Surely There Is a Roster Spot for Micah Owings Somewhere

After a hard-fought, closely-followed battle, Bryce Harper beat out former relief pitcher Micah Owings for the starting left field position in Washington. Okay, Owings was never really in competition to take playing time from the reigning Rookie of the Year, Jayson Werth or Adam LaRoche — the three players in positions accessible to Owings’s limited defensive upside.

But here is the deal:

    A) Pitchers do not consistently practice hitting. (Simple fact.)

    B) The more time between at bats, the more a hitter struggles. (The Book.)

    C) The more times a player faces a certain pitcher, the greater the advantage for the hitter — both in a game and in a career. (The Book Blog.)

All three of these elements suggest pitchers should hit, let’s say, about .145/.180/.190, or -10 wRC+ (that is, 110% worse than league average). Micah Owings — a pitcher — has, through 219 PA, hit .283/.310/.502 with 9 home runs and 14 doubles, a 104 wRC+.

Micah Owings is a good hitter. Possibly a great hitter. The Nationals have a bunch of those. But surely someone else out there could use a bench bat — or a starting outfielder — with the ability to pitch a 111 ERA- every now and then.

Looking at pitchers from 1980 through the 2012 season — 33 years of hitters — Micah Owings stands alone. He is not one of the best. He is not a good hitter. He is not a three-swings-and-a-prayer Carlos Zambrano who makes a ball go pop once in a while.

Micah Owings is the best.

He is the best among pitchers with at least 100 PA. He is the best among pitchers with at least 50 PA. Micah Owings has a career .310 OBP, .502 SLG and 104 wRC+. That Rick Ankiel guy, you know, the man who will be the Astro’s starting right fielder in 2013, had a .258 OBP, .310 SLG and 40 wRC+ through 96 PA as a pitcher. That 40 wRC+ (and .286 BABIP) has blossomed into 92 wRC+ and .297 BABIP as a position player.

Ankiel, we should also note, has twirled a total of zero pitches since 2004, the year he gave up fastballs for batting gloves. Owings stopped pitching for slightly different reasons, but even at his best, Owings was not as a good a pitcher as Ankiel.

So maybe Owings does not become Bullpen Zobrist, the ever elusive Ultra Utility Man who can field, hit and pitch (passably). That’s fine. Position players — as a whole — average less than 10 innings of duty per year. Divide that by 32 teams and then add in a few courtesy innings for a guy like Owings who would presumably pitch better than Nick Swisher and the contribution of the Bullpen Zobrist is still not really impressive.

So if Owings is going to contribute in a terribly meaningful way, it has to be with ash or maple. Can he hit? Like really hit? Hit enough to be a major league outfielder?

Well, we do not have the 1500 PA or whatever we might might prefer to consider his career numbers accurate. But still, in limited PA, few pitchers have done what he has done. He has a high BABIP and a high K-rate, but he has also hit the ball like crazy.

Over 2000 PA, would he maintain a .389 BABIP? Probably not. But we can calculate, using the De-Lucker X (DLX) formula, that even if his BABIP cratered, lost 100 points, he would still be a top hitting pitcher of recent memory. Regard:

BABIP wOBA wRC+ wRC+ Rank*
Actual 0.389 0.355 104 1
De-Luck’d 0.289 0.287 84 5

*Among pitchers from 1980 through 2012 with at least 100 PA.

The BABIP is concerning. BABIP stabilizes just about the slowest of all the numbers, and Micah’s BABAIP is a little outrageous. But if it drops, his other numbers are still strong. Specifically, his ISO, Power Factor (PF), and HR-rate all rank top or second in the post-1970s pitchers group:

Stat Rank
wRC+ 1
wOBA 1
PF 1
HR-rate 2

The ordinal rankings do not fully display Owings’ singularity, though. Dontrelle Willis and Mike Leake have reputations as pitchers that can hit. But look at how far their career numbers are from Owings:

Pitchers Hitting

They have numbers about equal with a defensive wizard shortstop. Owings has the numbers of a center fielder.

With a minimum 100 PA, Owings ranks the No. 19 pitcher of all time — though the position algorithm discludes certain notable pitchers who became position players, such as some girl named Baby Ruth or somesuch (Ruth, we should note, had a 147 wRC+ from 1914 through 1917, and then after becoming a regular, he hit 199 wRC+ from 1918 through 1935 — through his peak years, of course).

