February 7, 2013
Micah Owings Embraces His Destiny
There was a period, before we’d seen him be bad at pitching, when Micah Owings’ ability to hit was perceived as a complementary part of his play. Owings was a prospect for his pitching alone, a former third-round pick and a 6’5” right-hander with a 3.36 career ERA in the minors through age 23. Just the pitching, presumably, was enough to make him the 98th-best prospect in baseball entering the 2007 season, according to Baseball America (he didn’t make our list). Owings’ bat was a bonus.
That period lasted for a year or so after the point at which Owings appeared on most of our radars. In 2007, the year when he won a starting job in spring training, his comment in the annual alluded to his offense only at the end, after three sentences about stuff that made scouts drool:
The next year, after he’d spent most of his rookie season as an above-average starter (and won a Silver Slugger Award), Owings’ arm was still promising enough to carry a career. But his bat got almost equal billing:
Then came three seasons in which Owings posted ERAs over 5.00, developed shoulder soreness that put him on the disabled list, and became a player named later in the Adam Dunn trade. Gradually, his bat became less of a bonus and more of a main meal ticket.
In last year’s book, we questioned whether Owings was major-league material at any position. And in this year’s book, after an elbow ailment and subsequent surgery that ended his season in April, he got only a lineout instead of a full comment. The next step, which he’ll probably take in 2014, is being out of the book altogether.
But in a bid to remain in the book (and more importantly, the big leagues), Owings has finally embraced the future we’ve all wondered about since he first started to struggle. Last year, he toyed with the idea of experimenting at other positions while he rehabbed his elbow, but he got into only six games (he went 4-for-9 with a double). This season, he’s committing to hitting. Yesterday, Owings signed with the Nationals as a first baseman, receiving a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training from Mike Rizzo, who drafted him in 2005. His BP player card now lists him as “Micah Owings 1B”, with no hint that he’s ever been anything else.
There are reasons to think this will work. For one thing, Owings has always hit. He holds Georgia’s high school home run record, with 69. He hit 15 more as a sophomore at Georgia Tech, then transferred to Tulane, where (as a teammate of fellow two-way player Brian Bogusevic) he hit .355/.470/.719 before being drafted by Arizona. In 97 minor-league plate appearances, he’s batted .337/.362/.483. And in 219 trips to the plate in the majors, he’s hit .283/.310/.502, making him the best-hitting pitcher since World War II, an era of increasing specialization in which pitchers have lagged further and further behind position players at the plate. If the pinch-hit penalty applies to pitchers, Owings’ line looks even more impressive, since 45 of his 205 career at-bats have come in that context.
Owings’ total contributions to his teams have been worth about five wins. Roughly four of those wins came from his hitting. His career TAv is .278. NL first basemen, as a group, had a TAv of .277 in 2012. If Owings can catch throws to first base and continue to hit as well as he has, he could be an average position player, which is better than being a replacement-level pitcher. An Owings who's a full-time hitter isn't quite as exciting as an Owings who fills two roster spots for the price of one in a Brooks Kieschnick kind of way, but it would still be sufficiently rare to root for.
But how representative were those 200-plus PA? Rather than take Owings’ career line for his true talent, let’s examine his approach for any hint of how he’d hit in a more regular role. Here’s how each of Owings’ plate discipline stats compared to those of the typical pitcher and the typical position player from 2008-12 (we don’t have complete plate discipline data for 2007, when Owings went 20-for-60 with four home runs):
Pitchers, on the whole, see more pitches inside the strike zone than non-pitchers. This makes sense, since pitchers aren’t as dangerous at the plate and opposing pitchers don’t want to walk them. But Owings has seen pitches inside the zone almost exactly as often as a typical position player. This suggests two things: first, that opposing pitchers know how successful a hitter he is and approach him the same way they would the average non-pitcher. And second, that Owings’ hitting isn’t purely a result of being pitched like a pitcher. That’s encouraging, in a way—if Owings had seen strikes as often as most pitchers, it would be fair to wonder whether he’d be able to sustain his success once his opponents started pitching him like someone who hits for a living. Except, well:
In 2008, Owings saw pitches in the zone almost as often as a typical pitcher. In every season since, he’s seen fewer strikes, as scouting reports have circulated and his opponents have belatedly adjusted to his early-career offensive fireworks. His batting average has declined at almost the same rate. It could be a coincidence, since the sample sizes are small (between 50 and 181 pitches per season; Owings saw just eight pitches last season, so I left it out), but it seems likely that as Owings has been pitched more and more like a position player, he’s had less and less success.
