The Idea of Micah Owings

marc w · October 25, 2016 at 5:40 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

As we move through the fall, we’ll soon drown in the steady drip of minor roster moves and non-roster invites. They’ll blend together, as this reliever or that, or that guy who once had a good year in 2013 (or was it 2011?) signs a deal with Seattle (or was it Oakland?), complete with opt-outs. There will be best shape of his life quotes for the papers, and we won’t even have time to mull it over before the next one pops up on Twitter.

The M’s recently signed Micah Owings. Owings last played in the majors in 2012. In April of 2013, Bradley Woodrum penned this cri de curve that someone, ANYONE, should give Owings a roster spot. He didn’t get one, and after a so-so season in the minors, it looked like he was done. He played a handful of games in the Brewers and Nats systems that year, then a year with Miami, and the trail went cold. He popped up again this year with the York Revolution, putting up a pitching line that’s both encouraging for a guy who’d been out of organized ball for a few years, and also not inspiring for a league who’s 2016 batting champ was Endy Chavez. So is this just another meaningless bullpen pile signing? No. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

In 2005, college junior Micah Owings transferred from Georgia Tech to Tulane. In 2 years in the ACC, Owings posted back to back 9-3 seasons on the mound, and hit a total of 25 HRs while keeping his OPS over .900 in each year. At Tulane, facing slightly weaker competition, Owings simply went nuts, with a slash line of .355/.470/.719, hitting 18 bombs. He also was the 2nd starter, going 12-4, and striking out 135 hitters and walking just *25* in 129 2/3 IP. The Diamondbacks signed him in the 3rd round, just 2 picks after they took Jason Neighborgall out of the Georgia Tech program that Owings had just left.* Owings wasn’t actually Tulane’s top prospect – that’d be Friday starter and OF Brian Bogusevic, who went in the first round to the Houston Astros. Bogusevic’s stats weren’t as gaudy as Owings’ but scouts loved him, as you can see in this frozen-in-amber scouting report from MLB, which compared him to Mark Mulder.

While Owings torched the Cal league with 30 Ks in 22 IP after signing, and backed it up in AA the following year, Bogusevic struggled to miss bats in the Houston system. Owings slowed down a bit in AAA, as his K rate started to settle in at around 7 per 9. He was a decent starter in some tough run environments, and while he didn’t have top-end velocity, a great breaking ball, or the the ability to throw left-handed, he was passable. From 2007-2009, Owings pitched more than 100 innings every year, with a couple of decent seasons for the D-Backs before velocity trouble and injuries sapped his effectiveness for Cincinnati. After transitioning to the bullpen, he had another solid year for Arizona, who re-acquired him in 2011, and then an injury plagued cup of coffee with San Diego in 2012.

But if you know anything about Owings, it’s that he’s much more interesting than a garden-variety failed starter. Owings could always hit. Not “for a pitcher” hit, but HIT hit. In a roughly half-season’s worth of ABs, Owings career line looks like something befitting his college statline: .283/.310/.502. The run environment was different than, so that’s “only” a 104 wRC+, but don’t miss that there are three digits in that figure. He was a (slightly) better than *league average* hitter. Many teams, including the Nats, who signed him as an OF, wanted to make more use of his bat, but they struggled to figure out how. The Nats had something of an excuse: they had a kid named Harper in RF and had given plenty of money to Jayson Werth, so they were full. The Pads can claim injury impaired their ability to innovate, sure, but why didn’t the Marlins in 2014? Hell, why didn’t York last year?

At some level, this isn’t hard: if a guy’s shown aptitude At the plate and bounced along as a so-so reliever, you should figure out how to maximize his utility. Owings’ career started just a couple of years after the last OF/RP hybrid player fizzled out. That was Brooks Kieschnick, a slugging left-handed OF who moonlighted as a right-handed set-up guy for the Brewers. While he had power, it wasn’t at Owings’ level, and his overall bat-to-ball ability wasn’t quite at Owings’ level. He was a decent enough hitter though, albeit not great for a corner OF bench bat. On the mound, he gave up lots of contact, and wouldn’t have survived as a starter, but at least had solid control. After two years, though, the Brewers had seen enough, and surprisingly (at least to me), Kieschnick never caught on anywhere else.

