With Spring Training games beginning on Saturday, we’re taking the final few practice days of camp to take a closer look at some of the more interesting stories among this year’s Non-Roster Invitees. We wrap up our series with story of pitcher-turned-position-player Micah Owings.
The story of Rick Ankiel’s conversion from a former top prospect pitcher to a successful Major League outfielder is well known to fans of the Nationals. Ankiel played his past two seasons in a Washington uniform, patrolling center field with his cannon arm and showing flashes of the pop that led him to 25 home runs back in 2008. But the main reason that Ankiel’s transition was so notable was how rarely it has ever been accomplished. In Micah Owings, the Nationals have another player making the leap this season.
Owings showed promise on the mound, though he compiled a fairly average 32-33 record and 4.82 ERA over his six years. But the signs of his potential as a hitter have always been there. He still holds the Georgia state high school record for career home runs as a prepster, and carried that success at the plate with him into the professional ranks. Owings burst onto the Major League scene with a .333/.349/.683 line, blasting four home runs and seven doubles in just 64 plate appearances in his rookie campaign of 2007 to win the Silver Slugger Award.
In fact, despite generally receiving only a couple of plate appearances every five days, he owns a career .283 batting average and .503 slugging percentage, both marks higher than many Major League regulars. Now 30, Owings has decided to try to get the most out of what his body has left and make an honest run at converting to an everyday player.
“It was just to find out what kind of abilities I really have,” he explained of his decision to make the permanent switch. “I don’t want to look back 15-20 years from now and say ‘what if I would have tried it?’”
The idea for the change was in the works for a while before Owings finally pulled the trigger. But with a number of familiar faces from his Arizona days in Nationals camp – both on and off the field – the Nationals seemed like a perfect club to take the leap with.
“There are a lot of great guys, and they’ve been receptive,” said Owings of his new teammates easing his transition. “Even being in a different Spring Training zone. I’m used to being in Arizona for Spring Training. So totally being able to separate, being down here in Florida has been great. I’m really looking forward to it as camp develops.”
As for a position in the field, Owings is content to fit in wherever he can. Manager Davey Johnson has been impressed with what he’s seen so far, and obviously has no concerns about his new project’s arm strength. But at 6’5” and 220 pounds, don’t expect Owings to follow in Ankiel’s footsteps in center field any time soon.
“I don’t want to compare myself to him – he’s a great athlete,” said Owings of Ankiel, though he has tapped the trailblazer for his advice. “I was able to pick his brain last Spring Training, when I was kind of chewing on it. He shed some insight. I didn’t even have to say anything, he just said “Do it,” because he knew what I wanted to talk about.”
That reassurance, plus the confidence he will build with every game, every at-bat, every swing here in Spring Training has Owings optimistic about the process. He also looks forward to bringing a more mature approach to learning the other half of the game at the highest level.
“I’m just focusing in on the things I can control,” he said. “A lot of those things that we can’t control as players – umpires, calls, errors – those ate me up from a pitching standpoint early on. Hopefully I can remember that heading into this path.”
Owings won’t have to wait long for his first opportunity. He’s slated to DH, bat ninth, and play the full nine innings in Washington’s spring opener against the Mets Saturday afternoon.
With Spring Training games beginning on Saturday, we’re taking the final few practice days of camp to bring you a closer look at some of the more interesting stories among this year’s Non-Roster Invitees. Today, we learn more about one of the most compelling personalities in the group, pitcher Ross Ohlendorf.
When it comes to the 6-foot-4, 240-pound pitcher with the power sinker, Ross Ohlendorf looks the part of the professional athlete. Born in Austin, Texas, he serves as a ranch-hand on his father’s farm in the offseason, where they raise longhorns. With huge hands and a bullish frame, he fits right into a throwing line of Nationals power pitchers, firing darts across an open expanse of outfield grass along the practice fields behind Space Coast Stadium.
However, Ohlendorf’s story does not end there. Not even close.
Athletes are sometimes thought of simply in terms of the game they play, but a quick look at Ohlendorf’s resume – his degree from Princeton (the same alma mater as the recently signed Chris Young) in Operations Research and Financial Engineering, along with internships in the office of finance at the University of Texas and another with the Department of Agriculture in D.C. – dispels that notion quickly. In fact, after being drafted following his junior year, he penned a 140-page senior thesis while playing his first season of minor league ball. The topic, given his major, had to be rooted in mathematics, statistics or finance. Ohlendorf knew just the thing.
“The (MLB) Draft was really relevant at the time, so that’s what I decided to focus on,” he explained. “A lot of people would talk about how much players were getting paid as a signing bonus and say they were getting paid too much or not paid enough, so I decided to do a study to try to estimate how it’s worked out for teams.”
He analyzed the top 100 picks over a five-year period, then analyzed the return on the initial investment over the next 12 years of the players’ careers. If that sounds like the kind of thing that would make him a prime candidate to follow in the footsteps of players-turned-executives like Billy Beane, perhaps so. But all that talk is a little premature for Ohlendorf. He’s still got plenty of baseball left in his arm.
“I’m not sure yet,” he said, laughing, about the prospect of someday moving into the front office for a team. “It’s definitely something that would interest me, but I’m not really thinking that far ahead right now.”