In the 2013 Spring Training, Owings’s first Spring Training as a position player, he hit .324/.342/.568, a .910 OPS, against an 8.1 opponent quality according to Baseball-Reference, which equates to an average of a Triple-A pitching class. His K-rate was again high (26.3%), but not nearly high enough to suspect major contact issues.

So I am arguing not that Owings is a great hitter, but that he has hit historically well despite difficult circumstances. He hit for surprising power despite throwing bullpens, not taking BP. He also had a high BABIP (the second highest behind Mike Leake), despite how difficult it is for a modern pitcher merely to make contact.

Owings is, in my humblest of estimation, a well-worthy lottery ticket — a better gamble than the Quad-A hitter who has no MLB experience, or the fourth outfield who has done little in limited time. I suspect also: He is a better allocation of resources than a proven and fading veteran.

The Miami Marlins have Juan Pierre starting in left. According to our Positional Power Rankings estimates, the Pierre-led contingency is the worst in the MLB with a 0.7 WAR projection. The Marlins do not look like winners; Pierre does not have upside; what could Miami possibly lose by given Owings a shot as a left field starter?

The Royals are projected to scrape 0.7 WAR of their own out of Jeff Francoeur in right field. The Yankees, ranked No. 29 in that group, are hoping for some Ichiro Suzuki home cooking, but even if Yankee Stadium pours new life into his 39-year-old veins, the Bronx Bombers teeter on extinction. How could a 30-year-old (young, by Yankees standards) bench bat and potential stopgap outfielder hurt a team hurting for merely experienced major leaguers? The Astros are platooning the aforementioned Ankiel — who at least has a 101 wRC+ against RHP (102 wRC+ following Sunday’s Opening Day Donger) — but who also seems like a poor man’s Owings.

The first base power rankings are a bit more dicey. Among the worst-ranked teams, there are a lot of pet projects (Logan Morrison, Justin Smoak, Brett Wallace) and veterans with specific, known skills (Todd Helton mashes when healthy; James Loney has good defense and a 111 wRC+ against RHP). But Loney, Smoak and Wallace could post another stinker season; Helton and Morrison could again set up camp on the disable list; so having a guy like Owings in the system would be handy, but there is not necessarily a need for him at the MLB level.

Owings will get some playing time — presumably regular playing time — with the Syracuse Chiefs in the International League (Triple-A), but the Nationals, as noted before, are stacked on the corners. An injury may open a spot for Owings in Washington, but there are teams out there right now who should not wait for Washington to need him. There are teams out there with a roster spot Owings should be filling, teams that could use a little risk and could place a gamble on a pitcher who was simply the best.

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

25 Responses to “Surely There Is a Roster Spot for Micah Owings Somewhere”

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  1. Trevor says:

    Hope Owings gets a shot somewhere. I love watching pitchers who can kind of hit out there kind of hitting. It’s like a punter who can kind of throw the ball or is okay at tackling in the NFL.

    CC Sabathia comes to mind as someone not mentioned in the article. He just barely missed out on making that graphic of the best hitting pitchers since 1980, with 53 wRC+ in 109 PAs. His hitting was my favorite part of that crazy half-season run with the Brewers, and the main reason I was upset he signed with New York was because they are an AL team.

    I just wonder what he could’ve done on NL club getting semi-regular ABs.

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  2. Vince says:

    Better bet than Tuiasusopo as the other half of the Andy Dirks platoon for the Tigers?

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  3. anon says:

    Been saying this for 5 years. Best hitting pitcher since Ruth. Not to say he’d become (our would have if he had switched a few years ago) Ruth but he is a position player with a good arm. He hit in high school, he hit in college, he hit in the minors and he’s hit in the majors.

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  4. Positively Half St. says:

    As a Nats fan, I hope that Owings absolutely crushes AAA. However, I don’t want the team to need him at the big-league level. Perhaps he can dominate and then be traded for a prospect worth having that won’t come to the majors for another 4 years.

    I think I am hoping in vain, because that would be too much of a coup, even for mike Rizzo. But I am dreaming on so many levels for the Nats this year.

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  5. What ever happened to Brooks Kieschnick?

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    • Al Dimond says:

      IIRC he came up initially as a 3B with the Cubs, had limited success early but was quickly exposed… I think his swing was too long or something, MLB teams adjusted quickly, and he couldn’t fix it. So he switched to pitching and was good enough for occasional middle-relief stints.

