After a few years of hearing about Henry Owens' intriguing potential, Red Sox fans finally got their first major-league look at the left-hander in 2015. Boston called up Owens from Triple-A in early August to pitch a game in Yankee Stadium, and he proceeded to make 11 starts for the club down the stretch.
During that time, Owens demonstrated all the reasons why he was a polarizing prospect down in the minors, where his impressive numbers didn't necessarily match his raw stuff and future promise, at least in the eyes of scouts. Capable of dazzling and frustrating in equal measure, Owens displayed an ability to befuddle opposing batters with his advanced four-pitch mix but also a vulnerability against big league hitters when his fastball command betrayed him.
The knowledge we were left with about Owens after 2015 is that he remains very much a work in progress. In 63 innings, the 23-year-old posted a 4.57 ERA and 4.28 FIP with 50 strikeouts and 24 walks. He showed the capacity to dominate -- like when he held the Orioles to just three hits and no runs over 7-1/3 innings on Sept. 27-- yet also struggled at times, most notably when the Yankees knocked him around for seven runs in 1-2/3 innings on Sept. 2.
In many ways, this inconsistency is normal for a young pitcher just getting his feet wet in the majors, and few would deny that Owens remains rough around the edges.
What stands out most about Owens' first year in MLB is how atypical his batted-ball results were. The southpaw finished with a remarkably low groundball rate of 35 percent, which would have ranked as the fifth-lowest among MLB starters if he had enough innings to qualify. Owens garnered ground balls at a rate similar to soft-tossers like Dan Haren, Colby Lewis and Aaron Harang last season, and there's little denying he'll probably need to improve in that category moving forward.
For a pitcher whose erratic command limits his capability of pitching late into games and leaves him susceptible to home runs, getting quick, easy outs via the ground would greatly aid Owens' development.
Still, as poor as Owens was at generating grounders, he excelled in another manner that bears watching in 2016 -- infield fly balls. The lefty's infield-fly rate of 13 percent would have ranked among the best in baseball among qualified starters, and his knack for inducing weak infield pop-ups aided his performance.
Many pitchers, from Wei-Yin Chen to Chris Young to Jered Weaver, have boosted their careers through a consistent ability to garner weak infield flies, which almost always turn into outs. For Owens, such a skill could greatly help his prospects for succeeding in the majors, especially if he continues to post such low groundball rates.
The big question, of course, is whether Owens can record such a high infield-fly rate over a larger sample and prove this is indeed a skill he possesses rather than some short-term fluke. Sixty-three innings isn't nearly enough to reach a conclusion either way, but it's encouraging Owens showed in 2015 that he can miss barrels and fool hitters into making weak contact.
Coupled with the impressive swing-and-miss numbers he posted down the stretch, Owens' stellar infield-fly rate is another aspect of his performance to get excited about. If he can consistently force hitters into weak pop-ups, his chances of turning all that potential into actual success only increase.
David Price's successful new plan on the mound
David Price was as good as he's ever been in 2015, and it was thanks to a change in his game plan on the mound.
Nevertheless, Owens still has plenty to improve upon if he's going to carve out a long-term spot in the middle of the Red Sox rotation. That inconsistent command is something he'll likely always wrestle with, and it not only hinders his ability to pitch deep into games but also leaves him vulnerable to hard contact against major league hitters who miss mistakes far less often than their minor league brethren.
If Owens continues to garner so few groundballs, and his infield fly-rate regresses back toward the MLB average, his overall performance will suffer as a result. Of course, if he can figure out a way to generate more grounders and continues to induce pop-ups, the opposite is true as well.
All of this uncertainty is a reminder that we still don't know just what Owens will become in the big leagues. The good news for Boston is that, at 23, Owens remains quite young, and judging by the lefty's own words, he's a cerebral pitcher who is well aware of the challenges that face him.
Even with all the question marks, Owens possesses an intriguing set of skills that leave plenty of room for the possibility of future success. One can imagine that new director of pitching development Brian Bannister will relish the challenge of trying to turn Owens and his raw tools into a more consistent, mature pitcher.
Just what kind of pitcher that is and how much success Owens achieves remain to be seen.