Saturday, April 11, 2020

BYCTOM 100*: Micah Owings

The Major Leagues will not be generating any new baseball for some time, which makes this an appropriate time to dip into Important Baseball Lore.  The most indispensable baseball writing this offseason for me as been Joe Posnanski's Baseball 100, where he rates his top 100 baseball players of all time and writes essays about each one, and I thought I should shamefully rip that off.  So here's the BYCTOM 100*, a series of essays not on the top 100 baseball players of all time, but of lesser heralded players that have floated through the ether of baseball, the players that David Roth refers to as Guys, the foundation of baseball itself that the giants of the sport can homer off of, do handshakes with, and occasionally get humiliated by because baseball is a weird and cruel game.  The asterisk is of course because there is no way I will do 100 of these, let's face it I'll be shocked if I do five.  If you have a suggestion for someone to be covered in BYCTOM 100*, please send it to me, and I'll consider it.


There is nothing that Rob Manfred likes more than going out onto the parapet of his Baseball Tower and issuing arbitrary rules edicts meant to chip away at the his apparent belief that people despise baseball and he must save it by mandating how teams use relief pitchers.  Under Manfred, the designated hitter is almost certain to disappear from the National League; with his propensity for proclaiming rules changes with almost no warning, the DH may actually have already gone and he has simply not gotten around to telling us yet because he is trying to figure out how to restart baseball in a series of Arizona Virus-Dome compounds that will eventually go dark and reemerge with Manfred proclaiming himself a prophet or deity while wearing an interesting robe.

No baseball rules debate has become more pointless and tedious than the eternal war over the designated hitter, and I have no wish to relitigate that battle.  Most people prefer the style their team plays and that they are used to, and anything beyond that is an aesthetic choice.  It is true that as a whole, most pitcher plate appearances amount to complete wastes of time, as close to an automatic out as exists in baseball, and the ability to predict the end of a rally because of pitcher is due up is one of baseball's most infuriating impending doom scenarios.  At the same time, the rare times a pitcher does anything at the plate constitute the most memorable and joyful experiences in baseball, and there are still fewer more enjoyable baseball archetypes for me than the pitcher who can hit a little.

The patron saint of hitting pitchers is Wes Ferrell who spent the 1930s as a good pitcher for Cleveland who also knocked the hell out of the ball.  In 1935 alone, he led the American League with 25 wins and also batted .347/.427/.533 with seven home runs.  According to this exquisite Wikipedia Sentence "He was a fiery competitor and a brilliant player with natural talent, whose achievements may have been obscured by his irascibility."

My favorite pitcher who can hit a little is Carlos Zambrano, who was somehow a switch hitter good for a least a dinger or two a season and one egregiously reckless adventure on the basepaths. Zambrano also fought teammates, pitched a no-hitter as the road team in Milwaukee against an Astros team forced to flee from a hurricane, and once screamed at journalists "This is not a baby's game! This is a man's game!"when asked why he was repeatedly throwing at Jim Edmonds.

But the most emblematic pitcher who can hit a little from this era remains Micah Owings.  Owings, a prodigious high school slugger, flourished as a two-way phenomenon in college.  After two excellent years at Georgia Tech, he transferred to Tulane and achieved another level as a powerhouse pitcher and outfielder, hitting .355/.470/.719, and also going 12-4 with 3.26 ERA.  Arizona took him in the third round as a pitcher, but when he came up in 2007, he appeared as a shimmering vision of a pitcher who can obliterate the baseball.

Here's a brief aside on pitchers hitting.  In 2007, Owings's debut season, pitchers came to the plate 5,899 times and managed to eke out a cumulative .146/.177/.188 line.  This is a baseball obscenity; pitchers appear to have been coming up to hit wielding novelty souvenir bats that say "save big money at menard's" or giant foam number one fingers. Very few position players have ever approached this anemic standard.  I searched Baseball Reference to find players with an OPS lower than .365 who played a decent chunk of the season (at least 200 plate appearances), and found that the champion of all of them was a catcher for the Brooklyn Superbas (at that point only colloquially known as the "Trolley Dodgers" along with a host of other nicknames including the Bridegrooms, the Atlantics, and Ward's Wonders that all seem have been used interchangeably) who managed it five times in the deadball era.  The last contemporary person to do it was the former all-star Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills as a 39 year-old running on fumes and managing an OPS+ of 3 in 1972.

(Wills resurfaced in the early 80s as the hilariously disastrous manager of the Seattle Managers who infamously tried to extend the batter's boxes an extra foot hoping no one would notice.  His Wikipedia entry notes that Oakland manager Billy Martin saw it and alerted umpire Bill Kunkel.  The Wikipedia entry contains the extraordinary phrase "under questioning from Kunkel, the groundskeeper admitted." Wills features prominently in this wonderful Mariners documentary.)

Micah Ownings came up 64 times in his rookie season in 2007, hit .333/.349/.683, clubbed four dingers, smacked seven doubles and a triple, and led all pitchers with an OPS of 1.033.  That is the third-best by a pitcher (with at least 50 PAs) ever; only Wes Ferrell and fellow two-way threat Don Newcombe topped him, although they both did that with nearly twice as many plate appearances, which is even more impressive.  He hit two home runs in one game as part of a four-hit night, claiming a record eleven total bases.  Owings also was a decent pitcher that year, compiling a 111 ERA+, and he attracted a mild fanfare, the type that causes baseball announcers to say "you have to be careful with Owings here, we know this guy can swing the bat."

Owings's stats took a dip in both hitting and pitching his next year (he still hit .304, but the power was not there), and the Diamondbacks traded him to Cincinnati as a throw-in as part of a transaction involving Adam Dunn.  He rebounded for the Reds at the plate in 2009.  That year, he hit an OPS of .818 with three dingers, but inexplicably lost the Silver Slugger to Carlos Zambrano who hit worse than him in almost every category but was a much better pitcher and higher-profile star. That was pretty much it for Owings as a starter.  He began coming out of the pen in 2010, and his plate appearances cratered-- the Red used him as a pinch hitter a few times, but he was not nearly as effective, his pitching never regained the promising form, and he bounced around the minors and independent leagues for awhile, attempting to pitch but increasingly appearing as an outfielder. 

 The statistics with any pitcher hitting in the current era remain strange because they appear so infrequently.  Owings has since been eclipsed by two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, who, at least until an injury derailed his pitching career, looked like he could become baseball's greatest two-way star since Babe Ruth.  And baseball usually has at least one or two guys floating around who pitch a little and hit a little and do neither particularly well but are noteworthy for that.  The emblematic star of this role for me remains the immortal Brooks Kieschnick, and the Reds currently have a pitcher and anthropomorphic bicep named Michael Lorenzen on their roster who sometimes moonlights as an outfielder.

But Owings is emblematic of the ineffable romance of pitchers hitting, of pitchers doing anything other than walking up to the plate and immediately back to the dugout, of pitchers occasionally causing a tingle of fear in their opposites from other teams, and of the perfect aesthetics of them somehow managing a hit and then standing awkwardly on the basepaths in their dorky satin jackets, these masters of baseball who have played the game their entire lives only to arrive at the sport's pinnacle that few can even dream of and still look profoundly uncomfortable with one of baseball's most basic tasks.

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