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  6. Paul says:

    Wouldnt it cool if Owings came into a game as a relief pitcher, got one batter out, went to left field for a few batters then went back to the mound to pitch again. He’s could be an unreal utility guy.

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    • TKDC says:

      It seems like a lot of pitchers could do this, and many have in the past, though it has fallen out of favor lately. I doubt that Owings is “the best” among pitchers when it comes to playing the outfield.

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  7. Dave Randolph says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Owings and had him on my roster a few times years ago for spot starts just because I love a pitcher who is not an automatic out at the plate. Of course, his hitting stats didn’t count, but it sure was fun to watch his batting line anyway. I remember several times when his manger would choose him as a PH over regulars on the bench….and he came through more often than not. He was a player who I always stopped what I was doing to watch him hit in televised games…guy was a hitting stud. The power is legit. I think he still shares the state of Georgia high school HR record. Too bad he’s not in the AL….I think he’d make a very competent DH.

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    • brendan says:

      I think actually his value would be less in the AL, since they do less pinch-hitting and have less need for roster flexibility in-game.

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  8. NatsLady says:

    Ankiel is a poor man’s Owings until you consider Ankiel’s D. I do hope Owings finds a spot somewhere.

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  9. Los says:

    I know the Pirates don’t need any more of the type of pitcher he is or the corner outfield type but that is kind of the point with them. I think they are one of the few teams that can actually save a roster spot by using him.

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    • David says:

      I think the Pirates would be a great spot for him. THe way Hurdle manages the bench the Pirates are always running low on options so having Owings around to serve as a 6th bench option and the Jeanmar Gomez of the bullpen would be ideal.

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  10. Dr. Rumak says:

    There will be a roster spot for him… and don’t call me Shirley.

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  11. Mr Punch says:

    Your reasons A, B and C are not, of course, the reasons pitchers mostly don’t hit well. They don’t hit well in the major leagues because, unlike position players, they are not identified through a rigorous selection process as being among the 4-500 best hitters in the world. (They do tend to be relatively good at pitching, though.) What these factors mean, rather, is that Owings may well be an even better hitter than his stats suggest – in effect, they tend to offset the regression.

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  12. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Wow, Joe Wood was Babe Ruth before Babe Ruth. On topic, Couldn’t Owings DH
    for someone?

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  13. Walter Guest says:

    I was surprised Owings signed with Washington of all teams. There was no room for him from the beginning.

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  14. bgburek says:

    I remember a few years back when he played for the Diamondbacks as a pitcher, he got put in the game to PH and he hit a 2R HR which eventually won us the game,

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  15. Maverick Squad says:

    Problem for Owings is defense. Ankiel could play CF, his arm was stupid good. Haven’t seen Owings defense but I can’t think it’s good enough to carry an average bat. But I really am rooting for him tough.

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  16. Roger Nott says:

    Good article. Micah is where he needs to be for now, where he can get regular fielding and hitting practice, with which he could be a credible major league starting position player or perhaps even more.

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    • lookma says:

      Well said Roger. From a WP article this spring, they know he can hit but that he needs time so the plan has been to send him to Triple A to get needed seasoning:

      “Owings spent time during camp taking grounders at first base but recently has been playing left field, a new experience for him. The Georgia native worked with his brother, Jon Mark, a former Atlanta Braves farmhand, during the offseason to ensure that he was putting his front foot down before swinging. He has talked with hitting coach Rick Eckstein about hitting the ball where it’s pitched.

      Despite Owing’s feel-good story, he won’t make the Nationals opening day roster. But because of his strong performance, Johnson believes Owings will serve as part of the team’s depth in Class AAA Syracuse. He could serve as a right-handed bat off the bench, either at first base or in the outfield. Johnson said he even talked with Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley about getting Owings plenty of at-bats this upcoming season despite a crowded outfield of prospects and Chris Marrero at first base. Johnson said Owings may even get noticed by rival teams.

      “We’re not at that point coming off as division champs, we don’t have the luxury to get him the opportunity to do that in that role up here,” Johnson said. “He’s going to have to continue during the season showing that he’s capable He may open some eyes from some clubs, a veteren right-handed bat coming off the bench. He’s certainly got the power and he’s shown he can make more contact.””

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