That’s surprising, as there were several high-profile pitcher-to-position player (or vice versa) moves around this time. Owings’ college teammate, first-round-pick Brian Bogusevic, finally abandoned pitching and somehow made the majors as a light-hitting corner OF, garnering 800 plate appearances, largely with the truly awful Astros teams of a few years ago. Bogusevic had a partial Kieschnick in 2012, when he pitched an inning for the Phillies in addition to coming off the bench as an OF, but that was more of a common “throw someone out there who used to pitch and save the bullpen” cases. Adam Loewen made the majors as a starting pitcher in 2006, but injuries made him turn to hitting full time in 2010. He made the majors as an OF the next year for Toronto, and then moved *back* to the mound for the Phillies in 2015; he too had a partial Kieschnick, tossing 19 1/3 IP and batting three times for Philadelphia that year. He had a cup of coffee with Arizona last year, so he’s yet another candidate for hybrid player if anyone’s interested.

To me, it’s pretty remarkable that no one’s really tried to utilize an Owings or Loewen as a true hybrid player. “They’re not good enough at any one skill,” you say, convincingly. That’s a good point, and it’s clearly what doomed Kieschnick, as he couldn’t miss bats right around the time MLB bullpens turned into nuclear-powered strikeout factories. Owings isn’t going to give you that, even if his velocity’s back. His fastball’s most salient feature is that it’s arrow-straight – almost cutter-like. It also has below-average “rise”. Arrow straight, slow, and neither-rising-nor-sinking isn’t how you want a pitcher’s FB described, but here we are. He’s got a slider and change, but both have far-below-average whiff rates. Still: have you seen what clubs carry in their pen? Would he be worse than, I don’t know, JC Ramirez? Maybe, maybe not. And the upside here seems pretty clear: you get the benefit of a bench bat without the defensive issues. Throughout baseball, teams have gone from 11 to 12 to now 13-man pitching staffs, cutting corners on their bench. Given the need for a back-up C and someone who can credibly play SS, teams often have just 1 or 2 options, generally the off-side of a platoon. Having a decent hitter you could deploy AND give your pen a rest or face one or two same-handed hitters…that seems like an exceptionally helpful thing. It scratches the modern itch of ensuring your pen is full of options, while going old-school on the bench. You could start a guy in the OF, bring him in to pitch, then move him back. Or bring him in to face a righty, put him in LF for lefty, then bring him back to the mound. It’s weird and fun, and the batting line, even if it is older now than Mike Trout’s career, is tantalizing enough to make you think you’re not getting a replacement-level bench bat, but an actual bat. The problem isn’t that he isn’t good enough at either skill – the problem is that he’s only *actually* valuable if he’s used as a hybrid…the one thing teams don’t seem willing to do.

And that probably includes the Mariners. He’s listed as a RHP, and again, he never came to bat for York last year. It really seems like he’s given up hitting. That’s a shame, because the odds on his arm carrying him are long. I’m all for giving him a shot, as he’s been a favorite of mine for years. I just wish he got the opportunity to Kieshnick full time, and truth be told, I wish he got it about 5 years ago. That’s a bit of a downer, so let’s end on a positive. With Arizona, he threw from a normal 3/4 delivery, with that arrow-straight fastball. His lack of backspin on the fastball is what prevented him from generating a lot of “rise” on the pitch; it had the vertical movement of a sinker with none of the horizontal run, and thus, despite a lack of rise, batters elevated it easily. His arm angle dropped very slightly in later years, perhaps due to the injuries he struggled with, but his fastball movement never really changed much. Every once in a while, though, he seemed to toy with a sinker. Brooks doesn’t show one in his stats, but if you pore through game logs, you’ll see a group of “four seamers” that had some horizontal movement. A two-seam grip and low spin seems like a good start to throwing a proper sinker, if only he’d drop his arm angle *on purpose.* This would help him generate more horizontal movement by adding side spin to the ball. Ok – go look at that Lookout Landing article again, and notice the picture at the bottom of it. That looks just about right- a low 3/4 delivery. It’s not much to go on, and you can find similar shots from his MLB days. But it seems like the mechanical tweak would be so small that it could work. A groundballing ROOGY can work, sort of. A flyballing, rusty reliever in what’s suddenly a HR-prone ballpark sounds like a tougher sell.

