Not long ago, Henry Owens looked like the best Red Sox pitching prospect in recent memory. Drafted out of a California high school in 2011, Owens' size, youth and advanced feel for pitching had many Boston fans dreaming of the day when he'd slot right into the top of the club's rotation.
While Owens hasn't quite developed into the hard-throwing stud some first envisioned, his debut for the Red Sox in early August still attracted loads of fanfare. During a season in which the team's starting staff has struggled mightily, the thought of Owens forming a solid, young pair with Eduardo Rodriguez for years to come certainly had fans dreaming.
Now seven starts into his major league career, not everything has gone smoothly for Owens. He's flashed dominant form against good offenses, but also seen big league hitters punish his mistakes in a way minor leaguers likely never did. Through the first 36 innings of his career, Owens has posted a 5.25 ERA and 5.12 FIP, striking out 32 batters and walking 17 over that span.
From this perspective, Owens' numbers don't look all that impressive, and there's little denying the youngster still has plenty to improve upon. His 10.1% walk rate stands out as a red flag, especially considering the extent to which scouts and prospect writers stressed that his command would need to improve against MLB competition.
Indeed, Owens still has a tendency to leave his fastball up and out over the plate, as this zone chart of his fastball locations this season demonstrates:
Pitchers can succeed by pitching up in the zone with their fastball. But Owens doesn't throw hard enough to do that with regularity, nor is he able to spot the pitch to either side of the plate or down consistently enough to keep hitters honest. The manner in which Rodriguez can locate his fastball, for example, stands in stark contrast to Owens' erratic command with the offering.
Owens has also struggled to generate groundballs early in his career. Although he's not necessarily the type of pitcher who needs to frequently keep the ball in the infield to succeed, his current groundball rate of 29.9% would rank last among all major league starters if he had the innings to qualify. That's simply too many balls in the air for Owens to find consistent success, and for a pitcher who gives away his fair share of free passes, that's a lot of fly balls that have the potential to turn into two- and three-run homers with men on base.
Given that Owens' HR/9 rate currently stands at 1.50, his ability to begin garnering more grounders bears watching. For a youngster who also struggles with his control and pitching deep into outings, more groundballs would help Owens get quicker, easier outs.
The one area that could prove promising for Owens has been his knack for inducing infield pop-ups and weak contact in the air. His infield-fly rate currently sits at 14.3%, which is well above the league average of 9.4% this season, and he's just beginning to reach the point where balls in play stats stabilize. Infield fly balls almost always turn into outs, which makes them especially valuable for pitchers. Jered Weaver is the most notable example of a starter who found success largely through his ability to garner weak infield contact in the air, and Owens could benefit from similar results.
Considering Weaver succeeded with this strategy over multiple seasons, and Owens has made just seven career starts, we'll need a much larger sample before determining whether this is sustainable for Owens.
Just where the left-hander fits into the Red Sox's 2016 rotation also remains a mystery. Despite his flashes of success and an intriguing arsenal of four solid pitches, Owens isn't anywhere near a finished product. How much he can fine-tune his fastball command will be the biggest key, though he won't get nearly as many innings as Rodriguez has this year to prove himself to Boston's brass.
The bigger problem might be how little space the Red Sox figure to have on their starting staff next season. Clay Buchholz will (in all likelihood) be back from injury, Rick Porcello and Wade Miley both figure to slot into the middle of the rotation, and Rodriguez is certain to get an opportunity. That doesn't factor in any frontline starter that Dave Dombrowski acquires this offseason, nor Joe Kelly, who has pitched better than Owens down the stretch in 2015, even if questions linger regarding his future role.
As a result, Owens might be in for a return to Triple-A unless a spot on the rotation opens up this winter. His performances for Boston haven't been altogether convincing, though how much his development would benefit from a return to the minors is unknown.
At the moment, Owens still has plenty to work on, which makes his progression at the MLB level a tricky situation. For now, like many a young pitcher, Owens remains more flash and promise than actual substance.