With the skill set to shift seamlessly between the outfield and middle infield spots, Ben Zobrist has become the poster guy for highly functioning roster flexibility. He has been an ideal fit for lineup whisperer Joe Maddon in Tampa and Chicago, and he is not alone in the major leagues.
Chris Owings has become that player in Arizona.
The idea of a ninth regular position player in the National League has gained traction in recent years. It’s especially valuable in a league that prizes athleticism because of the regular use of the double switch. Hernan Pérez has been that guy in Milwaukee this season, starting at six positions and hitting in six different spots in the order. He has as many plate appearances as all but two Brewers starters.
Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison has made multiple starts and second base and third base around two appearances in left field. San Francisco’s Eduardo Nunez has played third base, shortstop and left field.
Yet, none of the multi-taskers has coupled the versatility with the productivity as Owings has this season.
Owings is the only NL player with at least 14 starts in outfield and the middle infield, and he also is the only player with at least 10 plate appearances at five different spots in the lineup.
It does not get more flexible than that, and both Owings and the Diamondbacks have benefitted.
The 25-year-old Owings is on pace for a career offensive year. He is slashing .320/.352/.491 with nine doubles, six homers, 27 RBIs and nine stolen bases. He tied a career high in homers with a second-inning shot to right-center field against Milwaukee on Thursday, the first day of Arizona’s 11-game road trip.
He is more than halfway to his career high in RBIs, set last year when he had 49. His OPS trails only Cincinnati’s Zack Cozart and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Corey Seager among players whose primary position is shortstop. But Owings has been much more than that.
Late in spring training, manager Torey Lovullo called Owings into his office and proposed a plan. Owings would be the regular shortstop, but he also would play a lot of right field. Owings had never played outfield until A.J. Pollock’s injury forced him into center field last season, but he played it so well — a plus-2 in “runs saved” — that Lovullo saw a fit at both spots.
A swing man was born.
Owings has played shortstop most often when a right-handed pitcher starts and has moved to right field against many left-handers. His versatility enables Lovullo to find favorable match-ups for right fielder David Peralta and shortstop Nick Ahmed. Owings hit seventh against righties and second against lefties for awhile, although because of his strong start Lovullo has batted him fourth and fifth. He has hit fourth twice in the last week when lefty Jake Lamb moved to seventh.
“When Torey talked to me in spring training, it was more [about how] this may be the best lineup we have coming into the season on certain days,” Owings said, recalling the conversation.
“Wherever I am that day in the lineup, hitting second, seventh. Whether it is playing short, second, right, I just have the same attitude every day. Whatever the situation is, execute it. For me, it was wherever you need me. I’ll work hard to be ready to go for you.”
Work has never been the issue; health has. After a September call-up in 2013, Owings was off to a strong start in 2014 before he suffered a shoulder injury when he slid head-first into home plate attempting to stretch a triple into an inside-the-park homer against San Francisco on June 20. He was hitting .282 with six homers, 21 RBIs and seen stolen bases and was a fixture at shortstop in his first full season until the injury forced him onto the disabled list. The D-backs turned to Didi Gregorious to take over at short.
Owings returned in September but was not right, and he underwent surgery to repair a torn left labrum a week after the end of the regular season. That forced him into a swing change to protect the labrum, and while he played 147 games (mostly at second base) in 2015, the D-backs understood that he was not at full strength.
Doctors had cautioned that full recovery would take at least a year. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had 12 permanent anchors implanted in his right shoulder after undergoing right labrum surgery in 2005. Owings has nine.
Last spring, a few days after Owings was told his primary role was to back up Nick Ahmed at shortstop, Pollock suffered his fractured elbow and Owings moved to center for a time. But his time there was short as his battles with health continued. He missed six weeks in the middle of the season with plantar fasciitis.
Finally full strength, Owings took a giant step forward when he became the starting shortstop for the final two months after Ahmed was sidelined because of a hip injury. He slashed .300/.330/.469 with 12 doubles, seven triples, three homers, 27 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in the final 50 games of the season.
It was an indicator of the speed/gap power game that being healthy could bring, and it has carried over.
Owings wants to leave his shoulder injury in the past, but teammates know what he was going through.
“The past couple of years with the shoulder injury, even last year when he was kind of forced to finish with two hands, that completely changes your swing,” Lamb said. “I’m not really surprised about what he is doing this year. He can be a .300-plus hitter in this league.”
Lovullo has seen that, too.
“His mind and his body are ready every day,” Lovullo said. “As far as the swing, it is a compact, short, aggressive swing. He has great bat-to-ball instincts. He is a well-above-average runner. Every part of what he can do as far as putting the ball in play is going to be very conducive to hitting the ball for average. On top of that, he is slugging the ball pretty good. He is not just a singles hitter. Despite his size (5-foot-10, 185 pounds), he’s fully capable of doing anything at any time, much like any of our other power hitters.”
By Jack Magruder