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OBP + SLG = Angels clip his wings

Hunt grad Houchins frustrated, but not ready to end dream of reaching MLB

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On-base percentage plus slugging percentage equals OPS.

Baseball introduced the statistical term only a few years ago but, already, OPS is defining careers and serving as a measuring stick for aspiring professional players.

OPS is a term that Wilson native Zach Houchins, in his fifth season in the Los Angeles Angels organization, is already weary of hearing.

OPS had plenty to say about the 25-year-old Houchins being demoted to AA Mobile, Alabama, after starting the season in AAA Salt Lake, Utah, and batting a healthy .337.

The stat has also influenced the fact the latest development in Houchins’ 2018 season is being asked to change positions — give up third base and move behind the plate.

“I kind of laughed about it at first,” Houchins commented in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “But (Angels officials) started bringing all those stats (including OPS) at me and said becoming a catcher would give me my best shot to make it to the majors.”

A TASTE OF AAA

Houchins tasted the AAA brand for the first time at the conclusion of the 2017 season and batted an eye-popping .500 in four games. A solid 2018 start left him optimistic the “big show” would be in his near future.

Now, Houchins suspects he may be a couple of years away.

“They told me I couldn’t be an average OPS guy at third base,” Houchins noted. “The fact they thought I couldn’t compete really upset me. I know I could do more.”

A factor in sending Houchins to AA was the fact that Mobile BayBears manager Lou Marson is a former catcher and the Angels farm system wanted Marson to work with Houchins.

But Houchins has yet to catch a game. He was promoted back to Salt Lake a coupled of weeks ago and, in fielding a baseball, cracked a knuckle on his throwing hand. Back in Mobile, he’s currently shelved on the seven-day disabled list but suspects he may be out of action as long as three weeks.

“It has been a really, really tough year,” Houchins admitted. “It has been a ride.”

SINCE A TOT

Houchins pointed out he has played the game since a tot. From a runt at the outset of his high school career at Fike, Houchins, aided by a startling growth spurt, transformed into a star player with a powerful throwing arm, an adequate glove and slugging potential at Hunt High.

Upon competing with and against other high school players from Wilson, Houchins’ passion to take the game to the professional level stirred.

Accomplished careers at Louisburg College and East Carolina University enhanced his drive toward a professional opportunity.

After not signing with the Washington Nationals, Houchins was selected in the 13th round of Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft by the Angels and signed in 2014.

In five pro seasons, Houchins has played on eight different clubs in the Angels organization, and has plied his skills at the Rookie, Single-A, Advanced-A, Double-A and Triple-A levels.

CAREER NUMBERS

In 516 career games, the right-handed hitter owns a respectable .266 batting average with 62 home runs. Along the way, Houchins has batted .388, .362, .313, .312, .306, .500 and .337 at various stops.

In 27 2018 games at Salt Lake, he batted .309 (29 for 94) with 14 runs scored, six doubles, three homers, 16 RBIs, a .340 slugging percentage and .468 on-base percentage.

Houchins was expected to hit with more power at Mobile and responded with seven homers, two doubles and a triple in just 31 games. He has driven in 24 runs and scored 16. His on-base percentage is .321 and his slugging percentage is .430.

Apparently, an .808 OPS at Salt Lake and a .751 OPS at Mobile aren’t high enough for a corner infielder or outfielder. And in Houchins’ opinion, 10 homers in some 60 games is far from shabby.

Frustrated, yes, but ready to walk away? No way.

“After growing up with all the boys from Wilson, I don’t want to call it quits,” Houchins declared. “I want somebody to tell me that I can’t play any more. I couldn’t live with myself if I quit.”

Thus, when healthy again, Houchins tests a position he hasn’t played since his freshman year at Fike. He’s in the process of figuring out how to block pitches, call pitches, handle pitchers, throw to the bases, etc.

With less than two months left in minor league seasons, Houchins senses urgent pressure in what he can accomplish in maybe 25 games.

But he remembers the start of the 2018 season when he was told there might not be a spot for him.

“That kind of got me a little bit,” Houchins assured, “and I had to sit on the bench. But when I finally got a chance, I took advantage of it.”

WOULDN’T CHANGE

The down times gnaw at Houchins. Living on a minor league salary ($1,700-$1,900 monthly) isn’t glamorous. He’s extremely thankful for the unwavering support of Andie, his bride of nearly two years. She motivates with reverse psychology.

But the OPS and other 2018 developments have kept Houchins in touch with reality.

“There’s not a chance in the organization at third base or any of the positions I play,” Houchins contended. “They have money invested in those positions and those guys are going to get the good opportunities.”

He emphasizes he still loves baseball and is grateful to the game for leading him to his wife. Even while injured, being around the guys every day is a positive.

But, some day, he might be a catcher in the big leagues.

“I still have some things to show people,” Houchins determinedly said. “Professional baseball has been good for me. I think I have succeeded everywhere. I wouldn’t change a thing; I thought I had it made. It has been crazy, awesome!

“There might be a lot of questions, but I am still going to try to get out there and do my thing. I can only control what I can control.

“Until they tell me that I can’t play for them any more or some other organization doesn’t pick me up, I’m going to keep playing.”

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