The names change, but the results—and the usage—somehow always stays the same.
This year, the light-hitting lightening rod for the Royals is Chris Owings. My goodness, he’s been simply atrocious at the plate. The Royals aren’t going anywhere but his abysmal offensive performance is frustrating, even on a team on pace for 107 losses.
Pick your metric. Seriously. Any will do. All are damning.
Deep breath....here goes. Among qualified hitters, Owings entered play Sunday ranked last in baseball with a 20 wRC+. He was second-to-last with a 22 OPS+. And his DRC+ is 44, which is… last. And somewhat generous.
Perhaps the most amazing part of the previous paragraph isn’t the fact that Owings ranks at the bottom of nearly every preferred offensive metric. It’s that the Royals have given him enough plate appearances that he is “qualified.” This is a problem that has been systemic in the Royals organization ever since Dayton Moore arrived nearly 13 years ago, particularly in the middle infield. Tony Pena, Jr. Yuniesky Betancourt. Willie Bloomquist. Chris Getz. Alcides Escobar. And now Owings. It’s a who’s who of offensive ineptitude.
(Yes, Owings doesn’t play a lot of middle infield in Kansas City. Still, he’s played more innings in his career at shortstop and second base than any other position. Ergo, I still think of him mainly as a middle infielder.)
On May 3, the Royals insisted they weren’t giving up on Owings, despite his early season struggles. At that point, he was hitting .147/.209/.255 with 37 strikeouts in 110 plate appearances. “All of our baseball operations people and our analytics department were in consensus that he was a great fit for us,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore told MLB.com. “And they still believe, as we do, that Chris will come around offensively.”
We can’t be sure what the analytics team was looking at when evaluating Owings, (that was a nice little CYA moment from the GM... it wasn’t just me!) but from data that is publicly available from the 2018 season and earlier, it’s difficult to discern what would be a clue that Owings was a candidate to rebound. Remember that he injured his middle finger in a plate appearance at the end of July in 2017 causing him to miss the rest of that season. He had two surgeries on the finger and was cleared for baseball activity ahead of spring training the following year and just never got on track. He was eventually optioned to the minors in August, 2018. Perhaps you could reason that the injury and recovery that stretched well into the offseason prior to 2018 prevented Owings from the proper preparation. Perhaps.
Back to the present, in early May, Owings had the support of manager Ned Yost who said, “You’re not going to snap your fingers and make it better. It takes time. I work to make everyone on the team better. I don’t just throw them in the trash when they struggle.”
The above quote encapsulates why Ned Yost is a player’s manager. Fans may not like or appreciate his methods, but the players undoubtedly do. More on this in a moment.
That night, Owings started at shortstop, spelling Adalberto Mondesi. He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, the second of which came with a runner on third and less than two outs.
The next day, it seemed the Royals reversed course.
“I’m just going to slow him down a little bit,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He’s really grinding. I talked to him a little bit today. I told him, ‘You’re really a good player. Your value as a defender is huge. Just, you’re really grinding. Cut yourself a little slack. Relax a little bit.’”
Allegedly, the Royals weren’t going to play Owings as much going forward, they were going to give him a little time to get things right.
He sat that game and the next two. This made sense. Owings’s playing time needed to be limited. He returned to the starting lineup in the second game of the series at Houston and went 1-4. He has since played in four of five games and gone 2-14 with a single and double to go along with six strikeouts. Plus ça change...
Owings’s trouble is he can’t handle the heat. His batting average against fastballs has fallen from .295 in 2017 to .214 last year to his current .186. In that time, his swing and miss rate against fastballs has more than doubled. In 2017, 206 of his plate appearances ended with a fastball and Owings struck out 28 times. This year, in just 67 plate appearances that have ended with a fastball he’s already whiffed 22 times.
Overall, his swing rate is down to 45 percent. His career average is 52 percent. Meanwhile, his whiff rate has jumped to 32 percent against a career rate of 25 percent. It’s a profile of a hitter who is not only lost at the plate, but has little hope of ever being found.
On the occasions where Owings does make contact, it’s not especially good. His hard hit rate has fluctuated through the Statcast era, but it is currently below his career average. He’s swinging over the ball with a “topped %” of 46.5 percent. That’s resulting in a career high ground ball rate of nearly 58 percent. He’s batting .171 on ground balls. Pick your statistical split. They’re all damning.
The backdrop to the Owings saga is what is happening in Omaha. Prospect Nicky Lopez entered the weekend hitting .353/.457/.500 in 138 plate appearances. When a prospect is laying waste to Triple-A pitching the way Lopez has in the early part of the season, questions naturally arise as to when we will see this player in the bigs. It’s a legitimate ask, even if there wasn’t someone like Chris Owings on the roster and posting some of the worst rate stats in the league. The fact that Owings is performing as poorly as he is just adds a sense of urgency to the question.
The Royals, it was explained the past weekend, are excited about Lopez and his future. However, they simply do not have a place for him on the big league roster at the moment. And that fact, they insist, has nothing to do with the presence of Owings.
…manager Ned Yost had to move Merrifield back to second base on basically a permanent basis because Merrifield began suffering from nagging lower-body injuries caused by the rigors of playing in the outfield. Merrifield hasn’t played the outfield since April 11, and he likely won’t play much there the rest of the season because his offense is simply too valuable to lose.
If we can remove ourselves from the anti-Owings bias orbiting our universe, this line of thought makes plenty of sense. Merrifield’s bat is too valuable to lose. Plus, he’s a really good defender at second. He finished last year with eight Defensive Runs Saved, tied for fifth among keystone regulars. He’s a good defensive outfielder as well, but if the playing outfield is going to take a toll on his body, it simply doesn’t make sense to have him in any kind of rotation in the grass. Merrifield started in right field in nine of the Royals first 12 games of the season. He had not made a start in right since April 11. Clearly, the Royals felt the need to protect one of their best players.
And then the very next day Merrifield started in right field. With Owings at second.
If the Royals were a Twitter user, they would be one of the more consistent trolls on the platform.
After the game, Yost told reporters he wanted to “give Owings a little feel and touch in the infield.” This is fine and generally makes sense. Parsing the comment above, Merrifield isn’t going to play right field with the frequency he did to open the year, but the optics are just a bit strange. Why make the point about Merrifield and nagging injuries caused by playing in the outfield and then, the very next day... play him in the outfield? All to accommodate Owings, to give him time back on the infield?
The Royals have now played 41 games in 2019. Moore often says he doesn’t like to rush to early season judgements, that he likes to take the first 40 games of the year to get a feel for his team. What has been obvious to observers the first six weeks should now be crystal clear to the general manager: Chris Owings isn’t helping this team. The Royals have proffered excuses and bent over backwards for a player they signed for $3 million in the offseason who never really fit on this roster. Sure, super utility guys are useful, but the Royals already had plenty of positional flexibility. Owings’s presence on the roster hasn’t been helpful. That his name consistently remains on the lineup card isn’t doing him or the Royals any favors. That they continue to try to accommodate him in the lineup is maddening.
The Royals have sent a message that they will stand by a struggling player. That’s good, but there has to be a limit to their patience. Now that we have gone a quarter of the season it’s time for the Royals to send another message: There needs to be consequences for extended stretches of gross underperformance. This isn’t easy for either party. The team signed Owings expecting a certain level of performance. Owings signed with the Royals based on promises of playing time and opportunity. Expectations haven’t been met, and it doesn’t look like things will improve in the future, so this absolutely has to be addressed. A fresh start would do both player and team a world of good. It’s time for the Royals to part with Chris Owings.