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Thread: The Hardball Times: Micah Owings the Pitcher vs. Micah Owings the Batter

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Feb 2006

    The Hardball Times: Micah Owings the Pitcher vs. Micah Owings the Batter

    I came across this article this morning and thought I'd post it here for others to see.

    Thou shalt sow, but thou shalt not reap
    by Colin Wyers
    May 14, 2009

    On May 10, pitcher Micah Owings bought the Reds a shot at extra innings with a pinch hit home run. This brings up the perpetual question: Is Micah Owings best utilized as a hitter or a pitcher?

    We should begin by talking a common language; it's possible to compare hitters to hitters and pitchers to pitchers with metrics like OPS and ERA respectively (albeit with the recognition that there are better alternatives to those as well). But to compare apples to oranges we need a pan-fruit metric. As longtime readers might expect, my metric of choice for this purpose is Wins Above Replacement. For those who aren't longtime readers, WAR is essentially an expression of how many wins a player is worth compared to the generally available replacements available, such as minor-league journeymen or free agents willing to work for the league minimum.

    [For a longer discussion of WAR, see my previous series "How to measure a player's value," parts one, two and three.]

    So let's look at Micah Owings in two parts: the pitcher who is and the position player who could be.

    Owings the pitcher

    There are other good hitting pitchers in the league, like Carlos Zambrano, Jake Peavy and Yovani Gallardo. This doesn't ignite controversy the same way that Micah Owings does when he swings the stick. This is because they have all established themselves as pitchers. Owings hasn't.

    Owings owns a career 4.89 ERA and a career 4.80 FIP. These are not spectacular numbers, but they aren't terrible. Going into this season, Owings had accumulated 2.6 WAR in 250 innings, according to Fangraphs. The average baseball player (hitter or pitcher) will accumulate 2.25 WAR in a full season (about 120 innings for a starting pitcher).

    Again courtesy of Fangraphs, his projected FIP-ERA going forward is 4.59; that works out to almost five runs per game. In a league where the average is 4.65, and in a hitter's park like the Great American Ballpark, that works out to a projected 1.33 WAR in 120 innings for Owings. (Probably a little better than that, since he would still accumulate some value from his hitting even as a pitcher.) So a below average pitcher, to be sure, but it's possible that the Reds don't have a better starting pitcher than Owings available.

    Owings seems to be comfortably nested in the grey area where he's neither a great asset or a great liability as a pitcher. But what about as a hitter?

    Owings the hitter

    The short answer here is that we don't know how well he'd perform as a hitter. For the sake of intellectual curiosity, we can go ahead and step through some calculations that seem reasonable and should at least put us in the ballpark, but I want to start off right here with the caveat that the error bars on what we're doing here are huge.

    Or to be more plain, this is basically a wild guess. An educated wild guess, maybe—is there such a thing? Anyway, if there is an educated wild guess, this is one.

    And let's start off with the first of the two big, unsubstantiated assumptions that are required to make this guesstimate work out. Projection systems are largely based upon the premise of regression to the mean, which is that over time, extreme observations become less extreme. Given a small number of observations, we would assume that a guy who has hit poorly will hit better than he has so far, and a guy who has hit well will hit worse than he has so far. The more observations we have, the more we can have confidence in a player being above or below average as a matter of true talent, rather than it simply being due to random chance.

    The issue with regression to the mean here is determining the mean. For the majority of pitchers, regressing their hitting performance to the mean results in simply laughable numbers, because pitcher hitting is really a separate thing from position player hitting, and that almost every pitcher is a well below average hitter. So simply feeding a pitcher's batting line into the typical projection system will not provide usable results.

    What we are going to assume here is that, if Owings were to devote himself to being a hitter full-time, that he would regress to the league mean of position players hitting, not the mean of pitchers hitting. This has the benefit of making sense, at least. But it's a really unvalidated assumption, with few data points to go off of (outside of Babe Ruth and Rick Ankiel there's not a lot of evidence to go around, and those two are both special cases indeed). If I had a giant robot following me around helping me perform sabermetrics, he would be flashing warning lights and screaming "DANGER COLIN WYERS, DANGER!" But it's the best guess I have for the time being.

    Using Sal Baxamusa's Marcels spreadsheet and Owings' career hitting stats thusfar, we get a forecasted batting line of .285/.343/.478, or about a .350 wOBA. That works out to roughly six runs (or a half-win) above average with the bat in 650 plate appearances.

    Now, as it just so happens, the positional adjustment for a corner outfield spot in 650 plate appearances is right around seven runs. So if we're correct, Micah Owings could be about a league average player in the outfield, assuming he plays defense about as well as a typical corner outfielder. Can he do that?

    Honestly, this is even more of a guess than his hitting projection. He's a young guy and apparently athletic (and he obviously has the arm to play somewhere like right field). So he could be. Or he could not be. I know I'm being vague here, but that's all I can be with the data at hand.

    So, using a set of favorable assumptions, it looks like we could make a case for Micah Owings being a league-average player in the outfield. Again, very large error bars surround this entire endeavor and it's possible that he's an utter trainwreck as an outfielder and hits like a utility infielder. We really don't know for sure. But let's assume for a second that this WAG is essentially correct. Should the Reds try to convert him to an outfielder right now?

    Transactional costs

    There are real costs to trying to convert Owings to a full-time position player, such as figuring out who to displace from the outfield to make room for him and figuring out who to take his innings in the rotation. There's a lot of chaining going on here, and a lot of things to figure for the Reds.

    There's also a lot of risk here. It's real easy to run some numbers and come up with "about 2-2.5 WAR," and another thing entirely to teach a pitcher to play the outfield, to have him abandon his craft and devote himself to something else entirely. There's the chance that in taking Micah the pitcher and making him Micah the hitter you're left with neither Micah at all.

    And the Reds just moved into a three-way tie for first place in the NL Central this evening, which says they're probably not in a mood to take those kinds of risks right now. So Owings will probably stay in the rotation, and probably should stay in the rotation.

    But boy, it's fun to dream about, isn't it.
    Last edited by nmculbreth; 05-14-2009 at 12:20 PM.

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  3. #2
    Join Date
    Feb 2006

    Re: The Hardball Times: Micah Owings the Pitcher vs. Micah Owings the Batter


    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.

  4. #3
    Dude Rock

    Re: The Hardball Times: Micah Owings the Pitcher vs. Micah Owings the Batter

    Uh.................too much info.

    I'm glad Owings is on the team. I'll just leave it simply at that.

  5. #4
    Member Rockermann's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2006

    Re: The Hardball Times: Micah Owings the Pitcher vs. Micah Owings the Batter

    Amen to that.

  6. #5
    Join Date
    May 2007
    All around

    Re: The Hardball Times: Micah Owings the Pitcher vs. Micah Owings the Batter

    I liked the paragraph directly below the pretty picture that analyzed his at-bat.

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