Owings offers at pitches much more often than the typical pitcher. He swings like Delmon Young on the sort of steroids that make you swing more.
Exactly like pitchers, actually. When he swings, Owings misses the ball as often as the typical NL no. 9 guy.
Zone Swing Rate
Delmon Young’s Z_Swing rate last season: 76.9 percent. Owings’ plate discipline stats are a dead ringer for Delmon’s, which is not a nice thing to say.
Outside Zone Swing Rate
Last season, four hitters saw over 200 pitches and chased more often than Owings’ 2008-12 rate: Miguel Olivo, Pedro Ciriaco, Matt McBride, and Carlos Peguero. Those hitters combined for a .235 TAv and struck out over 10 times for every walk. If Owings chases that often, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t get as many pitches to hit as he used to.
Zone Contact Rate
Owings swings at strikes much more often than most pitchers, but he whiffs at roughly the same rate when he does.
Outside Zone Contact Rate
Ditto for pitches outside the zone.
Swinging Strike Rate
This is really just the inverse of contact rate: Owings rarely makes contact, so naturally he must miss often.
All of those stats together in one table:
Owings has a flashy triple-slash line, but when you peek under the hood, his approach looks awful. Over the course of his career—even including his .333/.349/.683 2007—he’s walked exactly as infrequently as Delmon Young and struck out almost as often as Adam Dunn. So how did he get all those hits?
By being super-lucky. Owings has a career BABIP of .389. Only one of the 76 active pitchers with at least 200 plate appearances has a BABIP within 60 points of that, and even then only barely. And the collective BABIP of all those pitchers is .224. Even when a blazing-fast batter like Austin Jackson or Mike Trout has a BABIP that high, we say he’s probably due to regress. When a pitcher I clocked at 4.40 to first on a dig does it, there’s even more reason to expect it to stop. Given that BABIP, it’s not surprising that five of Owings’ seven hits over the past three seasons looked like this:
Take a few of those bloopers and seeing-eye singles away, and Owings’ line since 2009 would look lousy even for a pitcher.
Owings’ career TAv makes it tempting to say that he could step into a major-league lineup right now. But regardless of his reputation for raking, if Owings played every day for a full season and kept the same approach at the plate that he’s shown in the past, he’d be one of the worst hitters in baseball. What we don’t know is whether his hitting performance as a pitcher and pinch-hitter is at all representative of how he would hit as a full-time position player.
Rick Ankiel, the last—and one of the only—major-league pitchers to make a successful conversion, hit .207/.258/.310 in 96 plate appearances as a pitcher. He walked about twice as often as Owings and struck out less often, which might suggest he had a sounder approach but probably just suggests that we should stop trying to make sense of a sample size that small. Either way, a line like that doesn’t scream “successful position player.” Yet a couple seasons of minor-league seasoning later, Ankiel was back in the big leagues sporting a more disciplined approach and posting TAvs in the high .280s.
Owings is five years older than Ankiel was when he gave up pitching for good, so he’s facing an even tougher transition. We almost certainly won’t see him with Washington this season, and we might not ever see him back in the big leagues again. But there’s no telling what he could accomplish with his natural talent plus a couple seasons of focused instruction and regular reps. And at least we won’t have to wonder whether Owings can hack it as a hitter: one way or another, we’ll know.