* Neighborgall is another fascinating story that any stathead of a certain age will remember. He threw blazingly fast but couldn’t quite figure out where it was going. Signed as a “project”, his control problem went from bad to worse in pro ball, leading to one of the most baffling statlines you’ll ever see. In 42 career innings, Neighborgall walked…128 batters. In his final stop, and he posted the heartbreaking line of 1 3 12 12 0 12 2. Yes – he pitched one inning, yielding 3 hits and 12 runs on, uh, just checking this one more time…ok, *12 walks* and 2 Ks. This led pre-politics Nate Silver to pen a post about how this low-minors fireballer had essentially broken his PECOTA forecasting system.


11 Responses to “The Idea of Micah Owings”

  1. hailcom on October 25th, 2016 10:02 pm

    I haven’t commented here for a long time though I’ve enjoyed Marc’s contributions consistently. ‘This, however, was too good to let sit without come praise. Effing brilliant. Damn.

  2. Westside guy on October 25th, 2016 11:16 pm

    Well, with a name like “Micah Owings”, he was basically doomed to be a dead-ball-era type of player. Or maybe a barnstormer with the House of David.

    I enjoyed reading this very much, Marc.

  3. marc w on October 26th, 2016 12:44 am

    Glad you liked it, WestSide and hailcom. I have been waiting 6 years to announce that the M’s have signed Micah Owings, and I mean that quite literally. The actual signing itself leaves me a bit cold, coming as it does several years past his affiliated-ball sell-by date, but I will never ignore the potential for a player (a Mariner, even?) to go full Kieshnick.

  4. hailcom on October 27th, 2016 5:55 pm

    Makes sense that it would feel like a somewhat pyrrhic celebration, but having that background makes for such a fun read. Really reminds me of the best of USSMariner, including the legendary Jeff Sullivan. Dave C was brilliant, of course, but from a consistently analytic perspective. Your piece combined the analysis with the whimsy of it all, very very baseball.

  5. Notfromboise on October 28th, 2016 4:18 am

    A great piece and a fun read. Thank you for this Marc.

    Imagine someone goofy like Joe Madden getting a hold of Owings. Heck, its truly strange that he’s landed in the American League at all.

    I understand your affinity for this signing, of course. Same reason we were all high on Lee last season: The M’s will trot out an array of arms and bats, but this has a chance to be a fun, national story… unlike the rest of what will happen in Spring Training. Go Owings!

  6. ck on October 28th, 2016 11:42 am

    Great read! If Micah plays a half season at AAA CSeeing the Zee both from the front and the side, a NL team would trade for him as an awesome 25th man.

  7. drw on October 30th, 2016 2:58 pm

    I could look it up, but I’m too lazy. What happens to the DH when you move a pitcher to the field or vice versa? I’d expect you then lose the DH, which is quite a penalty for the fun you describe.

  8. MrZDevotee on October 31st, 2016 10:41 pm

    Mariners have a unique opportunity here… If even just for one game, I wanna see the Right Fielder come in to relieve the Switch Pitcher… Bet that hasn’t been done in awhile…

  9. Westside guy on November 1st, 2016 8:31 am

    I’m pretty sure you would NOT lose the DH under the circumstances described, since there’s been no personnel changes.

  10. drw on November 3rd, 2016 11:16 am

    OK, I stopped being lazy. Both scenarios (pitcher moves to defensive position; defensive player takes mound) results in loss of DH for the game. MLB Rule 5.11(a) is the DH rule. It includes:

    (8) Once the game pitcher is switched from the mound to a position on defense, such move shall terminate the Designated Hitter role for that club for the remainder of the game.


    (14) If a player on defense goes to the mound (i.e., replaces the pitcher), this move shall terminate the Designated Hitter’s role for that club for the remainder of the game.

    A real, and situationally expensive, cost for the flexibility described above. Seems like this approach is one better suited for NL.

  11. Westside guy on November 3rd, 2016 1:51 pm

    That’s interesting – thank you for the clarification, drw.

    Not directly related, but… I’ve seen rare situations, late in a game, where a team won’t make a seemingly advantageous in-game move because it would result in losing the DH. I’d have to comb through all of the 2016 USSM game threads to find a good example, which is not a simple task. But on the face of it, it seems silly a manager won’t sacrifice having the DH “because if it goes to extra innings, we’ll have to let the pitcher hit” when it’s the eighth inning, the team is currently behind and the DH spot won’t even come round again unless they mount a comeback and force extra innings.

    That probably doesn’t make much sense without a concrete example, so I apologize.

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