What do Bob Lemon, Trevor Hoffman, Tim Wakefield, Sean Doolittle, Kenley Jansen and Troy Percival all have in common? If you guessed they’re all pitchers, you’d be correct. However, you’d score major extra credit points if you answered that they all became successful major league pitchers after converting from another position.
While there has been some success in failed hitters becoming successful starters (Lemon, Wakefield, Dave Stieb, Bob Forsch, and more recently Carlos Martinez of the Cardinals), more success has been attained these days as closers. Hoffman, Doolittle, Percival, Kenley Jansen, Sergio Santos, Carlos Marmol, Rafael Soriano, Joe Nathan, Rafael Betancourt and Jason Motte all have parlayed paltry position play into successful stretches in the closer role.
Why are these players thrust into relieving/closing roles? One reason is that since they’re likely starting at an older age, they may not be quite as successful developing a three- or four-pitch repertoire, which a typical starter would need to have. Second, the modern era is one which places a larger emphasis on relieving than ever before. Third, since their arms haven’t likely been tested for 200-plus innings, they’re more likely to have injury-free careers as relievers.
Failed hitters will do whatever it takes to earn their way to the majors. Realism must set in and pride cast aside in order to make the switch. Not just any hitter can covert to pitching. Barring a trick pitch like Wakefield’s knuckleball, converted pitchers obviously need to have strong arms and throw more than 90 mph. Most conversions have taken place from the catcher, outfield, shortstop and third base positions as a result — although some former first baseman have become successful pitchers, like Wakefield, Doolittle and Matt Keough.
The Chicago White Sox have two recently converted pitchers ready to make their mark: Cameron Seitzer with Winston-Salem and Jacob Cooper with the AZL White Sox. Louie Lechich, a recent conversion, made it to Winston-Salem last year, but is no longer in the Sox organization.
Cameron Seitzer: Winston-Salem Dash
Seitzer is 28 years of age, and he has moved quickly up the ranks as a result. The son of former Kansas City Royals infielder Kevin, the former Tampa Bay Rays 11th round pick out of Oklahoma saw his career plateau in 2015, when he slashed .312/.382/.477 with 13 homers and 65 RBI for Tampa’s 2015 AA (Montgomery) and AAA (Durham) teams. The following year at Durham, Seitzer declined considerably, with a line of .178/.229/.200. Finally, last year in Birmingham, the first baseman batted just .220/.294/.352 and ended the season prematurely so he could focus on pitching. Seitzer does have a good pitcher’s build, standing six-foot-five and 220 pounds.
At Kannapolis, Seitzer made nine relief appearances with a respectable 2.89 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and opponents batting .263 against him. While at Kannapolis, he walked just one hitter and struck out 12 in his 9 1⁄3 innings of work. As expected, things were a bit rockier for him with Birmingham, as he’s posted a 3.38 ERA and 1.88 WHIP with one walk and three strikeouts in his 5 1⁄3 innings. Hitters were batting .360 against him, and Seitzer has struggled in his last two appearances, giving up six hits and two earned runs in two combined innings, prompting a demotion today to Class-A Winston-Salem. He was just demoted on June 21 to Winston-Salem due to the recent roster shakeups. These are admittedly low sample sizes, but Seitzer’s ability to make adjustments will dictate any future advancement. After all, the odds are already stacked against him due to his age and the wide range of bullpen talent currently in the Sox system.
Jacob Cooper: Arizona League White Sox
Like Seitzer, Cooper is now a right-handed hurler. However, that’s where the similarities end. Cooper (five-foot-10, 221 pounds) is a recently converted catcher whose hitting actually improved all three years in the Sox organization: in 2015 and 2016 for the AZL Sox he slashed .197/.298/.239 and .248/.315/.407, and in 2017 with Great Falls he went for .291/.365/.456. While he hit well, Cooper whiffed frequently, with 36 strikeouts in just 103 at-bats. Cooper threw out nearly 25% of all attempted base stealers during his minor league career.
Interestingly Cooper converted positions once before — switching from successful high school shortstop to catcher for Modesto Junior College, when he was drafted in the 20th round by the White Sox in 2015. With the catching situation improving in the Sox organization (Zack Collins, Seby Zavala, Evan Skoug, Jhoandro Alfaro and Kleyder Sanchez are the incumbents), Cooper ultimately decided that a switch to pitcher was in his best interests.
It is far too early to see how successful Cooper’s pitching career will be. He’s significantly younger than Seitzer, so he will be given more time to adjust and move up the ranks. As a result, his advancement will not be nearly as rapid. Cooper has a prototypical catcher’s build and is likely a harder thrower than Seitzer; also, with his catching experience, he may have a better understanding of pitching’s intricacies. In just one outing in Arizona thus far, he hurled one inning while allowing three hits and one earned run. He did strike out a hitter as well.
Will Seitzer and Cooper succeed and make it to Chicago? My guess is probably not, but it will certainly be fun to see how they progress. After all, it’s certain that pitchers like Percival, Hoffman, Wakefield and Lemon all had their doubters as well!