VIERA, Fla. — It was about a year ago that Micah Owings decided to ask the question. The thought had been in his mind for some time. It’d crop up, perhaps, with every well-struck line drive, or double, or home run — of which there were nine — he’d hit as a starting pitcher in the major leagues.
In camp competing for a pitching job with the San Diego Padres, Owings asked former teammate Laynce Nix for a phone number. At that point, Owings said, he was committed to being a pitcher, just as he’d been since the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted him in 2005. But the thought was there.
He typed out a short text message and sent it to former Washington Nationals outfielder Rick Ankiel — perhaps the most well-known pitcher to convert to a position player.
“He called me back and he knew exactly what I wanted to talk to him about,” Owings said. “I didn’t even hardly get ‘hello’ out and he said, ‘Do it. Do it.’”
On the Nationals’ list of nonroster invitees this spring, the 30-year-old Owings, a man with a career 4.86 ERA in 138 major league games, is listed under infielders. He has a small ‘1B’ next to his name, and the Nationals may try him in the outfield, too. He is reserved and polite and has blended into the Nationals’ clubhouse easily, despite an unfamiliar locker spot.
But his batting practice sessions venture into the territory of those that could require a ticket. The way Owings unfurls his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame and sends scorching line drives toward the opposite field makes one thing eminently clear: He is not your average pitcher, standing in at batting practice trying to give this hitting thing a go.
“Oh yeah,” one Nationals coach said with a knowing look as he walked past the dugout in Port St. Lucie on Saturday, acknowledging the show Owings, Bryce Harper, Tyler Moore and Chris Marrero were putting on. “He’s a powerful kid.”
“He could always hit,” said general manager Mike Rizzo, the scouting director in Arizona when the franchise selected Owings out of Tulane University. “He can rake. He’s a big, strong guy with power. He was a legitimate force when he’d be in the batter’s box in the big leagues. It’s not a real stretch to say that he could be a good major leaguer.”
The stats that support Rizzo’s assessment go from eye-popping to bordering on the stuff of legend.
Owings has posted a batting average over .300 twice in his six years in the major leagues and has a career mark of .283 with a .502 slugging percentage in 205 at-bats. In college, where he and Brian Bogusevic led the Tulane rotation, Owings posted a team-best .355 average, hit 18 homers in 64 games and posted a .719 slugging percentage with a .470 on-base mark.
In a state that brought the baseball world offensive talents such as Buster Posey and Jason Heyward, Owings held Georgia’s record for home runs as a high school player with 69 (one shy of former quarterback Drew Henson’s 70 for the national record), though he was told recently that someone might have tied it last year.
“It’s wild, I know,” he said, chuckling.
That was the evidence Owings focused on as he decided to convert. When free agency began in November, Owings had his agent, Scott Boras, reach out to teams to let them know he was looking for work as a position player. Some still came calling for his arm, but he held firm.
With the Nationals, there was already a familiarity. Rizzo knew, and liked, Owings from their days together in Arizona. He also allowed Owings to call minor league hitting coordinator Rick Schu, Arizona’s former hitting coach, to ask whatever questions he had.
“He trusted that we would do right by him,” Rizzo said. “And he came to us with a lot of options and other places to go to.”