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:
*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:
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:
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.