Micah Owings is 30 years old, owns a 4.46 career ERA in the majors, and suffered a serious elbow injury last season.
He's also got the best hitting stats for any pitcher since World War II. By a lot. In 219 major-league plate appearances, Owings owns a .283/.310/.502 line. Among the one thousand and sixty-seven pitchers with at least 100 plate appearances since 1945, Owings' 106 OPS+ is easily the highest; No. 2 is George Brett's big brother Ken, with a 95 figure. You can reasonably argue that Owings is literally the only pitcher with any sort of career since World War II who was a legitimately better-than-average hitter.
So considering everything above, this news probably shouldn't be shocking:
The Nationals announced Wednesday the signing of Micah Owings to minor league deal with an invitation to major league camp. It’s an interesting signing because Owings has an interesting story. The Nationals announced Owings’s position as a first baseman, although he spent nearly all of his six big league seasons as a right-handed starter and reliever.
The Nationals consider Owings a first baseman, who can likely pitch in a pinch, and his future appears destined for the minor leagues. But like former National Rick Ankiel, Owings’s story of switching positions at the highest level of the sport is a fascinating one.
An admission: When Ankiel gave up pitching for hitting (and outfielding), I basically said it couldn't be done.
Why? Because it hadn't been done, successfully, in my memory.
Sure, there had been a fair number of successful conversions in the opposite direction. Bob Lemon was a third baseman before he was a Hall of Fame pitcher. Bucky Walters was a third baseman before he was Cincinnati's ace in the late 1930s and early '40s. More recently, Ron Mahay was an outfielder (and strike-replacement player) before he was a LOOGY, Tim Wakefield was a minor-league first baseman, and there's been a whole bunch of minor-league catchers who became big-league relief pitchers.
But before Ankiel, Bobby Darwin had been the only major leaguer to successfully make the pitcher-to-hitter switch since the 1930s, when Lefty O'Doul did it spectacularly. Before O'Doul, there were a number of notable conversions, with Babe Ruth being just the most notable example.
So I didn't think Ankiel could do it, because of that history and also because Ankiel's statistics as a professional hitter weren't that impressive.
Considering that Owings does have good hitting statistics -- and also considering that I'm a little more humble than I used to be -- I'm not going to summarily dismiss his chances of being a useful major-league hitter. Of course you would like his chances even more if he had Ankiel's ability to play center field. But there's a place in the game for a guy who can come off the bench every so often and knock one out of the park. At least before the seven-man bullpens, anyway.
But maybe that works in Owings' favor. If his arm's healed up, he can also be that seventh man. Of course that's easier said than done, and I believe Brooks Kieschnick (2003-2004) is the only guy who's really made it work. But Owings is a better pitcher than Kieschnick, and probably a better hitter too.
I would still bet against Owings sticking around for long as a hitter, or even as a hitter/reliever.
I just wouldn't bet much. Especially since I'll be pulling for him.