Micah Owings In Context
The Cubs catch a break this weekend, as the Diamondbacks come through town and the Cubs don't have to face two of their best pitchers. Brandon Webb pitched last night, and with all due respect to today's starter Danny Haren, the Cubs have to be happy to miss Micah Owings as well.
Even though Owings isn't pitching, though, we still might see him in the series. He's gotten quite a bit of press this year, but unlike Webb it's mostly been for his bat. Last week against the Astros, he hit a home run. To the opposite field. As a pinch hitter. In the sixth inning. After the opposing team brought in a reliever specifically to face him. Using a sawed-off piano leg as a bat.
OK, not that last one, but still. It was quite a feat. ESPN ran a great chart after that game. Here it is updated through today:
Highest Career OPS (min 75 PA):
1. Babe Ruth 1.164
2. Ted Williams1.116
3. Lou Gehrig 1.079
4. Micah Owings 1.056
5. Barry Bonds 1.051
6. Albert Pujols 1.041
7. Jimmie Foxx 1.037
8. Hank Greenberg 1.017
9. Geovanny Soto 1.011
9. Rogers Hornsby 1.011
While this isn't necessarily a candidate for inclusion in the next edition of How to Lie With Statistics, setting the bar at 75 PA is just the tiniest bit misleading. I mean, look who's tied with Hornsby! Still, that's pretty heady company, and there's no denying that Owings is an excellent hitting pitcher. With the help of the amazing BaseballReference.com Play Index, I pulled up a couple of other charts that put Owings' accomplishments in a bit more context:
Criteria: Highest Career OPS, 1901-2008, min. 75 PA, played at least 75% of games at pitcher
A few other well-known good-hitting pitchers:
Active leaders, ranked by best OPS (50 PA minimum):
1. Micah Owings 1.056
2. Adam Wainwright .767
3. Brandon Backe .719
4. Yovanni Gallardo .683
5. Johan Santana .669
6. Dontrelle Willis .639
7. Carlos Zambrano .586
8. Braden Looper .578
9. Jason Isringhausen .569
10. Brad Hennessey .567
Active leaders in home runs (in this case "active" means "played in 2007"):
1. Mike Hampton 15 (775 PA)
2. Carlos Zambrano 13 (470 PA)
3. Livan Hernandez 9 (887 PA)
4. Dontrelle Willis 8 (404 PA)
5. Kerry Wood 7 (403 PA)
Jason Schmidt 7 (705 PA)
7. Russ Ortiz 6 (577 PA)
8. Greg Maddux 5 (1,765 PA)
Micah Owings 5 (91 PA)
John Smoltz 5 (1,151 PA)
At the rate Owings hits home runs, he could pass Hampton in two or three years, and a Maddux-length career would put him within shouting distance of 100 career homers.
What if the Diamondbacks decided to shift Owings out the rotation in order to get his bat in the lineup more often? Obviously that worked well for Babe Ruth but throughout baseball history there have been quite a few other players who've made that move, and some who've gone the other way as well.
Lots of players were switched from pitcher to position player, or vice cersa, in the minor leagues, but here's a look at a few players who played in the majors as both a hitter and a pitcher. Most research thanks to B-R.com and BaseballLibrary.com:
* Doc Crandall was one of the first pitchers to be used regularly as a reliever, though he still started occasionally. He also played first, second, short, center, and right during his 10-year career. He eneded up a career .285/.372/.398 hitter (as well as 102-62 as a pitcher).
"Coming off a 23-17 performance for the Red Sox in 1911, including a July 29 no-hitter against St. Louis, Wood won 34 games while losing only 5. He led the league with 35 complete games and ten shutouts and also batted .290. In the World Series, he defeated the Giants with complete games in the first and fourth contests, lost Game Seven, but came back in relief to beat Christy Mathewson in the eighth and final game."
The next spring, he broke his thumb, and when he came back he obviously had changed something in his delivery. He was still effective but he never pitched more than 160 innings in a season again and by 1916 he was out of the game. The next season he convinced the Indians to give him another chance as an outfielder, and he went on to play for five more seasons.
