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Red Sox need Henry Owens to figure out his control issues

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Henry Owens showed flashes of potential in 2015, but if he's going to take the next step he'll need to counteract his inability to hit the zone.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For better or for worse, the Red Sox already have their rotation set and Henry Owens is on the outside looking in. Of course, the team will say there’s an ongoing battle as spring training gets underway, but in reality it will be more like a battle for the sixth spot. Joe Kelly is going to be rewarded with the fifth and final rotation slot unless there’s an injury or a totally unforeseen performance. That leaves Owens, Brian Johnson and Roenis Elias fighting for the top depth spot and Steven Wright in the corner reminding everyone he still exists for his handful of token spot starts.

Of course, by the end of the year all of them will get their shot as a major-league starter due to injury and underperformance in front of them. All of them have differentiating factors between them and are interesting in their own right. With that being said, Owens is the most interesting in this writer’s opinion and will be the focus of the rest of this post.

The reason he’s more interesting is the fact that he possesses by far the most upside in this group. That’s not to say he’s a definitively better young arm than Johnson, but if both hit their ceilings Owens will be the pick. Of course, in his first taste of the majors in 2016 was a microcosm of who he is as a pitcher. He certainly showed flashes, but as Alex Skillin pointed out a few weeks ago, it was a stretch mired in inconsistency. In the end, he finished as something a little below a league-average pitcher. Owens tossed 63 major-league innings and finished the year with a 4.57 ERA (109 ERA-), 4.28 FIP (108 FIP-), 3.78 DRA and a 104 cFIP. That’s not all that surprising for a relatively polarizing prospect in his first major-league experience, of course. How he did it, however, is very interesting.

As has been the case for the majority of his professional career, the biggest issue for Owens last year was his control. While the league-average starting pitcher walked about 2.7 batters per nine innings, Owens’s walk-rate was up to 3.4 per nine. If that’ doesn’t sound overly extreme, let’s put it another way. Among the 292 pitchers who tossed at least 900 pitches in 2015, only 13 missed the zone at a higher rate than Owens. He’ll either need to figure out how to correct this, or at least counteract it.

While that lack of control is a little jarring, the group of names is ahead of him a very interesting one. You can check that out here. Perhaps surprisingly, a good portion of that list is made up of outstanding pitchers who can be put into two groups. The first is the extreme ground ball group, made up of pitchers like Dallas Keuchel, Wade Miley, and Brad Ziegler. Then, there are the players like Francisco Liriano, Pedro Strop and James Shields*. These are the pitchers who throw a lot of pitches out of the zone, but get a lot of whiffs on these pitches to counteract it.

*Well, kind of. The 2015 James Shields didn’t fit the normal James Shields profile.

As Skillin mentions in his post linked above, Owens had an extreme fly ball profile last season. Inducing ground balls just 37 percent of the time, per Baseball Prospectus, eliminates him from that first group. The second group, however, is a reachable goal for Owens. He didn’t quite get the whiffs in his first major-league seasons, but scouting reports from his minor-league career suggest he can improve his strikeout stuff as he matures. Specifically, I want to look at his best weapon — the fastball/changeup combo — and see how he did in getting whiffs on those pitches.

We’ll start with the fastball, which isn’t as impressive as the change up but the pitch he works everything else off of.

Just for clarification, the gif above alternates between Owens’ raw pitch totals by zone with his fastball, which fastballs opponents swing at, and which of those swings end up as whiffs. So, given that information there are a few interesting observations. First of all, he typically attacks to the higher side of the zone and out of it with his fastball, which isn’t all that surprising given the batted ball profile he allows. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had much success in getting opponents to chase the pitches that end up out of the zone, and has had even less luck in getting them to whiff on those pitches. Really, the easiest way to remedy that would be to add a tick or two to the velocity on those pitches, but that’s much easier said than done. He’s going to continue attacking up in the zone as a fly ball pitcher, but he’s going to need to figure out how to get players to chase those pitches out of the zone if he’s going to have success.

Now, let’s take a quick look at his best pitch, the changeup. The following gif will show the same information as the one above.

Here, Owens is attacking batters almost exclusively to his arm side. Since the change up is basically only used against righties, that means he’s attacking them to the outside, which is expected. Honestly, there’s not a ton of work to do here. He does get opponents to chase his off speed pitches out of the zone, and he induces a decent rate of whiffs on pitches below the zone. The one complaint would be that, when his change up is off the plate but at zone-height, batters make contact. Although that’s slightly discouraging, much of that contact resulted in ground balls.

The unfortunate part of this kind of analysis is that it’s all done with small samples. It’s kind of impossible to avoid with a pitcher who’s thrown just 63 major-league innings. With that being said, there’s no doubt that Owens needs to figure out his control issues if he’s going to make the next step. It’s something that has followed him around throughout his pro career, but it’s no guarantee to drive his career off the rails. Pitchers have succeeded with that kind of profile before. If Owens is going to become the next pitcher in a Francisco Liriano mold, he’s going to need to get more whiffs on his pitches that miss the zone, specifically his high fastballs and change ups that end up away off the plate. If he can do that, expect him to stick in the rotation for a long time.