The Diamondbacks are going to have a good dilemma on their hands this winter: figuring out where and how to utilize Chris Owings in 2017. Entering the season, it looked like Owings was more or less a lost cause. He was on the active roster because A.J. Pollock wasn’t and his valued was limited to just that of a oh-shit emergency fill-in. Fast-forward a couple of months and we can see that while he’s been up and down at times in 2016, there may be enough present value to really pencil Owings in as a useful player going forward. Were it not for a hot month and a half to end the year, however, we may have been willing to cast Owings aside completely. He’s salvaged something in the last six weeks, finishing strong and forcing us to reconsider him. How has he turned it around and where does he fit going forward? Those are two questions worth exploring.
Splits are always a little tough because the endpoints are usually arbitrary and fluctuations always happen. For Owings, it’s even tougher because he’s dealt with injuries yet again this season, limiting his on-field time. He played in 48 games during the first two months of the season, then played in 13 games total during June and July. Since August, he’s played virtually every day again, which makes accounting for the middle two months of the season nearly impossible. The samples are small and we know there were injury issues. For analysis purposes, they’re not very helpful. In his favor, they were also the two worst months of his season. Casting them aside benefits Owings, even if only slightly.
It’s a golden age for shortstops right now. Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Addison Russell, Xander Bogaerts. The position is deep, and if there’s a place for Owings, it’s probably right there at shortstop. The median wRC+ sits right at league average among qualified shortstops and Owings, without his two disastrous summer months, is basically on pace. Though he doesn’t hit it over the fence very often, he’s racked up 21 doubles and nine triples in limited action. That’s been good for a ISO of .127, which is just shy of Dustin Pedroia and just above Brandon Phillips. Those guys aren’t who they used to be, but they can still hit the ball enough to be MLB regulars, suggesting Owings might be the same — a functional big leaguer.
And getting back to this level of production hasn’t been a fluke. He’s cut his strikeout rate to a MLB career low and raised his walk rate every so slightly along the way. The progress has come from real growth. Maturity at the plate takes time to develop, and Owings’ injuries have stolen opportunities to grow. But surely, he’s done so, even if it’s taken some time to get there. Observe his plate discipline.
Owings is still swinging at a lot of pitches in the zone, and that’s a good thing. He’s making a ton of contact on those pitches, too. But he’s cut his swing rate at pitches out of the zone by a wide margin, which tells us that he’s not chasing as much. He makes a fair amount of contact on those pitches when he does swing, which can be helpful when down in the count with two strikes, but avoiding swinging at those pitches in the first place is valuable. He’s learned to control the zone better and it’s paying off.
Things have changed when Owings makes contact, too. An easy plus runner, he’s letting his legs be an asset for him. He’s matched a career high in steals, but he’s also setting new career marks in infield hits. That’s a function of him hitting the ball on the ground more frequently than ever.
Owings is hitting a few fewer line drives, but that’s a stat that’s rarely stable and shouldn’t concern us. What’s important, however, is that he’s hitting far more balls on the ground and fewer in the air. With below average raw power, that’s a good tradeoff for Owings as he’s more than capable or punching the ball through the hole or hitting it to the left side and beating out the long throw. The decreased launch angle has also resulted in his lowest infield pop up rate of his career. He’s avoiding the automatic outs and the balls most often converted to outs while hitting more balls that have a higher probability of becoming hits. That matches up perfectly with is profile.
There aren’t any gimmicks here. Owings isn’t lucking his way into some huge home run totals. He is recording a lofty BABIP (.349), but it’s backed up to some degree by his shift in batted balls. Add in improved plate discipline and there’s at least some reason to believe he can keep this up. For the record, it’s still a league average line at best, and likely one that’s slightly below average, but if it comes at shortstop or in some kind of super utility role, well, that’s pretty good and still something valuable. He will be arbitration eligible next season for the first time, but his salary should be very manageable.
Finding room for him may be somewhat difficult. The team will surely hope they don’t have to use him in center field next year, but there’s no immediate incumbent at shortstop as Nick Ahmed‘s hip has proven worrisome and his bat simply hasn’t progressed. There’s no heir apparent in the minors and the organization would prefer not to move Jean Segura back there. If they can’t find a replacement on the free agent market this winter, where they will have more pressing needs, Owings could slide back into that role full time. He could also be a time share candidate, playing some at short and maybe getting some reps in left field or spelling Segura on occasion at second. At worst, he’s an above average bench player, and at best, he’s a league average hitter at shortstop where he may leave a little to be desired defensively, but isn’t a black hole, either.
Chris Owings’ reemergence gives the Diamondbacks options. How they choose to use him next year is unknown, but they can sniff around the shortstop market if they choose or rest assured that they at least have a competent option to compliment Ahmed. They can trade a guy like Phil Gosselin in that case and fit Owings to the roster in the best way possible. Through hard work and growth, Owings is once again an asset in the making, even if only a small one. At this point, the D-backs should be happy with any asset they can get.
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