Owings among not-so-secret weapons
Good-hitting pitchers becoming strategic advantage
CINCINNATI -- What can be said about the collective production of pitchers that bat in the National League?You can start with lousy and then add terrible, awful and conclude by calling the ninth spot in an NL lineup a quagmire. It's the place where rallies often get stuck and potential big innings are sunk. "In the National League, if you ever see a game where a pitcher contributes something offensively, I'd bet the percentage of his team winning the game is significant," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. Through Sunday, NL pitchers in 2009 had a cumulative batting average of .138, with a .189 on-base percentage and 122 RBIs in 675 games. Most starting pitchers are counted on to drop sacrifice bunts and not wear themselves out running too hard up the baseline for a routine groundout. A team with a pitcher that can get it done with a bat is as coveted these days as gasoline under $2 a gallon. It's very hard to find and never taken for granted. "In our league, that's big to not just be an automatic out," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. Several teams have a pitcher or two that can rake. And they are not-so-secret weapons for their managers. Opponents know they can't overlook the Reds' Micah Owings. Same goes for Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano, who is a two-time Silver Slugger winner that won it last season after he batted .337. The Astros' Mike Hampton won the same award five straight years from 1999-2003. La Russa likes having a double threat in Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who has a .270 lifetime average. The Brewers count on Yovani Gallardo, who also has notched two homers this year. Journeyman Livan Hernandez, now with the Mets, has nine career homers and four seasons of at least 20 hits. In the American League, which will need its pitchers to hit in Interleague Play, the Yankees' CC Sabathia slugged three homers last season for the Brewers and Indians. Is Owings the best?
Of the good-hitting pitchers, Owings seems to stand above the rest as a lifetime .312 hitter with six home runs, 25 RBIs and a .342 on-base percentage over 141 career at-bats. Except for days when he toes the rubber to pitch as Cincinnati's fifth starter, Owings looks and seems every bit a hitter. And other teams gameplan for him like they would for Joey Votto or Brandon Phillips. "He can hit. We'll talk about him in a meeting," La Russa said. "He's a threat, absolutely." On days he pitches, Owings will even sit at his locker -- with a bat in his hands. On days he doesn't, he's the Reds' best right-handed pinch-hitter off the bench. During games when most starters with a day off would leisurely enjoy the down time, the 26-year-old Owings will roam the dugout with a bat at the ready. "I keep one in close proximity," said the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Owings. "Maybe not arm's length and maybe not in sight. But I know where it's at."
A former college pitcher, first baseman and left fielder for Georgia Tech, and later Tulane, Owings gets as much of a rush from hitting as striking out the side. He's been one of baseball's best-hitting pitchers since entering the league with the D-backs in 2007. He won an NL Silver Slugger Award as a rookie."I've been fortunate from an early age that I've been able to swing it," Owings said. "I am not going to take it for granted. I do the best I can to help. I will keep working hard on it and have fun." In games Owings starts, Baker has the benefit of not being forced to lift him for a pinch-hitter in the middle-to-late innings in a close game. Owings might also get more leeway during a tough inning because Baker knows he could be due up to bat the next time around. As a pinch-hitter this season that helps Baker stretch his bench, Owings is 3-for-7 with a home run, two doubles and three RBIs and batting .280 (7-for-25) overall. "He takes pride in it," Baker said. "At Spring Training when pitchers weren't supposed to be hitting yet, because we're worried about their oblique, I peeked in the cage one day and saw some guy hitting. I said, 'Man, that kid has a good stroke.' I thought it was a Minor League guy. 'Who is that big ol' kid?' He turned around and it was Micah." Hernandez, a 2004 Silver Slugger winner with the Expos, was a teammate of Owings in 2007 and the two used to talk often about hitting. "I never saw anyone like him," Hernandez said. "He had so much power. He could hit it out to left or right or center. He could be the first pitcher in the big leagues to hit 20 home runs, really. He could hit four in one game. He's so good. I'm telling you, you've got to see him in BP." Owings, who was acquired last September from the Diamondbacks to complete the Adam Dunn trade, is 3-5 with 4.70 ERA in seven starts this season. Because of his success at the plate, Reds fans have clamored to have Owings in the lineup every day. "My wife even asked me that. 'You ever thought about starting him in left field?'" Baker said. Don't forget The Babe
Pitchers that can rake certainly aren't a new fad in baseball. Babe Ruth could likely have had a Hall of Fame career as a pitcher, but was also a .302 hitter during his first three full seasons as a pitcher for the Red Sox from 1915-17. He was moved to right field part-time in 1918-19 and was there full time by 1920 with the Yankees. Hall of Famer Walter Johnson batted .423 in 1925 late in his career for the Senators, but was only a .235 hitter over 21 seasons. In 1955, Don Newcombe batted .359 with seven homers and 23 RBIs for the World Series champion Brooklyn Dodgers. In the 1970s and 80s, Rick Rhoden had three seasons where he hit well over .300. "I've seen some good ones," said Baker, who played in the Majors from 1968-86. "Guys like Mike Hampton who win the Silver Slugger Award every year. I played with Fernando Valenzuela, Don Robinson and Rick Rhoden -- some guys that could really hit." Risky business?
