Cincinnati Reds right-hander/quasi clean-up hitter Micah Owings would like to be recognized more for his accomplishments on the hill than for his abnormal slugging exploits in the batter’s box. On that front, Tulane’s former two-way threat has some work to do. In fact, Owings’ career OPS+ of 126 (based off a Vladimir Guerrero-like .319/.355/.552 in 126 PA) eclipses his career ERA+ (94) by a considerable margin. Can Owings make his mark on the mound, or is he destined to be viewed as a Brooks Kieschnick reincarnate?
By the time Owings signed on the dotted line with the Arizona Diamondbacks following his third-round selection in the 2005 draft, he was intimately familiar with the process. A highly-touted prep prospect from Georgia, Micah was plucked by the Colorado Rockies in the second round back in 2002, but declined to sign and instead attended Georgia Tech. Owings was again available as a draft-eligible sophomore (the Cubs came calling in round 19), but the club couldn’t meet his demands: with eligibility remaining, Owings had leverage. He transferred to Tulane for his junior season, where he led the Green Wave in dingers and pitching whiffs.
Much like the ill-fated John Van Benschoten four years before him, Owings’ future (pitcher? first baseman?) was subject to scouting debate. As Baseball America noted in its draft coverage, the consensus pictured the 6-5, 225 pounder as a strike-tossing reliever instead of a bomb-hitting position player:
“Clubs continue to prefer him as a pitcher. His aggressive approach plays better on the mound than at the plate, where he’s prone to strikeouts and causes scouts to question how he’d fare against better pitching… He goes right after hitters on the mound with an 89-91 mph fastball that tops out at 95 and a changeup that can be a plus pitch at times…Owings throws a below-average slider and may have to scrap it for a cutter. He doesn’t have a dominant out pitch and projects more as a set-up man with a bulldog attitude.”
Because of his polish, Owings made a brief pit stop in the High-A California League as a reliever to begin his career (30/4 K/BB in 22 innings). BA noted that while in the ‘pen, Owings’ velocity soared to the 94-97 MPH range. However, the D-Backs were intent on keeping him in the rotation, concluding that a league-average or better starter is more scarce than a quality reliever.
Owings made his full-season debut at AA Tennessee in 2006. In 74.1 frames for the Smokies, he smoked 69 batters (8.35 K/9) while playing to his reputation by painting the corners (2.06 BB/9). Owings’ FIP was an impressive 2.97.
He ascended to AAA Tucson during the second half of the year, where he compiled a fair 3.74 FIP. His ratios fell off (6.26 K/9, 3.49 BB/9 in 87.2 IP), but it’s hard to complain when your third-rounder from the previous year is on the cusp of the major leagues.
That work in ’06 is practically all we have on Owings in the minors. In Arizona’s rotation from the get-go in 2007, Owings posted a 4.30 ERA in 152.2 innings. His FIP (4.81) was less impressive: he struck out 6.25 per nine and kept his walks at an adequate level (2.95 BB/9), but the flyball-centric hurler was burned by the gopher ball (1.18 HR/9) and benefitted somewhat from a .280 BABIP. Owings’ 90 MPH fastball and 83 MPH slider held same-side batters quiet (.238/.311/.375), but a lefties didn’t blink when he pulled the string on an inconsistent changeup, and they managed a healthy .267/.340/.497 line.
Owings got off to a good start in 2008, posting a 28/9 K/BB and a .195/.276/.363 opponent line in April. However, things would quickly go south from there. He was adequate in May (33/11 K/BB, .265/.319/.424), but hitters turned into Nick Johnson against Owings in June, with a .337/.400/.480 line. He would scarcely pitch again after that point, making two starts and four relief appearances in July with grisly results (11.37 ERA). He was optioned to the minors in late July, only to be shipped to Cincy as a PTBNL in the Adam Dunn proceedings (his acquisition was likely delayed due to concern over the state of his shoulder).
Ironically, Owings made his Reds debut against Arizona in mid-September, as a pinch hitter. He smacked an RBI double in the 10th to best the D-Backs 3-2 (ah, sweet revenge). So much for being remembered as a pitcher.
Overall, Owings’ work in ’08 wasn’t too terribly different from his rookie showing. His ERA was over a run and a half higher, but his FIP was actually slightly lower than ’07, with a 4.73 mark. He both whiffed and walked more batters, with 7.48 K/9 and 3.53 BB/9. Homers continued to be a bugaboo, with 1.2 per nine surrendered.
Apparently healthy, Owings has turned in a solid performance this spring. While the relative importance of that performance can be debated, it does matter in the sense that it factors heavily into Dusty Baker’s choice for Cincinnati’s fifth starter. The Owings that we have seen thus fair is essentially a good fifth starter with an interesting novelty act at the plate. Such a level may be all he ever ascends to, but that still entails more fame than is bestowed upon your average final cog in the rotation.