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Chris Owings is a sunk cost

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Chris Owings #2 of the Kansas City Royals bats against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on April 17, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.
Chris Owings #2 of the Kansas City Royals bats against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on April 17, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Two things about Chris Owings are true. Well, technically, many more are true—he’s 27 years old, he’s been a teammate of Zach Greinke, he’s probably ate pizza at some point before in his life—but for these purposes, two things are true that are most relevant to the Kansas City Royals in the Year of Our Lord 2019.

First, Owings isn’t a good baseball player by Major League Baseball standards. Owings is an effective, versatile defender and an adept baserunner, but he just can’t hit enough to provide overall value. After over 600 games and over 2,200 plate appearances, that much is clear. Wins Above Replacement measures both offense and defense and is as good a stat as any to make holistic observations about a player. Fangraphs’ version has him at 1 WAR over his career, a figure that pegs him as essentially a replacement level player—a talent that is freely available in most organizations.

Second, Owings will make $3 million this year, per his contract with the Royals. This is a guaranteed figure. Whether or not Owings does well or doesn’t, or whether he even is able to take the field or breaks both legs in a freak slide into second base, is irrelevant. The Royals owe Owings $3 million, full stop.

The Royals should not have signed Owings to such a deal in the first place. But that is now moot. What is not moot is that Owings has been, predictably, very bad. The stat the most encapsulates Owing’s badness is wRC+. For those unfamiliar with wRC+, it measures offensive performance relative to the league in each given year and sets 100 as league average. Most everyday players have one between 80 and 120.

After Sunday’s game, Owings lowered his 2019 wRC+ to 33. It is every bit as bad as you think. For reference, Alcides Escobar, who was terrible last year, had a wRC+ of 60.

To be fair to Owings, he’s been a bit unlucky. Statcast calculates based on their data that Owings should be hitting around .193, with an expected slugging percentage of .364. That tacks on about another 20 points or so to his expected wRC+, bringing it into the 50s.

However, that’s still an awful figure. It’s hideously bad, unplayable in the long-term. And, really, unplayable in the short-term. Furthermore, this performance isn’t surprising. Owings had a wRC+ of 51 last year in over 300 plate appearances. It was also his second year with a wRC+ in the 50s; Owings accomplished that “feat” in 2015, too, in over 500 plate appearances.

The Royals will cling to the hope that Owings improves. And he will, to an extent, if only a dead cat bounce back to his career numbers.

But the Royals will only be able to recoup their costs if they are willing to move on. Signing a 27-year-old former first round pick to a one-year deal on a team that isn’t going to compete but still needs a utility player is a perfectly defensible idea. By committing $3 million to this experiment, though, the Royals are putting themselves in a position to be overcome by the sunk cost fallacy.

If you want Nicky Lopez to get more seasoning in Triple-A, that’s fine. But if he’s not ready now, he’s going to be ready soon. Lopez has a robust OPS of .894 and a truly amazing strikeout rate of only 3.6%. And if not Lopez, then maybe it’s time to give Bubba Starling a chance; Starling’s OPS is at .851, and no one doubts his Gold Glove-caliber defense at all three outfield spots.

Chris Owings is a sunk cost. As long as the Royals are keeping Lopez, Starling, and others down in Triple-A for the right reasons, there’s no foul. But if the Royals are hoping Owings will just be better next time, they might as well just be another face at the casino hoping that the wheel will stop on red so they can just win back that money they lost.