When the Alcohol Think Again Perth HEAT announced at the beginning of the 2011/2012 season that they had added James McOwen to their roster, many people figured they'd added another big bopper to the middle of a batting order already stacked with Luke Hughes, Mitch Graham, and Allan de San Miguel. After all, McOwen only led the Australian Baseball League last year in home runs and won the Helms Award for the league's Most Valuable Player.
Fast forward a year. Now, as the HEAT's leadoff batter for most of the season, McOwen finished the regular season with just a single home run. And yet, he still stands as an integral member of the best lineup the Australian Baseball League has seen in its short history. So what changed? What sapped the Seattle Mariners prospect of his power?
"I think he changed his approach, and he changed his whole stance" says HEAT manager Brooke Knight, who not only has managed McOwen this season, but coached against him last year as well. "Last year he was way down low with some bat wiggle and on his back leg and really spread out. This year he's gone the other direction. He's tried to really unlock his back side, unlock his back knee, and free up his hands."
So I guess "sapped" isn't exactly the best term to describe the change. Despite fewer home runs (and both James and Brooke say that has a lot to do with playing in a much more expansive Barbagallo Ballpark), he finished second in the league in doubles with 15, and has walked more than he struck out for the first time in his career.
"In a 45 game season, there can be a lot of luck involved as far as your home run numbers" said McOwen. "I think I hit like 6 balls in Canberra that if the wind was a little different they could have been home runs.
But having put up such great numbers last year may have also helped him this season.
"I think other teams pitched me differently. I'm just not getting as good of pitches to hit."
"There's some real bat speed there" Knight says. "So although maybe he doesn't have the home run backspin, those balls are coming off his barrel just as hard, they're just coming off at a lower trajectory. He's just got doubles trajectory."
Despite the change in stance, change in how he's being pitched, change in ballpark, and change in statistics, McOwen finds himself in his second ABL Championship Series in two years. Having come one game away last time only to have it slip away certainly makes him want this one even more. But that's not all that's driving him for his second chance at a ring.
"It's not just about personal reasons why I'm here" James said. "I like playing baseball, and with the way the minor league season went this past year, I'm not sure how much longer I will be playing affiliated baseball so I'm just trying to get out there, make contact, help teams out. Playing for this team is a lot of fun, and I'm just trying to win."
It's that pure hunger to win that draws McOwen to Australian baseball during the offseason, as opposed to the minor league system where the number one goal for most players is to get better, win or lose.
And it's also that pure hunger to win that draws Australian baseball to McOwen.
With the Championship Series looming, the prospect of avenging last season doesn't pressure the HEAT center fielder. James joked, "I really came out here and thought that I'd be a good addition to this team, and if we don't win, it's kind of like 'oh, maybe I wasn't that good of an addition.'"
Win or lose, McOwen has done enough to prove he's been more than a "good" addition to the Perth HEAT lineup. And now he's got another shot at a ring, with the team who robbed him of it last season.
To get tickets to see McOwen play in the Championship Series in Perth, go to perthheat.com.au/postseason