Managers are always trying to bend and stretch 25-man rosters to make an end run around the limitations. Sending a pitcher in to pinch-hit is a frequent practice that La Russa often uses with Wainwright, and Cubs skipper Lou Piniella has done it with Zambrano. It can be a risky venture sending up a pitcher to hit. Baker resists using Owings the day before a start in case he's hit by a pitch. Earlier this season, Zambrano strained his hamstring trying to beat out a bunt single and went on the disabled list. "I'll do whatever it takes to win the ballgame," said Zambrano, who is currently signed to a five-year, $91.5 million contract. "In the National League, you have to be athletic and do whatever you can do." "They're athletes," Piniella said of pitchers. "If you talk to them, they're athletes. They want to be involved. They enjoy the hitting part of it, they enjoy running the bases and helping win a baseball game in different ways." The double threat
In 2003 and 2004, the Brewers found an inventive way to use one player from both their bench and the bullpen -- at the same time. Brooks Kieschnick, a former outfielder with the Cubs, Reds and Rockies, had a second career as a right-handed reliever. Kieschnick asked for his release from the Indians organization before 2002 to make the conversion. By 2003 after a year in Triple-A, he was back in the Majors with Milwaukee. "It was awesome," said Kieschnick, from his home in San Antonio where he lives in retirement. "I always loved the time I did it in Milwaukee. I could be called on at any time to either hit or pitch. I was always into the games." During his two seasons with the Brewers, Kieschnick compiled a 4.74 ERA in 74 mostly low-leverage relief situations while hitting .286 with eight homers in 133 at-bats. His best asset was that he could pitch multiple innings in the middle of games when the Brewers trailed without forcing former manager Ned Yost to double-switch, which in effect saved another bat for later in the game. "He was our 12th pitcher," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said by way of explaining Kieschnick's effectiveness on the mound. "Look around the game at 12th pitchers and you see some ERAs that start with seven. So he did an OK job. I still think there is a role for that player on your Major League roster. I believe it's easier to take a guy who's been hitting a lot and see if you can get an inning or two of pitching out of him than to go the other way. It depends on the player, I suppose." On Apr 22, 2004 vs. Arizona, Kieschnick slammed a game-tying homer in the ninth inning and forced extra innings. The very next day vs. the Cardinals, he pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings with three strikeouts and earned a victory. "I got my body used to getting ready and conditioned myself to able to throw 8-10 warmup pitches, then go hit and then throw another 8-10 pitches as warmup on the mound," Kieschnick said. "One time, I had to warm up in the hallway behind the dugout. I missed on a throw and put a hole in the wall. They told me to go to the cage." For a time, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kieschnick was the only pitcher in the last 50 years to twice deliver a pinch-hit homer that tied a game (in 2003 and 04). That was until he was joined by Owings, who hit his second career pinch-hit homer in the ninth inning vs. the Cardinals on May 10. Coming on a 3-2 pitch with two outs, the thrilling long ball forced that game into extras before Cincinnati went on to lose. What makes the two pitchers vastly different -- Owings never played as a position player in the Majors like Kieschnick did. "I say it all the time. I'm fortunate to be able to swing it and be blessed with God-given talent that I have," Owings said of hitting. "I take a lot of pride in it. I know a lot of guys are going to continue to bear down on me, but I'm going to bear down too and keep seeing what I can do to help the team."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.