On days he doesn't pitch, the best-hitting pitcher in the major leagues today, and already one of the best of all time, sits on the bench with a bat in hand, waiting for a chance. "I am ready every night," says Diamondbacks pitcher Micah Owings. "Every night."
Owings is 9-for-18 this year. Last year, he hit .333 with four homers and 15 RBIs in 60 at-bats. His career slugging percentage is .667; Babe Ruth's career slugging percentage was .690. Owings has been in the major leagues just over a year, and he is tied for the second-most three-hit games (three) among active pitchers. (Livan Hernandez has eight.) Last year, Owings became the first pitcher since Jim Tobin in 1942 to record 11 total bases in a game, and going back 50 years, he is the only pitcher to get four hits, hit two home runs, a double, score four runs and drive in six in one game. (Only one Arizona position player, Shea Hillenbrand, has done that.) Last week, Owings became the first pitcher in regular rotation to hit a pinch-hit home run between starts since Don Robinson in 1990.
I'm just fortunate to be blessed with the talent to swing it a little bit. I can help myself with it, and help my team.
Owings is a natural hitter, and he always has been a great hitter. He holds the Georgia state high school record for home runs in a career (69) and in a season(25). At Georgia Tech and Tulane, he pitched, played third base and DH -- and always hit.
As a hitter, Owings' preparation for an at-bat, or a game, is more involved than that of most pitchers, but it's not like that of an everyday player. Despite that, he has been as productive as (if not more than) an everyday player. "They hit every day," Owings said. "I take the same batting practice as the rest of the pitching staff. I take BP for every home game, and on the road, not all that much. I hit the day I pitch on the road. If I want some extra, I ask [Arizona's BP pitcher] Matt Smith to throw me some extra, or I hit in the cage. He's my guy."
Pitchers don't hit every day. Some hit only on the days that they pitch. Owings says he has considered taking BP every day. "I'm not saying it couldn't be done," he said, "but at one point last year, I took extra BP on the road every day. My next outing, I didn't swing it very well, so I nixed that idea. Now, if I feel I need a little extra, I jump in there [the cage]. In college, when I wasn't swinging very well, I would get more and more swings in until I felt better. I don't believe that's the case anymore."
Most pitchers don't work in BP the way that position players do. Owings does. "I'd say it's a mix [between the BP of an everyday player and that of a normal pitcher]," he said. "We do bunt rounds, then slash rounds, then hit-and-run rounds until we get loose. I'm more on the side of a pitcher taking BP, but once I'm loose, I'll cut it loose once in a while."
It is breathtaking when he cuts it loose. At 6-5, 220 pounds, with a gorgeous swing, he generates amazing power, especially for a pitcher. Diamondbacks first baseman Conor Jackson recently said that Owings "has more pop than anyone on the team."
Owings denied that, but laughed and said, "Conor gets props for that. They're always cutting up with me; I don't know when they're serious. It's hard to tell. But to say I have the best pop on the team … well, I'm not going there. We have Mark [Reynolds] and Conor and Byrnsie [left fielder Eric Byrnes] and all the way down the line. J-Up [right fielder Justin Upton] is 20 years old and he's hitting the windows in the Friday's [restaurant, located far beyond the left-field fence at Chase Field, the Diamondbacks' home park] all the time. There's no way I have their pop, but for one of them to even say that, I'm really honored."
After a three-hit game, or a pinch-hit home run, or a prodigious BP session, Owings' teammates constantly ride him. "They're always saying things like, 'Go sit down,' or 'Stop, you're making us look bad,'" Owings said. But Owings never looks bad because he has never stopped working on his hitting. Many major league pitchers were the best hitters on their high school team; they played another position and hit in the middle of the order when they weren't pitching. But many lost their hitting skills when they went to college or the minor leagues, where there is a DH and always a player for every position. It's hard to get those skills back, especially when you're facing big league pitching.
"In my first two summers in professional ball, I would sneak in the cage when I wasn't pitching," Owings said. "If they [teammates] caught me, they would kick me out. I really had to be sneaky about it. But after that, I was on the fast track [through the Diamondbacks organization]. In Double-A, I swung for myself against National League teams. Last spring, I made the squad. I haven't had much time away from the bat."
Owings has his own bats, as do most pitchers. "All my bats have my name on them; that was neat," he said. "My name wasn't even spelled right on the first box. It was spelled 'Owening.' That's not even close. But I wasn't complaining. I kept one because it's funny."
Owings may have bats with his name on them, but he doesn't go to hitters' meetings before the start of each series. "I have an idea about the pitcher before I get in there," Owings said. "I'm not big on watching video, though that can be good at times. I'm just fortunate to be blessed with the talent to swing it a little bit. I can help myself with it, and help my team."
He has helped his cause, and his team's, with his hitting. Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin has a longer bench than other teams because he has a pitcher who can really hit.
"BoMel tells me to be ready every night," Owings said. "He doesn't have to tell me anymore."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.