Kentucky's A.J. Reed among nation's elite as hitter and pitcher
Kentucky's A.J. Reed has beaten opponents with mammoth home runs. He's also silenced them with a well-placed breaking ball.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound left-hander is one of the few two-way stars in college baseball this season, hitting .373 with a Southeastern Conference-leading 12 homers. On the mound, he has a 6-1 record and 1.93 ERA as the team's Friday night pitcher entering play on April 11th.
Reed's coach Gary Henderson said there's one main reason there aren't more two-way stars in the college game: It's really hard to do.
Reed is one of just seven players in NCAA Division I who have hit a home run and earned the win on the mound in the same game this season. Reed and Pepperdine's Aaron Brown are the only ones to do it twice.
"It's all about finding ways to help us win," Reed said. "I've been doing this for a few years now at the SEC level, and you learn a few things about it. You've got to take care of your body because it's a long season. You've also got to learn to separate the two mentally and not let a bad at-bat carry over to the mound or vice versa."
Two-way players have long been a part of the college game. Dave Winfield — who starred at Minnesota in the early 1970s before a Hall of Fame career in the big leagues — is one of the most prominent examples.
The Southeastern Conference has had a few over the last few decades, including Florida's Brad Wilkerson, Auburn's Tim Hudson and Tennessee's Todd Helton. All went on to have varying degrees of success in the major leagues. Hudson still pitches with the San Francisco Giants.
Auburn freshman Keegan Thompson could be the next Reed, though he's having much more success on the mound this season, with a 5-1 record and a team-leading 1.71 ERA. He's batting .227.
But two-way players remain fairly rare — especially those who have a big impact in the lineup and in the starting rotation.
The College Baseball Hall of Fame created the John Olerud Award in 2010 to honor the nation's best two-way player. Olerud — who had more than 2,200 hits in a 17-year MLB career — was a standout pitcher and hitter at Washington State in the late 1980s.
Gonzaga's Marco Gonzalez won the award last season. He was a 1st round draft pick by the St. Louis Cardinals as a left-handed pitcher in June.
Henderson said several players coming out of high school want to pitch and hit, but when they realize how hard it is to do one of those things well at the college level — let alone both — it's much easier to specialize.
"When you get to college baseball, there's almost always some level of failure," Henderson said. "Guys are trying to earn a spot in the starting lineup or a spot in the rotation and when the other side of the game is destroying you mentally, it's tough. It takes a lot of talent — a special player."
Reed had some success pitching and hitting during his first two seasons, but has improved dramatically this spring.
Henderson said Reed made a big commitment to changing his body — dropping about 25 pounds in the offseason — and now he's better able to handle the grind of a 56-game regular season. Reed plays first base or is the designated hitter when he's not pitching.
"It's gratifying to see a guy take control of his body and his career and really turn into a special player," Henderson said. "All the credit goes to A.J. He's the one who has done it."
Pepperdine's Brown is another who has had a great season while pulling double duty. The 6-foot-1, 222-pound left-hander is batting .336 with four homers and has a 6-1 record with a 2.45 ERA on the mound. He usually plays center field when he's not pitching.
"Physically, you've just got to be a specimen to pull it off," Pepperdine coach Steve Rodriguez said. "Aaron Brown is a big, strong, durable guy and we just try to monitor what he does. You want him to be aggressive, but also take care of himself."
Reed's prodigious power and left-handed arm have attracted plenty of professional scouts. He said he's constantly asked whether he prefers pitching or hitting.
His answer: Both.
"Honestly, it doesn't matter to me which one I do," Reed said. "When I do finally concentrate on one of the other, I'm sure I'll improve. But right now I'm having a lot of fun doing both. That's the way I look at it."