Indeed. For now, Ohlendorf provides some of that starting pitching depth that EVP of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo has been talking about all offseason. Of course, Rizzo was the Director of Scouting for Arizona when the Diamondbacks first selected and signed Ohlendorf in the fourth round of the 2004 First-year Player Draft. If Ohlendorf’s familiarity with Rizzo – as well as former teammates like Tyler Clippard and Micah Owings – wasn’t enough to sell him on Washington, his throwing partner this offseason was fellow NRI Bill Bray.
“That really makes the transition easier,” said Ohlendorf of the familiarity across different levels of the Nationals organization, his sixth. “I’ve really, really enjoyed Spring Training so far. It’s well done, and people really like each other here. It’s such a great environment here.”
Ohlendorf’s internship experience, as well as his five seasons spent pitching in the National League, have also brought him to the Nation’s Capital a number of times. He even lived near Capitol Hill for his 10-week internship with the USDA, which was mornings only, so he could go through his baseball workouts in the afternoon.
“I really liked it,” he said of his stint in Washington. “And I’ve really liked it when I’ve gone to play against the Nationals, too. It’s one of my favorite cities.”
While the positive Spring Training environment and the prospect of pitching in Washington help, perhaps the real reason Ohlendorf projects so much positivity about camp this year is internal. With 108 Major League appearances (73 starts) under his belt, the 30-year-old is happy to be fully healthy and feels particularly good about his physical well-being going into the spring.
“I’m really excited about this season, it’s the best I’ve felt in a long time,” he explained. “I think part of the reason I feel so good, having stayed healthy last year, my arm feels even better this year. My workouts have changed a little bit each offseason and I feel like I’ve improved my diet this year, which I think has helped.”
The more he has focused on his workouts and his nutrition over the years, the less Ohlendorf has paid attention to his own personal numbers. And while discovering more about the statistical intricacies of the game he plays has been an intellectually stimulating project, as a player, Ohlendorf has learned not to overanalyze his own metrics and simply focus on what he can control.
“I do think they have a lot of value,” Ohlendorf said of the figures that formed the basis of his thesis. “But I’ve kind of found, for me as a player, I don’t think it does me much good, and it can do me harm to worry too much about my stats.”
As Crash Davis lectured Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, sometimes it’s better to not think, and just throw. However intricate and complex his intellectual pursuits are off the field, Ohlendorf is content taking that basic game plan into this season.
“Each game I try to pitch as deep into the game as I can and I try to get a win,” he said. “Just keep it simple.”
With Spring Training games beginning on Saturday, we’re taking the final few practice days of camp to take a closer look at some of the more interesting stories among this year’s Non-Roster Invitees. We start things off by getting to know lefty reliever Bill Bray.
By this point, you’re probably tired of hearing the story of the first-round draft pick raised in Virginia Beach, out of college in Virginia, who moved quickly through the system, making his way into a Nationals uniform. That tale, the one usually ascribed to Ryan Zimmerman, has been told many times, as he has grown into the face of the Nationals franchise. But one year prior, another player matching the same description began a very different journey, one that has, after nearly a decade, landed him back in the same clubhouse here in Viera.
Bill Bray is a name likely familiar to Nationals fans who have been following the franchise since its relocation. After being selected 16th overall in the 2004 First-year Player Draft, the final one in Expos history, he made it to his Major League debut two days before his 23rd birthday in a road game at Milwaukee. The lefty threw a single pitch, upon which Corey Koskie, the runner at first, was gunned down trying to take second base, ending the eighth inning with Washington trailing, 3-2.
Zimmerman – who Bray faced in both high school and college – led off the top of the ninth with a single, and two batters later Brian Schneider took Derrick Turnbow deep for a two-run shot to give Washington the lead. Chad Cordero closed out the ninth, and Bray earned a win in his first Major League appearance, throwing just one pitch without retiring a batter.
The southpaw appeared in relief 19 times in the 2006 season before being flipped to the Reds in an eight-player deal that netted the Nationals Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Ryan Wagner. Now he returns to a team that has grown during his absence to one of the strongest in the game.
“It’s a great feeling to be back in a Nationals uniform, and at the same time all these memories just come flooding back,” Bray said of walking into the home clubhouse in Viera for the first time in seven years. “It’s weird, almost like you’re seeing some ghosts walking around.”
Bray was raised in the system with the likes of Ian Desmond and Roger Bernadina, but watched them blossom into everyday players from afar. Meanwhile, he has spent the past six years with Cincinnati, carving out a role for himself as a left-handed specialist, though his numbers against righties have been respectable as well.
“I don’t care if it’s a lefty or a righty up at the dish, I’m going to go at them the same way, I’m going to attack, and I’m going to get them out,” he explained, but also acknowledged the necessity of left-handed pitching for a team like the Nationals. “I think it’s a very important job, especially in the NL East with some of the lefties that we’re going to see and face.”
Bray is already embracing the role he hopes to carve out for himself over the next six weeks. He’s thrilled to have the chance to come back to Washington as well, the organization that signed him, and the one closest to his childhood home.
“Besides the baseball, we love D.C.,” Bray said of himself and his family. “Being from Virginia, my wife and I lived in D.C. for a couple years before we moved to Texas and we really enjoyed it.”
But ultimately, Bray’s driving force to return to Washington came from the knowledge that he had the chance to fill one of the lone remaining openings on a team with high aspirations this season.
“I know if I go out there and I’m healthy, I’m going to do my job,” Bray said, matter-of-factly. “That has always been the key for me is just staying on the field. I’m expecting to be healthy this year, I’m expecting to do my job, and I’m expecting to win the spot.”