D-backs envision bright future for Owings
Mike Bell remembers the at-bat as if he took it himself.
Chris Owings fell behind in the count, no balls and two strikes, in a game early this season. With the next delivery, the opposing pitcher challenged Owings with a high fastball on the outside part of the plate, the kind of pitch that a right-handed hitter can roll over and turn into an easy groundout.
Owings let the ball travel, and with a quick flip of the wrists lined it down the right-field line for a home run.
"It looked like he took it out of the catcher's mitt," said Bell, the Diamondbacks' director of player development.
"If he realizes he can do that, let the ball get that deep" in the hitting zone before taking a cut, "he can do some damage."
Owings, who turned 21 last Sunday, is the D-backs' top shortstop prospect because of his deft glove and quick bat, and he has done damage just about wherever he has played this season.
Owings hit .324 with a .362 on-base percentage and a .544 slugging percentage while opening the season at Class A Visalia, where he added 16 doubles and 11 home runs in 59 games. He took the next step up the ladder to Class AA Mobile at midseason. While Owings' numbers are not quite as gaudy there (.253/.283/.380), he still has set career season highs in home runs (16) and stolen bases (11) and tied his career high in RBI (50). His triple-digit strikeouts in each of the last two years do not concern Bell, who would rather his hitters attack than be too passive.
"You can work the other way, especially with a guy who has that kind of bat speed," Bell said, meaning that it is easier to teach restraint than exuberance.
"I like guys being aggressive. In theory, you can start to lay off pitches. He has a lot of bat speed and good hand strength. This year he has focused on using right-center a little more."
Owings probably remains a year or two away from the major leagues, but the tools on both sides of the ball are there, Bell said. Bell calls both Owings' range and arm strength well above average for his position.
"He is a very good defender, and his bat is not that far behind. He definitely has enough pop in his bat to drive in some runs," Bell said.
He brought a gifted glove into the organization from Gilbert (S.C.) High and has continued to learn. As a non-roster invitee to spring training in 2011, Owings worked with four-time Gold Glove shortstop Alan Trammell on some of the nuances around the bag, and he drew praise from manager Kirk Gibson for his supple hands and natural feel. Owings got another round of tutoring this spring.
Owings has been close to another Gold Glover, Jay Bell, since joining Mobile, and also has benefitted from tips by D-backs infield coordinator Tony Perezchica, in his seventh year in the system.
"The biggest thing for me is that he's had the ability to separate the game between defense and offense," Bell said. "He does not take his at-bats into the field. It wasn't like he was doing that at Visalia, but it was so hard to tell because he was hitting the ball so well."
Owings has been more up-and-down at the plate in Mobile, but his defense has not suffered.
"I have never seen him take a play off," Bell said.
Owings was a sandwich pick in the D-backs' bountiful 2009 draft, taken with the No. 41 pick. He was chosen just behind top third base prospect Matt Davidson (No. 35) and Tyler Skaggs (No. 40, by the Los Angeles Angels) and just ahead of right-hander Mike Belfiore (No. 45), who was sent to Baltimore in the Josh Bell deal in May. He signed with D-backs after turning down a scholarship to national power South Carolina, which won two NCAA College World Series titles in the time he would have been there.
Owings' development was slowed slightly in his first full season at Class A South Bend, when he missed the final two months of the season with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. He hit .298 with 19 doubles and five homers in 62 games but made a strong enough impression on league managers that he was named to the Midwest League's midseason all-star team.
While some young shortstops move to other spots as they go forward, the D-backs are not planning anything of the sort for Owings.
"He has plenty of ability to stay at shortstop," Bell said.