John Van Benschoten, the Pirates' first-round pick (eighth overall) in 2001, didn't have a good big-league career. In 90 innings of work spread over three seasons, Van Benschoten, mostly as a starter, racked up 65 strikeouts against 68 walks and a 9.20 ERA. We ranked him 76th on our list of the 100 worst players of all time.
But did Van Benschoten have a shot at greatness elsewhere on the diamond? He was a first baseman/outfielder at Kent State, where he hit a career .371/.469/.750 and led the nation in homers his junior year. He happened also to close games for the team, and the Pirates figured he had more potential as a pitcher than as a hitter.
We're telling his story now because we posted earlier today about position players who convert to pitching, and how at least one smart team has started to systematize the reclamation process. We wrote mostly about the no-hit position players with rocket arms, not the all-around dynamos who wound up pitching. But Van Benschoten, who falls in the latter category, nevertheless offers an interesting case study.
Van Benschoten hit and pitched in short-season ball in 2001, but when spring training came the next year, the Pirates had made their minds up. "A coach came and grabbed the bat out of my hand," Van Benschoten says. "He said, 'You don't do that anymore.'" The Pirates didn't tell Van Benschoten why they converted him, although he gathered later that it was because they didn't think he'd hold up physically as an everyday player, and they didn't trust that he could repeat the results he had in his junior season. (If they did believe the latter, they had some evidence. He hit .227/.302/.293 in 32 games in low-A Williamsport.) "I was surprised. I wasn't mad," he said. It's been widely reported that Van Benschoten was mad—the third Google auto-fill hit for his name is "blames Pirates"—but he says no one's ever gotten his story exactly right.
Pitching, he breezed through the minors. The problems came when he got to the big leagues. "When you come up through the minors, everybody's helping you. All the coaches want to spend time with you. In the big leagues, that cuts off. They tell you to be a man, and I didn't handle that well." He said the Pirates pressured him, too. "You're expected, almost immediately after you're drafted, to produce at the big-league level. Other organizations don't do that." So Van Benschoten had sky-high walk rates when healthy, and that wasn't often.
He wanted to go back to hitting, but his bad left shoulder wouldn't let him. So he remained a starting pitcher, even though he didn't have the right mindset for it. Van Benschoten says he has a personality where he needs to be doing something at all hours. He was a gym rat in college. He wanted to lift big weights, not two-pounders on the trainer's table. And there was all that running. "I hate running," Van Benschoten says.
The starting pitcher's downtime irritated him to no end. "If I was sitting at a bar at midnight, the coach would walk in and think I was a drunk," he said. "But, really, I was just there because I needed something to do. If I had been a hitter, I probably would have been somewhere else."
Van Benschoten most recently pitched for the triple-A Tucson Padres in 2011. When I reached him last week, he was in Omaha to watch Kent State at the College World Series. He says he feels good and still could pitch. But if no offer comes, he's ready to settle down with his family. He got married in January 2011 and moved to Tennessee early this year.
Van Benschoten says he was "too much of a jokester" when he was young; he treated his body poorly. He says he has trouble looking back on his career because it disappoints him. The only career he enjoys thinking about is the alternate one he could have had as a hitter.