Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Henry Owens.
The Question: Is Henry Owens ever going to put it all together?
Henry Owens has been a highly-rated prospect ever since the Red Sox selected him in the supplemental round of their now-famous 2011 draft. The high school southpaw was taken with the pick the team was rewarded with after their loss of Victor Martinez. The upside was always there, and he started to show plenty of flashes as he made his way up the system. It wasn’t just local evaluators who were providing the hype, either, as he made it as high as 19 on MLB.com’s top-100 and was a two-time top-50 prospect on Baseball America’s list. His highest point in the rankings was prior to the 2015 season. In the two years since, Owens’ development has stalled and he’s failed to make a seamless leap from Triple-A to the majors. Even if he never reaches the high ceiling some laid out for him a couple years ago, he still has a chance to settle in as at least a mid-rotation arm.
Owens, who is still only 24 years old, has thrown 85 innings over the last two seasons at the major-league level. He’s pitched to an unimpressive 5.19 ERA (85 ERA+). The peripherals haven’t been much better, with his 5.00 FIP, 5.25 DRA and 116 cFIP. Put another way, there’s been no aspect of Owens’ game that has appeared to be even average in his early MLB career. A little more concerning is that the lefty hasn’t been overly dominant in Triple-A, either. Over parts of three seasons, he’s thrown 298 innings with an ERA of 3.44 and a K/BB ratio under 2.0. Those aren’t horrible signs, of course, but combined with his trouble adjusting to the majors it is another sign of his stalling in the upper levels.
The biggest problem for Owens has easily been his control. That was at the forefront of his issues this year, when he made five starts for the big-league club. In those starts, he walked a whopping 19 percent of his opponents, substantially more than double the league-average rate. That’s not including the one batter he hit, either. The issue wasn’t just limited to the majors, either, as Owens walked just under 14 percent of his opponents at Triple-A in 2016. In 2015, his major-league walk rate was down to an acceptable nine percent (with three hit batters), but he still walked 11 percent of his opponents. Honestly, it’s been a problem his whole career, as his minor-league rate is north of 11 percent. He’s just had more trouble hiding it as he’s moved up the levels.
The causes are pretty clear. According to Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline numbers, he was in the bottom 12 percent in terms of hitting the zone in 2016, and the bottom seven percent in 2015. It goes without saying that, if you continuously miss the zone, you are going to walk a ton of batters. Even when he had the improved rate in the majors back in 2015, Owens was still in the bottom four percent of the league in BP’s new control metric.
Likely the biggest area in which Owens can improve is with his fastball command. He’s not someone who relies heavily on the pitch — he’s thrown it just a third of the time over his MLB career and averages just 90 mph — but every pitcher needs to be able to locate his fastball. Over his career, almost half of the lefty’s fastballs have missed the strike zone without drawing a swing. On top of that, when it does induce swings, things don’t go well. Only 18 percent of swings draw nothing but air, and just 23 percent of batted balls were hit on the ground. It’s a big reason he’s allowed 1.3 homers per nine innings over his MLB career.
With all of this being said, it’s not all bad for Owens. Like I said, he’s still just 24 years old, the same age as both Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. That is to say, there’s still time for the southpaw to tap into some of that potential he showed after he was drafted. His changeup is still here, and it’s still a phenomenal pitch. His curveball still flashes plus sometimes as well, and while it’s never going to be on the level of his changeup it can still be an effective pitch.
This is going to be a big season for Owens’ future with the Red Sox. They already have six major-league quality starters on the roster, so he won’t be any better than seventh on the depth chart. Then, in Triple-A, he’ll be battling with Roenis Elias, Brian Johnson, and to a lesser extent Kyle Kendrick. While the potential is enticing, the organization is not in a position where they can wait much longer on it. If/when Johnson and Elias are showing themselves to be solid but unspectacular arms with Pawtucket, they’ll be more likely to be called up than the erratic Owens.
If, on the other hand, the lefty starts to show some improvement, he could put himself in the front of the line for a rotation spot when that need arises. If he starts to show more control and command with his fastball, things could start to turn around. Throwing strikes is something that is much easier said than done, but Owens needs to find a way to do it if he’s going to live up to even a fraction of the potential he showed just a few years ago.