Micah Owings the Hitter
By Jeremy Greenhouse
Maybe Dusty Baker knows what he’s doing.
On Sunday night the Cincinnati Reds trailed the St. Louis Cardinals by a run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases empty. Baker pinch hit pitcher Micah Owings for the fifth time this season. Clearly, Owings is not your average pitcher. He pitches respectably, but carries a big stick. Owings had been 2-4 on the year as a pinch hitter which was better than his 2-3 Win-Loss record as a starter.
From MLB.com's gameday, here's a summary of Owings' at bat.
Owings took the first two offerings for balls, though they appear to be borderline strikes by the blurred edges of the strike zone shown in the graphic. Owings then fouled one off before taking another ball. Up 3-1 in the count, Owings took a pitch that might have been an inch or two off the corner—which is to say that it wasn’t a clear-cut call. Well, Owings thought it was. He tossed his bat to the dugout and decided to take his base before it was granted. The ump called him back. Owings wasn’t going to take another pitch after that. He fouled three straight off when Ryan Franklin, who, I should mention, had not yet blown a save on the season, resorted to his first off-speed pitch of the at-bat. Not a good idea. Franklin left a slider right over the heart of the plate that Owings crushed 384 feet to left-center field to tie the game at 7-7. The shot gave the Reds a 49% shift in win expectancy which, in one swing, made Owings the most valuable player of the game by WPA. The Reds went on to drop the contest 8-7, but Owings as usual received his fair share of accolades for his performance.*
*An aside, and my first Pozterisk on this site.
Pitchers like Owings, Carlos Zambrano, Dontrelle Willis, and Mike Hampton who have had nice runs with the bat tend to have their value overstated a bit since we in the media tend to focus on oddities. But it is my belief that the relative value of a pitcher's hitting ability is understated on the whole, considering most people don't give a second thought to how skilled a pitcher is with the stick.
Last year, Nate Silver took a look at several notable hitting pitchers in the game. He found that the difference in true talent between the best and worst hitting pitchers is worth about ten runs per year. Since pitchers are rarely allowed to bat in high-leverage situations, Tom Tango approximated that a pitcher's hitting ability could be equivalent to roughly -.125 to +.25 points in earned run average, or some 10%-20% of a pitcher's value. Last year, there were 120 pitchers who had at least 10 plate appearances and 120 pitchers who tossed at least 120 innings. The standard deviation in their pitching WAR was 1.74 wins compared to a standard deviation of .36 hitting WAR.
David Gassko penned a comprehensive history of hitting pitchers and the decline in such skill over the years. Silver had hypothesized that the lost art was a cause of the specialization of position players and pitchers. The best hitting pitchers tend to be those those who spent the least amount of time in the minors since hitting is a skill that takes constant practice and the minors are the only place where pitchers can forget how to hit. Gassko concluded that even the half win that some pitchers provide with the bat can be worth half a million dollars. Should teams work with pitchers more on hitting?
This year, Ubaldo Jimenez had led the league in batting runs among pitchers before Owings went deep on Sunday. Jimenez had the highest average fastball velocity in the league last year and has been a productive pitcher each of the last two years thanks to above-average strikeout and home run rates from a Coors field product. At 4.4 WAR, he would have been a solidly above average pitcher last year—if not for a league worst -1.5 WAR on offense. This year, though, he has yet to allow a homer and is posting a positive batting WAR which has made for a solid season.
Wandy Rodriguez is having a nice year too but is due for some regression as his BABIP is down 60 points from last year to .263 and he, like Jimenez, has yet to allow a home run despite allowing 64 balls in the air. Still, his curve ball is one of the best in the league, year after year , and he has thrown it more often than all pitchers but A.J. Burnett thus far.Yet while he is ninth in the league for pitchers with 13.5 runs above replacement, he has given away a pitcher-worst -3.9 runs with the bat.
Owings is hitting .346/.414/.692 in 29 career plate appearances as a pinch hitter, a step up from his .315/.336/.556 line in 115 plate appearances as a pitcher.
Owings owns Georgia's high school home run record. A transfer at Tulane, Owings hit .355/.470/.719 before being drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks as a 22-year old. While rarely seeing time with the bat in the minor leagues, he more than held his own with a .359/.373/.500 line in 64 at bats.
Owings has taken a step back on the hill this year, but right now we’re concerned about his performance in the box. He’s managed an incredible .435 career BABIP thanks to an impressive 24.4 line drive percentage. In 2007 when he won the silver slugger award, Owings hit four homers, all 400+-foot blasts including two shots off Buddy Carlyle on August 18 that traveled further than 440 feet each. Now, I'm not saying Owings owns Carlyle, but Owings did hit doubles off him the other two times they met, so I wouldn't be surprised if Owings at least paid rent on Buddy. Owings has shown a strong reverse-platoon split, as demonstrated by this graph.
On balls in play, Owings follows a profile similar to most hitters. He pulls four times as many ground balls as he hits the other way and has a rather even distribution of fly balls while demonstrating most of his power on balls he pulls. Owings swings at well over half the pitches he sees and is not too sharp at making contact. But for some reason pitchers are willing to give him offerings inside the strike zone more often than not. And when he does make contact, he inflicts serious damage to the tune of a .261 ISO and 21.4% HR/FB. He has average speed and is an average baserunner too.
We always see pitch f/x breakdowns when hitters pitch, and Chone Smith just gave a neat overview of recent velocity for hitters on the mound, but how about breaking down how a pitcher hits with pitch f/x data?
Using all gameday data available for Owings plate appearances since 2007, his rookie year, I’ll try to break down Owings' performance by pitch location. Here's my first shot at these types of graphs.
He’s 6’5”, so his strike zone is a couple inches higher than average. It looks to me like he’s willing to chase pitches low out of the zone. The four home runs for which gameday has data for appear to be standard locations for right-handed hitters, as Dave Allen showed. I'd call him a low-ball hitter. But there are too many data points in here for my liking, so I’ll break it down Harry Pavlidis style. I made each zone about a foot in diameter, which appears to have been a mistake, but here it is...
Owings will swing at anything over the plate or inside.He likes the ball down and in, but pitchers can get him to chase balls that are low and he's not too strong at making contact on pitches up in the zone.
So the real question is what should be done with Owings. What do you do with a slightly below-average pitcher with some potential who adds value with the bat? I’ve had the idea of batting him third in away games and then subbing in the starter in the bottom of the first, but that idea is admittedly radical. I don’t at all advocate trying to turn him into Rick Ankiel, since Owings still has value as a pitcher. Maybe he could be turned into a reliever who comes into games as a pinch hitter. Well, what I hope is that Dusty Baker carves out a unique role for him or keeps giving him at bats as a pinch hitter. Players like Owings make the game more fun.