Owings meeting, exceeding D-backs' expectations
Rookie shortstop making Arizona's tough spring decision look like a good one
Stating the obvious and putting it mildly, the beginning of the season has not been kind to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Things began with a bit of a hiccup, as the club lost two mid-March "home" games played in Australia to the rival Dodgers.
Although they were never used as an excuse, season-ending injuries to Patrick Corbin and David Hernandez didn't help. The team finished April with a 9-22 record.
But in a difficult April, there were two shining lights. One was All-Star Paul Goldschmidt, the 2013 National League Hank Aaron, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award winner. He hit .323 with four home runs and 18 RBIs during that time.
The other beacon was right-handed-hitting shortstop Chris Owings. He batted .313, played stellar defense and won the NL Rookie of the Month Award for April.
This past Spring Training, Owings and Didi Gregorius engaged in an exciting battle for the team's shortstop position. Gregorius had finished last season as the starting shortstop, batting .252 in his rookie year. A left-handed hitter, Gregorius scuffled against left-handed pitching, batting only .200 against them as opposed to .275 when facing righties.
But Gregorius is a magician at shortstop. He makes difficult plays look easy, with very smooth footwork, great range and a cannon for an arm.
Owings spent last season winning the Most Valuable Player Award in the Pacific Coast League. He hit a career-best .330 at Triple-A Reno, stealing 20 bases, hitting 12 home runs and driving in 81 runs, while playing very solid defense.
Spring Training was set to be the ultimate test for Owings and Gregorius. To complicate matters a bit, veteran switch-hitter Cliff Pennington was available as a very solid middle infielder with a reliable bat, excellent defensive range and a very strong arm. In essence, the D-backs had a trove of options at the critical shortstop position.
Citing a need for his offensive potential, Arizona selected Owings as this season's starting shortstop. Pennington would be available as a backup. Gregorius was optioned to Triple-A Reno.
It was a difficult decision, to be sure. Gregorius had been obtained from the Cincinnati Reds in a three-way trade that sent pitcher and 2011 first-round Draft pick Trevor Bauer to the Cleveland Indians. Owings was a 2009 first-round selection.
Clearly, and without much room for debate, Owings has earned his role. He has done everything expected of a Major League shortstop, and then some.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Owings is aggressive at the plate and on the bases. He has outstanding baseball instincts, and he trusts those instincts. Owings makes things happen by playing free and easy and without bringing undue pressure. In fact, in the last half of April, he played with extreme confidence and left no doubt that he belongs. There wasn't a tentative moment in any part of Owings' game.
Owings was touted as the better hitter between he and Gregorius, and so far, Owings has shown an ability to hit both right-handed and left-handed pitching.
Owings hits a great number of line drives and ground balls up the middle. His classic short, compact swing meets the ball at the barrel of the bat. Owings aptly waits back just a bit and takes the pitch where it's thrown. Using quick hands, he can flick a ball to right field or drive it to the gap in left. But most of the time, Owings carves out his space in the middle of the diamond using very good bat control and advanced hand-eye coordination.
Owings has generally hit sixth or seventh in the batting order for the D-backs. He will never be confused for a home run hitter or a big RBI bat. Rather, Owings is a steady contributor when a hard-hit ball is needed, driving a key single or a double. So far in his first full season, he has made good contact at the plate. While Owings doesn't walk much, his strikeout rate and pitch recognition are better than those generally realized from a first-year player.
Defensively, Owings has shown solid range and a good arm at shortstop. As his confidence grows, so does his defensive performance. Owings' footwork is improving, and he can easily make the routine plays as well as some very difficult ones. He is a solid, reliable shortstop.
As Arizona continues to play out of a difficult start to the season, Owings is relentless in his enthusiasm and drive. On both sides of the ball, the NL Rookie of the Month Award winner in April is doing everything he can to help his team win.