pitcher.”
As a closer at Santa Fe, Bacon set the school record for career saves with 23 and career ERA at 1.18. His fastball now sits around 95-97 MPH, and he was clocked at 99 late in the season. He was drafted after his first year at Santa Fe, in the 37th round by the Colorado Rockies, but he ultimately decided the situation wasn’t right and he went back to school motivated to drive up his draft stock and get the offer he felt he deserved in 2017. Still, for all his success, Bacon did not show up on any of the top-500 lists heading into this year’s draft.
“I think I was just a more under-the-radar kind of guy the whole entire year,” Bacon says. “Being a junior college guy, it’s a little bit harder to make an impact on scouts, but there’s a lot of talent. I think two junior college players just from the Florida area went in the first round, Brendon Little and Nate Pearson, and Pearson was in our conference. Part of the reason I was a little bit under the radar was because I wasn’t a starter, I was a reliever. It’s kind of hard for scouts to come see me because they didn’t know exactly when I would get in the game.”
Still, Bacon had a feeling he would be drafted higher than his non-ranking would suggest. “I talked to a lot of teams that were interested,” he says. “I think if I didn’t get picked up by the Braves in the fourth round, someone else would have taken me very soon after. I wasn’t in the top 500, but I never really cared about rankings. Coming out of high school, I didn’t rank very high as a prospect, but I knew I was good. I may not a not a top-500 guy, but that’s fine with me because I went higher than about 400 of the top 500 guys.”
Bacon doesn’t know for sure what his future role will be. Even though he was a lights-out closer at Santa Fe, the Braves drafted him as a starting pitcher. Bacon thinks he has the repertoire to start, with both a two-seam and a four-seam fastball to go along with a changeup, slider, and curveball.
“I wouldn’t mind being a starting pitcher,” he says in his typically understated way. “I can throw all my pitches for strikes, I can attack with my fastball, and I can work away from hitters with my offspeed pitches, so I can see myself as a starter. But really, whatever the team needs me to do, that’s what I’ll do. If they need me to be a reliever and that helps me move up quicker, then I’ll do that. If they need me to be a starter and that helps me move up quicker, I’ll do that. Whatever they need me to do and whatever is best for the organization, that’s what I will do. They’ll put me in position to succeed, and I’ll put my best foot forward.”
Bacon has the pitches to be effective against both right-handed and left-handed hitters, and it’s clear from talking to him that he goes out with a game plan when he’s on the mound and the confidence to throw any pitch in any count.
Bacon stands just over six feet tall and weighs in at 185. He jokes that he wouldn’t mind hitting one more growth spurt and putting on a few more inches, but he is more than happy to work with what he has. “There are a lot of guys in the game now whose height really doesn’t measure their heart in the sense of being out there on the field and everything else. A true player’s size doesn’t affect his play on the field.”
In the end, maybe Bacon’s size was one more reason he wasn’t on the top-500 lists. Scouts love guys with “projection,” and they’re often right. The Dodgers drafted Cody Bellinger in hopes that as his tall, lean body filled out and matured, some of his line drives would turn into home runs, and he is rewarding that projection. But when you have a 20-year-old throwing in the high-90s, you don’t really need much projection.
Bacon is at the Braves complex in Orlando, preparing for his first assignment as a professional player. He hopes to head to Danville, the Braves’ rookie-level team in the Appalachian League, and he is optimistic about working quickly through the ranks of the minor and up to the big leagues. His agent, Phil Terrano of Primetime Sports Agents, sums up Bacon pretty succinctly: “The Braves are getting one hell of a competitor. Troy has been ready to go since the moment he got drafted. He’s got the fire in his eyes and he’s ready to do what he’s got to do to make it up to the majors. It’s everybody’s dream, but very few get the opportunity to do it. And he’s living that dream right now.”