Late Monday morning, Owings took his place at first base on Field 4, snatching throws that whistled across the diamond. His 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame towered above the other large men in his group. He stepped into the batting cage and launched pitches over the fence, honing the raw ability that has awed teammates for years.
Owings missed most of last season after he underwent elbow surgery to remove a bone chip from his right elbow, but that is not why he decided on the transition. He had toyed with first base before, playing there in spring training in 2011 and on a rehab assignment last year. After six major league seasons as a pitcher without a major breakthrough, he became curious about how far he could go as a hitter.
“I’m a strong believer, and I feel like the Lord has given me a lot of other talent and ability,” Owings said. “I want to see what else is inside of me, what I’ve been blessed with, and get it out.”
Owings began mulling the change last year in spring training. He sent Rick Ankiel a text message, asking if they could talk. Ankiel, who played for the Nationals the past two years, famously morphed from elite pitching prospect to power-hitting outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals. Not long after his text, Owings got a call from Ankiel.
“What’s up, man?” Owings said as he answered the phone.
“Do it!” Ankiel replied, skipping introductions.
Owings appeared in six games as reliever last season, and this winter he told teams he wanted to sign as a hitter. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo had seen enough of Owings to believe,“it’s not a real stretch to say he could be a good major league hitter,” he said.
Rizzo, then the Arizona Diamondbacks’ scouting director, drafted Owings in the third round of the 2005 draft. During his senior season at Tulane, Owings mashed 18 home runs in 61 games, the most in Conference USA, and reached base at a .472 clip. He also struck out 131 batters in 1222
“Clubs were asking me, trying to get a feel for what I wanted to do,” Owings said. “I just told them, I couldn’t make the decision. That’s how tough of a decision it was for me, because I enjoyed doing both so much.”
Rizzo saw him strictly as a pitcher with an abnormally powerful bat. “But I always thought he could be an everyday hitter in the big leagues,” he said.
Owings had always been the biggest, best player on the field. Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein, coincidentally, recruited Owings out of high school when he coached at the University of Georgia. “Maybe the best player in the state of Georgia,” he recalled. Owings’s 69 high school homers set a state record, one shy of the national record. During his senior season, in 75 innings on the mound, he struck out 121 opposing hitters in 75 innings.
After college, Owings sailed through the Diamondbacks’ system and joined their major league rotation in 2007. His first two years, Owings went 14-17 with a 4.97 ERA, falling into the bullpen for five appearances.
“He had a sneaky fastball. It rode up, broke through the zone,” said Nationals non-roster invitee, Chris Snyder, who caught Owings in Arizona. “He was a flyball pitcher, which can be tough to play in Arizona. But he’d compete. He fit in great in that rotation.”
Owings distinguished himself at the plate. “I consider myself a pretty good hitting pitcher, but he was unreal,” said Nationals starter Dan Haren, Owings’s teammate in 2007. “He was on a different level.”
Owings clobbered the ball every fifth day, and soon the Diamondbacks used him as a pinch hitter. In 2008, he pinch-hit 18 times and knocked six hits, including a double and a homer to the opposite field. One night in 2007, Owings started in Atlanta, his family and friends packing the park. He went 4 for 5 with two homers, both nearly landing in the upper deck, and six RBI. He also allowed three earned runs in seven innings and picked up the win.
“It was a good day for him,” Snyder said. “Deals on the mound. Hits two tanks with the bat. It was impressive.”
Haren faced Owings once. In team meetings, he would typically bypass the opposing pitcher. Maybe a coach would note his bunting ability, or say the pitcher could hit a little so keep it low and outside. Owings was different. “With him, it was a full-on scouting report,” Haren said. “We treated him like a hitter.”
In 2007 and 2008 combined, Owings received 126 plate appearances and hit .319/.355/.552 with a 126 OPS+, a statistic that measures a hitter’s performance relative to league standards and adjusts for ballpark effects. The two active players who have a career OPS+ of precisely 126 are Chase Utley and Adam Dunn.
“I think he had more power than anybody on our team, anybody in the starting lineup,” said the Nationals’ Chad Tracy, who played with Owings in Arizona. “He was a little raw, but when he caught one, he hit it a long way. And he could go the other way a long way, too. There was times when if we needed a big homer or something, we’d throw him in there just in case he touched one. If he touched it in the air, it was gone.”
Owings earned a special place in the league, but he never cemented himself as a starter. He has not closed the door on pitching, but also believes he will not miss it. His teammates are rooting for him. “Probably one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet,” Snyder said.
The Nationals’ depth will prevent him from challenging for a roster spot this spring, which he can handle. He wants to find out what else is inside him. He will walk to the field every day, ready to go to work.