PHOENIX — To paraphrase Spike Lee’s alter ego, Mars Blackmon, “it’s gotta be the glove.”
New Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder Chris Owings has a glove, several in fact. But before the start of this season he didn’t have an outfielder’s glove.
Owings didn’t need one. He was a middle infielder.
That, of course, changed with the elbow injury to A.J. Pollock.
Owings transitioned to the outfield and with the move came an unexpected gift.
“A.J. was kind enough to let me use his (glove) from last year,” he said. “It’s a good glove to be using out there. He had a great year last year, so maybe that’s why it’s helping me out so much out there.”
By all accounts, Owings’ first week in center field has gone well.
He’s caught all 11 fly balls hit in his direction, cut off balls in the gap and thrown the ball back into the infield quickly after base hits; the latter of which seemed almost too simple to Owings.
“When I was throwing the ball in from center field on just like a routine base hit, I’m like, ‘this is all I have to do is just throw it into second base?’ I’m not trying to get anybody out,” he said, smiling.
Making the routine look easy is the trick, according to D-backs first base/outfield coach Dave McKay.
Since Pollock got hurt, McKay and Owings have worked daily, often well before batting practice, going over the ins and outs of playing the outfield; a crash course, if you will.
Remember, Owings had never played the position professionally, not in the minors or three big-league seasons.
High school, according to Owings, was the last time he was stationed so far from home plate.
“A lot of it comes natural to him,” McKay said.
The reason, McKay explained, is due to Owings’ athleticism.
“He’s going to get to a lot of balls because he’s as quick or quicker than anybody in this organization,” said McKay, who is in his third season with the D-backs and 33rd overall in the Major Leagues. “That’s the one thing that excited us about him playing center field is he’s going to cover a ton of ground. He’s going to get to a lot of balls that most guys wouldn’t.”
When the D-backs announced it would be Owings — along with Socrates Brito among others — filling in for Pollock, both Owings and Pollock talked of a smooth transition.
Typically, it’s easier for an infielder to move to the outfield than it is for an outfielder to move to the infield.
“The biggest thing is just trying to get that first read,” Owings said, referring to when the ball is hit. “That first step needs to be back compared to the infield where you’re going forward every time. Just getting that read off the bat and just kind of see where it takes you.”
Through the first week of the season, Owings has played 38 innings in center field over five games, including four starts.
“He’s been doing a really good job,” McKay said. “He wants to be out there, that’s a big part of it. He wants to show you that he can play center field, but that’s a point you make with him, too, is don’t try to make that point, don’t try to show everybody that I can do this, I can throw everybody out. Just do what you’re supposed to do; try to get behind everything (hit), get to (a spot) as hard as you can and make the catch.
“He’s doing all the things you’re telling him to do.”
Though he found himself at shortstop in the series finale against the Cubs on Sunday, Owings figures to see much of his playing time in center; a lot of it depending on matchups, according to manager Chip Hale.
“I don’t think it’s anybody’s job, it’s whoever is in the lineup that day’s job,” he said, dismissing the suggestion Owings and Brito will platoon the position.
Aside from the new location, the new glove — not the shoes Blackmon talked about in those Nike commercials with Michael Jordan in the late ‘80s — has taken Owings some time to get used to.
The outfield glove is bigger, measuring 12 ¾” compared to 11 ¼” Owings plays with in the infield.
“The first couple of days it was a big adjustment,” he said. “It’s a huge difference, but you’re just trying to catch the ball; you’re not really trying to find the ball every time like you would in the infield.”
The next challenge for Owings, 24, will be manning center field on the road and dealing with the different ballparks’ unique characteristics, such as the wind off the water at AT&T Park in San Francisco and the expansive outfield at Coors Field in Colorado.
“It’ll be a little different,” he said. “I know how the infields play and what everything looks like from there. I’ve never played outfield on the road; just reading the ball off the bat is the biggest thing.”
McKay acknowledged “the ball is going to find” Owings. It always does. That’s baseball.
McKay, though, is confident Owings will be just fine.
“He wants to be real good, and there’s a lot of value when you stop and think about it,” he said. “A guy that can play shortstop like he can, a guy that can play second base like he can, a guy that can end up possibly being a very good center fielder. That’s three pretty good positions to be able to play.”
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