Henry Owens has come to the forefront of many Red Sox’ fans minds this spring for a couple of different reasons. The biggest is that the team got a scare that David Price could miss the entire season — he’s not out of the woods yet, either -- which made everyone think about the team’s pitching depth. That, in turn, forced people to think Owens making multiple starts, and it wasn’t a pretty thought. The lefty hasn’t done himself any favors this spring, as he’s strung together a few disappointing performances.
“Disappointing” is the perfect way to describe the southpaw’s career to this point, as the former top prospect just hasn’t been able to put it all together and make the final and most difficult leap. The struggles have been bad enough that some have already written him off as a potentially productive major-league pitcher. To be honest, I’ve come close to that point on multiple occasions. It’s hard to avoid those thoughts when you watch a pitcher who’s utterly unable to throw strikes.
However, lately I’ve also been thinking of Jackie Bradley’s career arc, and realized that I reached a similar point with the now-star-caliber center fielder not too long ago. After his first two seasons in the majors, I was more than willing to write him off as a guy whose ceiling was someone who would be great with the glove but be better served for a fourth outfielder role. Obviously, things have changed since then, and he’s been a reminder that player development isn’t always perfectly linear, and everyone who struggles at first isn’t doomed to fail forever.
What’s even more interesting is that the potential downfalls for Bradley and Owens are pretty similar. At least, they are as similar as these types of cross-positional comparisons can be. For Bradley, of course, it was the strikeouts. Everything was poor about his performance at the plate, but it was his inability to stop himself from striking out was the highlight. Over his first two seasons spanning 580 plate appearances, he struck out a whopping 29 percent of the time. He’s cut that rate to 24 percent since then, and got it all the way down to 22.5 percent in 2016.
For Owens, the issue is obviously his control. We’ve all seen the flashes of the southpaw’s stuff — particularly the changeup — and it’s clear that he can get strikeouts at the highest level. He just has to throw strikes. He’s had limited MLB experience to this point, with just 16 starts under his belt over the last two years. In that time, he’s walked nearly 12 percent of his opponents (the league-average is generally right around eight percent). Last season, in five starts, he walked a whopping twenty percent of his opponents. I don’t care how great your stuff can be. No one can succeed with that kind of control. It’s easy to write someone off after seeing that kind of performance.
As broadly similar as the start of Bradley’s career arc may be, things start to fall apart a little when you look at it more closely. For one thing, the degree to which their fatal flaws matched their scouting report vary. For the center fielder, his plate discipline was supposed to be what carried his offense. He did have question marks, but that was mostly with his power and to a lesser extent his hit tool. Obviously, some of that was wrong, but the extent of those strikeout problems were a surprise. For Owens, the control has always been a question. Even at the peak of his prospect status, there were doubts that he’d be able to harness his command at the highest level.
With that being said, I am making a conscious effort to be more patient with Owens and his (lack of) control. It’s easy to forget since he feels like he’s been around forever, but the southpaw is only entering his age-24 season. Bradley was 25 in 2015, when he first started showing that he was a legitimate major-league talent. Patience is important with young players, particularly for those on the pitching side.
It’s becoming increasingly easy to toss Owens aside, label him a bust and move on. Hell, he looks the same as ever this spring, as he’s walked eight batters in five innings of work in the Grapefruit League. This Red Sox team is too good to rely on such an erratic presence. It’s a fair thought, and he’ll certainly have to earn his way to the majors. However, there’s no reason he can’t surprise us if/when he does make it that far. Owens is still young, and there’s plenty of time for development. It wasn’t all that long ago that many wrote off Bradley ever being a productive major-league pitcher. He’s turned it around, so why can’t Owens?