* George Sisler pitched during his rookie season of 1915 but was quickly moved to first base to get his bat in the lineup every day. He made occasional pitching appearances throughout his career. There is no PBP data for the era he played in so it's impossible to know how he hit as a pitcher, but in 1915 he hit 285/307/369 with 3 HR. He appeared in 81 games total, 15 as a pitcher, 8 as a starter.
* Lefty O'Doul came up as a pitcher but a dead arm forced him back to the minors, and five years later he came back to the majors and had a solid career as an outfielder, finishing in the top 3 in MVP voting twice.
During his time as a pitcher, he was not known for his hitting, hitting only .194 and managing only 2 XBH, both doubles, in 78 PA. He obviously did some good work in the minors because he ended his major league career as a .349/.413/.532 hitter.
* Wes Ferrell is the guy most mentioned as the best hitting pitcher in major league history. He holds both the single-season (9) and career (38) records for homers as a pitcher. In 1933, after Ferrell had won 20+ games in four straight seasons, he starting having arm trouble. The Indians tried him in the outfield a bit but ended up trading him to the Red Sox along with his brother Rick. Wes reinvented himself as an off-speed pitcher and managed to win 59 games for the Red Sox over the next three seasons.
* Everybody knows that Jimmie Foxx was one of the greatest right-handed hitters in major league history. What is less well-known is that, at the end of his career (after his unsuccessful stint with the Cubs), he returned to Philadelphia to play for the 1945 Phillies, one of only 22 sub-.300 teams in major league history. In addition to playing first and third, he appeared as a reliever seven times and even started twice. The first start of his career came on August 19, 1945, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Reds, who weren't much better than the Phils. The Reds' starter in that game was Howie Fox, and I can't help but wonder if Double-X got the ball because he convinced his manager, Ben Chapman (see below), that a Foxx vs. Fox matchup would be fun.
Oh, by the way, Foxx won that game, throwing seven innings and giving up two runs.
* Ben Chapman pulled a reverse O'Doul, heading back to the minors in his mid 30s to learn how to pitch. He made it back to the majors in 1944 -- the war made it possible for 35 year old ex-outfielders to not only pitch in the majors, but start -- and he spent the next two years as a swingman on the Dodgers.
He was traded to the Phillies in the middle of the 1945 season and once he arrived in Philly he made only 3 appearances as a pitcher. He was also named manager of the Phils, and maybe once that happened he was smart enough to not put himself on the mound.
* Henry "Prince" Oana was a Hawaiian-born righty who had a cup of coffee as an outfielder in 1934, and bounced around the minors for the next decade or so until Rogers Hornsby decided to turn him into a pitcher. Thanks to World War II he found his way back to the majors in 1943 and appeared in 13 games a a pitcher (and 11 more as a pinch-hitter) for the Tigers over the next two seasons.
* Before David Letterman famously called him "a fat tub of goo," Terry Forster was athletic enough and a good enough hitter that he was often used as a pinch-hitter. He even found himself in right field in the 14th inning of a 1977 game: after shortstop Frank Taveras was ejected for arguing a play at the plate (which he wasn't actually involved in), manager Chuck Tanner moved Dave Parker (!) into the infield, and Forster manned right.
* Brooks Kieschnick is a name we all know well, a first-round draft pick of the Cubs in 1993 (ahead of, among others, Billy Wagner, Derrek Lee, Jason Varitek, and Scott Rolen). After a couple shots in the majors and three years in Iowa, the Cubs shockingly left him unprotected in the expansion draft and the (Devil) Rays grabbed him. He made it back to the majors a few years later but never stuck. In 2002 in the White Sox system he gave pitching a try and eventually made it back to the bigs again with the Brewers in '03 as a P/PH and occasional OF. That year he hit .300/.355/.614 and hit 7 homers in 76 PA, while going 1-1 with a 5.26 ERA and 39 K's in 53 innings. The next year he was better on the mound and worse at the plate, and in early 2005 the Brewers released him. He signed on with the Astros and hit .304/.407/.543 at AAA but never made it back to the bigs. He is now a loan officer in Texas, where he no longer needs to worry about hitting a curveball.