A few weeks back, Deadspin published an interesting article about major- and minor-league position players who were converted to relief pitchers. The story begins with Sean Doolittle, the A's failed-first-baseman-turned-reliever, who made his pitching debut on June 5. But it also notes that six current major-league closers started their careers as position players: Jason Motte, Carlos Marmol, Rafael Soriano, Joe Nathan, Rafael Betancourt, and Kenley Jansen.
Soon after the Deadspin article appeared, news broke of a relief pitcher who was headed in the opposite direction: from relief pitcher to position player.
Micah Owings began his career in 2007 as a starting pitcher with the Diamondbacks. After two seasons, Arizona traded him to the Reds as part of the Adam Dunn deal. In three seasons as a starter, Owings compiled a record of 20-29 with a 5.19 ERA. The Reds converted him to a full-time reliever in 2010. He appeared in only 22 games and saw his ERA rise. Owings was back with the Diamondbacks for the 2011 season, and had his best season on the mound. In 63 innings out of the 'pen, Owings sported a 3.57 ERA and a 1.91 K/BB.
But Micah Owings can do more with a baseball than throw it at speeds greater than 80 mph off the mound. He can hit it pretty well, too. In 219 career plate appearances (205 at-bats), Owings has hit .283/.310/.502 for a 106 OPS+. He's hit 14 doubles, two triples and nine home runs. When he wasn't pitching, Owings was often a very good option off the bench. Forty-five of his 205 career at-bats came in pinch-hit appearances.
Owings signed as a free agent with the Padres before this season, hoping to be used regularly out of their bullpen. But a strained right forearm sent him to the disabled list at the end of April and he hasn't pitched since. Now, Owings is planning a comeback -- as a position player. He'll report soon to the Padres' Triple-A squad in Tucson and play first base and left field, and be used as a designated hitter.
Oh, and Owings still hopes to pitch as soon as the forearm is healed.
Baseball history is laden with pitchers converting to hitters. Babe Ruth is the best known. There's also Stan Musial, who pitched in the Cardinals' minor-league system three years, compiling a 33-13 record with a 3.52 ERA. After Musial hurt his arm, the Cardinals converted him to an outfielder. He played 22 seasons in the majors and batted .331/.417/.559.
Rick Ankiel carries the banner for active players. He debuted as a starter with the Cardinals in 1999, at the age of 19. In 2000, he started 30 games, going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and a 2.16 K/BB. He handled the bat well, for a pitcher. He hit .250/.292/.382 in 73 plate appearances, with two home runs. In the 2000 postseason, Ankiel inexplicably -- and famously -- lost his ability to throw strikes. In Game 1 of the National League Division Series Series against the Braves, Ankiel allowed two hits, four walks and five wild pitches in the third inning after blanking the Braves through the first two. The Cardinals won the game, and the series, and put Ankiel in line for another postseason start against the Mets in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. He lasted less than an inning, giving up one hit, three walks, and two runs. He threw two wild pitches. The Cardinals lost the series to the Mets four games to one.
Ankiel threw only 24 innings in 2001 and walked 25 batters. The Cardinals sent him to the minors that year, but his pitching did not improve. After several injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2003, Ankiel gave up pitching and converted to an outfielder. He made his second major-league "debut", this time as an outfielder, on August 9, 2007, more than eight years after his first debut as a starting pitcher. In the seventh inning, he hit a three-run home run and became just the third player in major-league history to hit a home run as a pitcher and then as a position player. Babe Ruth was the first.
Ankiel played two more seasons with the Cardinals, signed as a free agent with the Royals in 2010, and ended that year with the Braves after being traded over the summer. The last two seasons, Ankiel's roamed the outfield for Nationals. His current career batting line is .244/.306/.422 with 94 doubles and 69 home runs.
But Micah Owings is on a different path. He's working toward a comeback as a position player and relief pitcher, a rarity in the majors. Some might call it "pulling a Brooks Kieschnick."
In the early 1990s, Kieschnick was a star pitcher for the University of Texas Longhorns who could also swing the bat. His junior year, he went 16-4, batted .364 and hit 17 home runs. Baseball America named him College Player of the Year. The Cubs drafted him in 1993 and developed him as a position player. He kicked around the Cubs' minor-league system, and then kicked around some more with the (Devil) Rays, Angels, Reds, Rockies. He played in a total of 113 major-league games, spread out among the 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2001 seasons.
Kieschnick wasn't ready to call it quits and began pitching again, with the Broxton Boxers in the Northern League. The White Sox took notice. Then the Brewers did, and invited Kieschnick to spring camp in 2003 with the goal of making the team as an outfielder-relief pitcher. And that's exactly what he did.
In that 2003 season, Kieschnick pitched 53 innings in relief for Milwaukee, and posted a 5.26 ERA with 3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also played 26 innings in left field and took 26 at bats as a pinch hitter. His batting line? .300/.355/.614 with seven home runs in 76 plate appearances. He followed up that performance in 2004, also with the Brewers, pitching 43 innings in relief, with a 3.77 ERA and a 2.15 K/BB. In 68 plate appearances, he batted .270/.324/.365 and hit one home run.
If Owings can make it as an outfielder-relief pitcher, he'll provide flexibility to the Padres, a young team in transition with many moving parts. As Brewers general manager Doug Melvin commented during spring training in 2003 when Kieschnick was playing for a roster spot:
If a player like Brooks can be your 12th pitcher and a bat off the bench, he is performing two roles. He can hit for the pitcher in the fifth inning, and stay out there. If he comes up and you don't want to make a change, he allows a manager to manage an American League game. We love the idea.
For now, it looks like the Padres love the idea, too. Owings has work to do in the minors, particularly on his fielding. But if he can pitch, hit and field in the majors above replacement level, he will be a tremendous asset for the Padres. Or whatever team comes calling next.