On Tuesday, at Yankee Stadium, another Red Sox pitching prospect will make his 2015 debut. Henry Owens, the 6-foot-6 southpaw who has spent his season at Triple-A, will join Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson as young pitchers trying to carve out a spot in the 2016 rotation. While all three are left-handed, they're all very different in repertoire, in style, in build. Owens is probably the most controversial of the three, as expectations for him tend to be all over the map.
Our general take on Henry Owens is that he's a good pitching prospect. He should, if things go as expected, have a good major-league career. The expectations some have pinned on him are those of a great pitcher, though, one who could slot in as a number two on a competitive team -- those expectations are unfair to the lefty. Maybe the 22-year-old develops over time into something greater than a mid-rotation arm, but as for expecting that? You're only inviting disappointment.
Why the disconnect? That's something we can get into now, as we introduce you to Henry Owens and the expectations you should set for him. Let's look over his career to this point to see what he's been and what he could still become.
The Sox draft a lanky high school lefty
Henry Owens stood 6-foot-6 and weighed well under 200 pounds when the Red Sox made him the 36th-overall selection in the 2011 draft. Baseball America rated him the number 18 prospect in Boston's system following the season, giving him points for his "feel for pitching" while also mentioning that some scouts questioned just how much projection the southpaw had. The verdict before he ever threw a pitch as a professional was that, should things work out best-case for Owens, he would be a number three starter in the majors.
Photo credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
That's a very good pitcher to have around -- the Red Sox don't have a legitimate number three on their current staff, and it's part of the reason they've struggled this season. Owens needed to add weight, velocity, command, and a reliable third pitch to get to that point, though, and those things weren't going to happen overnight.
He did make strides in his debut campaign, even if it took him a bit to get going. Owens began his time with Low-A Greenville as a 19-year-old by walking everyone that he didn't strike out first. This isn't an exaggeration: Owens struck out 47 batters in his first 29-1/3 innings as a pro, but also handed out 21 free passes. The walks would begin to slow right after this, in his eighth start of the season, and from that point forward Owens punched out 83 batters against 26 walks in 73 innings. His ERA in that stretch was 4.81, and his batting average on balls in play was .351 due to command issues, but he had started to throw strikes before his first season was out, and that was one minor victory worth celebrating.
Owens dominates High-A
Owens entered 2013 as the number five prospect in the system, according to Baseball America. Command was the major issue Owens had to work with -- putting on additional weight to de-lankify his frame was helping with repeating his mechanics and his control, but throwing quality strikes instead of just strikes is key for pitchers to figure out as they move up the ladder. He made his first strides towards improved fastball command at High-A Salem, with only one poor start marring his record there.
Owens allowed just 17 hits and eight runs in his first 37 innings, then gave up eight in 3-1/3 in his seventh start of the season. He would shake that off immediately, though, giving up just 44 hits and 20 runs over his final 69-1/3 innings at the level, limiting opponents on the year to fewer than six hits per nine innings. The walks were still there, and there were too many of them, but Owens was figuring out how to better pitch within the strike zone, just as he needed to. His success was not slowed by his mid-season promotion to Double-A, either, as Owens began to strike out even more batters -- well over 13 per nine -- while continuing to limit hits.
The lefty finished off his High-A career with 19-1/3 consecutive no-hit innings, with that stretch the culmination of all the muscle he had added to his frame combined with the knowledge he had gained during his first year-plus in the pros. What was obscured a bit in this dominance, though, is that Owens was doing this almost entirely with his fastball and his change-up -- now a plus pitch -- while his curve continued to look like the kind of offering that could fool minor-league hitters, but not big-league ones.
At this point, Baseball America didn't know what to think of him. Owens looked at times like a future number two starter. When his curve was off its game, he looked like a four who would walk too many batters to be better than that. The truth was likely in the middle, with Owens still having that future as a number three, but he would need to refine both his command and his curve for that to be his eventual place.
Double-A adjusts, and Owens adjusts right back
Henry Owens himself would tell you that his initial failures to begin 2014 at Double-A were a positive for his development. In an interview with Sports on Earth in early 2014, Owens said of his time at High-A that, "I felt like I was overmatching the opponents I was facing. In a sense, I felt like I shouldn't have been there. I was progressing, but it was at a slower pace. I felt like if I was in Double-A, even if it meant that I had to struggle a couple outings, that I would progress more as a pitcher."
He would get his wish with a promotion as already discussed, but the struggles at Double-A had to wait until the next spring. While his first two starts went splendidly, with 18 strikeouts against a pair of walks in 12-2/3 shutout innings, his next three were not nearly as successful. Owens found Double-A hitters more reluctant to swing at the iffy pitches that worked in the lower levels, and more capable of hitting his mistakes in the strike zone. He would give up 12 runs and 19 hits in his next three starts and 16 innings, while also striking out just 11. To Owens' credit, he was right: struggling for "a couple outings" helped him progress on the mound.
Owens' 2014 earned him the start in the Futures Game. (Photo credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports)
Over his next 15 starts at Double-A, Owens would throw 92-1/3 innings with a 2.24 ERA. He struck out 97 batters in this stretch, against 35 walks, while allowing just over six hits per nine. He was dominant, pitching with better control, better command, and using the feel for pitching he had always had to pull the string on his change-up or freeze a batter with his fastball at the exact right time. This progression and the excellence that followed earned him a trip to Triple-A to finish off 2014, so Owens could get back to learning once more.
