clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Chris Owings conundrum

Perhaps the most disappointing position of the season has been second-base, where regular starter Chris Owings has really struggled. Let's review the year so far, and what the future might bring.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this season, the ZIPS projection for Chris Owings was a healthy .276/.309/.410, which was very close to being his previous career line, over 111 games, of  .266/.309/.403. Given Owings was only 23, Diamondbacks' fans were hopeful that he was still on the right side of the aging curve, so we would see progression beyond that expectation. Owings was anointed as the everyday second-baseman in spring training, displacing the more experienced - and, certainly, much more highly-paid - Aaron Hill to the bench. Even given a move from his more familiar shortstop position, we hoped that with Owings and Nick Ahmed, we had found our middle-infield for the foreseeable future.

Close to two months into the season, however, things haven't quite worked out as expected. Ahmed had a terrible start at the plate. But since reaching a low of a .364 OPS on May 11, having hit .130 over 27 games, has rebounded well, to the point where his stellar defense has made him the third-most valuable position player on the team so far. Owings, however, has continued to struggle. He had a .567 OPS in April, then .614 in May, and has slid back to just .548 in June so far, being the team's least valuable player to date, by both fWAR and bWAR, with a value of half a win below replacement, using either metric.

An obvious candidate for a cause is the injury to Chris's shoulder, after he slid awkwardly into home, which caused him to miss all of July and August last year, with what was initially diagnosed as a "bone bruise." But he clearly wasn't right when he came back in September, producing an OPS of .493 there. Further examination after the season revealed his shoulder was still damaged, and on October 2, Owings had surgery to repair the posterior labrum of his left shoulder, under the knife of the renowned Dr. James Andrews. While at the time, it was expected he would be fully ready for spring training, Owings didn't appear in is first Cactus League game until March 12.

At the time, it was reported he was working on a new swing: "The wind-up through contact is the same, but the follow-through has changed. Instead of following through with only his left hand, as the righty has done his whole life, Owings is keeping both hands on the bat, which takes stress off his left shoulder." After the first couple of weeks, when CO's struggles were already drawing attention, he rejected the suggestion lingering effects of the injury or the change in mechanics were responsible for his low production at the plate, saying "I feel like just trying to do too much has been the main thing."

But, as the struggles continued, even Owings seems to be willing to acknowledge something is not the same. "I feel like it's been a day-to-day adjustment, just trying to make adjustments with my swing, just trying to get comfortable. I feel like I'm not as consistent as I have been in the past with my bat path. It's always something you're trying to work on." The same piece also included a lovely nugget: "I feel like it's been getting a lot better recently... I feel like maybe in July or so I'll get better and stronger and it should be good to go." I don't like to use colloquialisms, but: LOLWUT? If his shoulder was only going to be 100% in July, why was he playing in April?

Beyond that, the other issue with Owings has been his astonishing lack of plate discipline. He didn't have a great walk rate in his first two major-league seasons: major-league was 7.7%, and his was 5.6%. But that low figure has been cut in half in 2015, with CO getting just six walks in 243 trips to the plate. No qualifying hitter in the National League has been given fewer bases on balls than Chris [The Brewers' Jean Segura also has six, in 232 PA] Since we entered the NL, only one qualifying hitter has had a walk-rate below 2.5% for a full season: Ben Revere for the Phillies last year, who had 13 walks in 626 PA. He also hit .306 and stole 49 bases, figures CO seems unlikely, shall we say, to match.

Digging a bit deeper into the stats, we find that Owings has been a lot more aggressive at the plate, with a 56.7% swing percentage, up from 49.5% last year. However, his contact % has dropped, particularly out of the zone: last year he made contact 63.6% of the time when hacking at those pitches, now the figure is exactly half. As is well known around these parts, Chris is being especially swingy on the first pitch: 37% of the time, compared to 25.2% for his career prior to this season, and 27.5% for MLB average. That's why Owings has seen just nineteen 2-0 counts all season (contrast Goldie: 70). Aggression is fine, but it's a dubious combination, combined with a downturn in contact.

Is he fixable? That's the key question. If it is health-related, then there would seem hope that he can return to a,,, Well, I wouldn't say "good", but we'd settle for a "less dismal" walk-rate. But then, can he - or should he? - undo the changes to his swing, which may be contributing to a poor contact-rate? The good thing for CO, if not necessarily the rest of the team, is the lack of credible alternatives, with Aaron Hill and Cliff Pennington producing little, if any, better. Brandon Drury might pose a longer-term threat, but his numbers in 2015 haven't been awe-inspiring either, even though he was still recently promoted to Triple-A Reno.

It is worth remembering Owings is young: still only 23, and who knows how he might develop? But let's see if we can get any clues From 2007-2013, there were a total of ten 23-year-olds who qualified as hitters at second base and/or shortstop. Here are their OPS and walk-rate numbers, both for their 23-year-old season and then for up to five subsequent seasons in the majors [to reflect the portion of their careers up to likely free-agency]

Age 23 > Age 23
Andrelton Simmons .691 6.1% .646 5.9%
Starlin Castro .631 4.3% .729 5.3%
Jean Segura .752 4.0% .626 4.2%
Jose Altuve .678 4.8% .796 5.3%
Elvis Andrus .727 8.0% .650 7.2%
Alcides Escobar .614 6.5% .656 3.7%
Asdrubal Cabrera .799 7.6% .729 7.1%
Jose Lopez .639 3.6% .696 3.7%
Dustin Pedroia .823 8.1% .840 9.4%
Hanley Ramirez .948 7.4% .855 10.4%

It's not particularly encouraging: overall, what you saw from these young middle-infielders at 23 has been close to what you got from ages 24-28. [I think the aging curve for players good enough to stick in the majors at a young age may be a bit different. See also J-Up, who turns 28 in August, and has yet to reproduce his age 23 OPS+ of 141] Still, given this lack of any obvious in-house candidates, I think the team is likely to sink or swim with Owings for the rest of the year. If that allows him to bounce-back, well and good. If not, then I suspect the Diamondbacks will be looking for an alternative - whether in the shape of Drury, trying to fast-track Dansby Swanson, or from an external source.

[All stats are up to and exclude last night's game, in which Owings set a personal best for bases on balls in a calendar month. With his third walk...]