Johnny O'Brien poses for a picture.
Bridging the Two-Way Gap

Bridging the Two-Way Gap: Johnny O’Brien

The two-way player idea has always been tilted towards position players becoming pitchers. They can hit already, hopefully, and they have the important distinction of being a position player with a strong throwing arm. The ability of a middle infielder to throw the ball hard is often what gets teams talking about giving a position player a chance at being a pitcher as well. More often than not teams never go far with an idea they deem more fanciful than practical. Occasionally one of those middle infielders is Johnny O’Brien and the story ends much differently.

O’Brien started his professional career with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a light hitting shortstop and second baseman. Over his first two seasons his hitting got even lighter, but he maintained a strong arm for a middle infielder. In 1956 the Pirates decided to roll the dice on Johnny O’s strong arm. He appeared in relief in 8 games, and he was darn great actually. In 19 innings he posted a WHIP of 0.895, an ERA of 2.84, and an ERA+ of 134. He also took the field for 53 games at second base and 1 at shortstop. His hitting, well, it took a turn towards outright terrible. In 114 plate appearances O’Brien slashed .173/.209/.183 with an OPS+ of 8. His total rWAR ended up -0.3, but he had accumulated a positive pitching rWAR of 0.4 and been dragged down by his batting rWAR of -0.7.

Going into 1957 the Pirates clearly thought they saw something in Seattle University alumni’s pitching. O’Brien saw action in 16 games on the mound, including 1 start. Things did not go as Pittsburgh had hoped. In 40 innings O’Brien struggled to get anyone out. Gone was the promise of 1956, replaced by a WHIP of 1.750, an ERA of 6.08, and an ERA+ of 63. O’Brien’s time in the field was cut down dramatically in 1957, but he did see 8 games at shortstop and 2 games at second base. In a very small sample of 39 plate appearances O’Brien managed to put together a good year at the plate. .314/.368/.429 with an OPS+ of 117. Had he garnered more at-bats it’s more than likely that O’Brien would have reverted to his usual meandering way with the bat. As is, he posted an offensive rWAR of 0.4, and when added into his pitching rWAR of -0.7 he ended up with yet another total season rWAR of -0.3.

For the rest of his career O’Brien would sparingly appear as a pitcher, and not much more than that as a hitter. A middle infielder who struggles to hit and whose strong arm doesn’t prove to mean much when he’s toeing the rubber ends up the odd man out. By 1959 Johnny O was out of the major leagues, and the following year he was out of baseball altogether. For two years he tried to prove he could be a two-way player. For two years he delivered extremely mixed results and accordingly O’Brien ends up as yet another failed two-way experiment.

Lead photo courtesy of James T. Elder – James T. Elder Postcards

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Bill Thompson
Father (human/feline/canine), boyfriend, Paramedic, Socialist, writer Baseball Prospectus, Baseball.FYI, & Beyond the Box Score. Member Internet Baseball Writer's Association of America & Society for American Baseball Research.

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