While he wasn't nearly as good in his six starts at Triple-A, they were still quality appearances for a 21-year-old who just got there, who had only been just getting to Double-A at the same time a year before. Baseball America once again rated him the number two prospect in the system, praising him for the progress he made in repeating his delivery -- which helped lower his walk rate -- while also hammering on the fact his curve just wasn't ready yet. That last bit would be no small thing during his time at Triple-A in 2015.
This is right around the time that the expectations for Owens became unreasonable. Owens had done almost all of the things he needed to do in order to become a successful mid-rotation arm, but rather than continue to bill him as such, you saw some fans -- and even some analysts -- go overboard with their expectations thanks to progress it was always known he could likely make. Progress he had to make. It's kind of a stacking thing, where someone might already be thinking more highly of a player, and then when said player does the things this optimist expected, rather than realize "Hey, I was right and everyone else was down on him", they build on that. Instead of seeing everyone else catch up to them, they basically double down and continue to believe even more is possible.
This is how you end up with Owens as the number 19 prospect in baseball heading into 2015, per MLB.com, who had him the highest of any of the major outlets the year before at 30. That's MLB saying "Henry Owens is definitely a future number two starter", while everyone else says, "Oh, good, Owens started to do the things that justify us having him ranked as a low-level top-50 prospect." (To throw a little shade our own way, we probably could have stood to rail against this harder at the time. ) So much of prospect rankings is projection, so it's weird to give a player extra credit for playing up to your projection expectations. It creates headaches all around, and makes it difficult to properly evaluate a player and his potential future, because people will defensively latch on to the most optimistic report for a player they have never even seen perform. It's hard to be convincing otherwise when everyone has already made up their minds.
The 2015 season took care of a lot of that for Owens in terms of bringing reality back into the discussion, but now we have the other side of this problem going on, where people are too down on him, because they're dug in in opposition to the spring optimism of outlets like MLB.com. We've criticized Baseball Prospectus' decision to leave Owens off of their mid-season top-50 after putting him 46th to begin the year, and spent basically every mid-season update explaining why Owens' season has gone the way it has. To the credit of MLB and Keith Law, who had Owens 20th entering 2015, both have scaled back on him but seem to be projecting him appropriately now by doing so, as a potential mid-rotation arm who is about ready for that call-up.
Who knew Owens would end up such a divisive prospect? It's especially weird considering he's still projected now for the same kind of career he was projected for after he was drafted back in 2011. This isn't Eduardo Rodriguez, an initially unranked prospect who has so far defied the projections and the reports and his competition each step of the way until he convinced the league he was something potentially special. Owens is a guy whose flaws and highlights were pegged from the start, who, one step away from it, is still pegged to that same future.
The Red Sox make sure Owens can throw his curve
Let's explain that above statement about "why Owens' season has gone the way it has." Owens' fastball command still wasn't great entering 2015, but it was certainly good enough to succeed in the majors, especially in conjunction with his plus change-up. The one thing that could make this untrue, the thing that could derail him as a successful starter, is his lack of a third pitch. The Red Sox knew this, so the start of the 2015 season for Owens was all about working his bender in more often, to get a better feel for it, to better understand how and when to utilize it. Owens needed to become a three-pitch pitcher if he was to be major-league ready, and his performance suffered thanks to this adjustment.
Bogaerts is thriving, but where is the power?
Xander Bogaerts has had a great year, but there is still room for improvement.
Not being able to go to his change when he would have, instead using those opportunities to work his curve -- and even his slider, which he hadn't thrown professionally -- caused his strikeouts to dip and his walk rate to fall. Owens was, in some ways, revisiting his professional debut for Low-A Greenville, where he was once again feeling things out and trying to make everything work individually so he could put it all together. Over his first 9 starts, Owens lasted just 48-1/3 innings while striking out 39 batters against 34 walks. Once again, he got the opportunity for education he hoped for in his development.
As things started to come together, though, Owens began to pitch like the pitcher it was known he could be one step from the majors. He has a 3.28 ERA with over six innings per start in his last 12 appearances. He's struck out nearly three times as many hitters as he's walked in this stretch, dropping his walk rate down to 2.7 per nine in that time. He's throwing his fastball where he wants to more often, and intelligently, and it's helping keep hits down, as has been a strength of Owens since arriving in High-A in 2013. His curveball is a better pitch than it was, his change is still excellent, and he's found success with the reintroduction of his slider. In short, he's ready for his next lesson, one that will come in the majors.
Making him the number 19 prospect in baseball still looks at best aggressive, at worst silly, but so does dropping him off of your mid-season list altogether. Owens still has things to learn, and there is surely another adjustment period coming for him just as there has been for fellow 22-year-old southpaw Eduardo Rodriguez. Owens has progressed after struggles once more, though, and looks like a potential mid-rotation arm, one who could eventually be the number three starter the 2015 Red Sox wish they had all along. All of that starts on Tuesday against the Yankees on the road, in Owens' next chance to educate himself and progress as a pitcher.