Former Pitcher Loewen Finds His Swing In Triple-A

TUCSON—Adam Loewen is an “accomplished hitter with a sweet lefthanded stroke and power potential,” wrote Baseball America prior to the 2002 draft. But Loewen also topped out at 94 mph as an 18-year-old amateur from British Columbia, which was all the convincing most clubs needed to scout the 6-foot-6 lefty as a pitcher.

The Orioles made him the fourth overall pick in 2002 but signed him as a draft-and-follow a year later only after Loewen attended Chipola (Fla.) JC. Baltimore granted him a major league contract worth at least $4.02 million, and he made it to Baltimore for good in the second half of the 2006 season.

But after 29 career starts—including just 10 in 2007 and ’08 combined—Loewen was done as a pitcher. Two stress fractures in his pitching elbow did him in. So in 2009, despite a layoff of nearly six years, a 25-year-old Loewen set about remaking himself as a right fielder.

“I always enjoyed pitching coming up,” Loewen said, “but after my arm gave out on me twice, it was really my only option for staying in the game.”

The Switch

Adam Loewen has batted .262/.354/.435 in three seasons as a position player after abandoning pitching in 2008. But he’s having a career year this season at age 27 for Triple-A Las Vegas—he’s hitting .316 with 12 homers and 31 doubles—which may prompt the Blue Jays to call him up if they seek a lefthanded power source. Loewen’s Vegas manager Marty Brown sees similarities between his game and Rick Ankiel’s.

Ankiel set a high standard for pitcher-to-position player converts, however. He smashed 32 homers for Triple-A Memphis in 2007 (also at age 27) and then 55 more in the big leagues since then. But Ankiel and Loewen aren’t the only contemporary players to attempt the switch.

• The Phillies’ Joe Savery, a first-round pick in 2007, gave up pitching this season to pursue a life as a first baseman/left fielder. The 25-year-old reached Double-A Reading in mid-June and has hit a combined .294/.358/.395 in 228 at-bats this season.

• The Astros’ Brian Bogusevic has batted .271/.352/.389 in 1,209 at-bats at the Triple-A level since 2009. He gave up pitching halfway through the 2008 season after running up a career 5.05 ERA in the minors. The 27-year-old plays all three outfield spots and has gone 11-for-64 (.193) in two big league trials.

• Drafted fourth overall in 2000, the Royals’ Mike Stodolka ran up a 5.92 ERA for Double-A Wichita in 2005 and promptly quit pitching. He batted a decent .287/.394/.444 in 1,031 at-bats and reached Triple-A in 2008, but he retired following that season at age 26.

All five of Ankiel, Bogusevic, Loewen, Savery and Stodolka bat left and throw left, which goes a long way toward explaining why their organizations approached the conversions with open minds. Also in their favor: all were premium draft picks in which clubs already had a lot invested, in terms of both dollars and development time.

The Orioles supported his transition to a position player, but because Loewen had no minor league options remaining—a byproduct of his major league contract—he would have had to clear waivers in order to return to the minors. Baltimore decided to release him and then attempt to re-sign him.

According to Loewen, he had several offers, including one from the Orioles, but chose the Blue Jays in October 2008 because it was the team he had grown up rooting for. He also believed Toronto’s sincerity when the organization said it saw big league potential.

“I thought I was a good enough athlete to make the transition,” Loewen said, “but I also knew it would take a lot of hard work.”

This year Loewen, 27, is enjoying easily his best season at the plate with Triple-A Las Vegas. Playing more frequently in the outfield—including a dozen games in center—than at first base, he’s batting .316/.377/.558 with 12 home runs and 58 RBIs through 301 at-bats.

He said he finally found his stroke after an extensive winter-ball regimen in 2010. Loewen batted .333/.438/.667 with five homers in a month in the Arizona Fall League and followed that by hitting .355 with two homers in nine games in the Dominican League.

“In April and early May he showed flashes of being able to hit Triple-A pitching,” Las Vegas announcer Russ Langer said. “But he was very inconsistent. Over the past month, the level of consistency has improved tremendously.”

While Loewen has benefited from playing in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, he has been one of its most powerful hitters. His 46 extra-base hits rank second only to Reno’s Cody Ransom. In 58 games since May 2, he had batted .348/.415/.633 with 10 homers in 221 at-bats.

Las Vegas manager Marty Brown said he sees similarities between Loewen and Rick Ankiel, who lost the ability to control his pitches and re-invented himself as a hitter.

“Rick was always a hitter and I think Adam is that way too,” Brown said. “Adam is just a good athlete—he has size, speed and strength. He had a great arm as a pitcher, and the arm has bounced back as an outfielder.”

“He’s got a long way to go still, but he is doing well.”

Loewen has put on a good 15-20 pounds since giving up pitching, and he now weighs an imposing 235. He’s cautiously optimistic about his future.

“It’s been good so far, but any time you think you have this game figured out it bites you in the butt,” he said.

John Conniff is a freelance writer based in Washington D.C.