It’s not a desirable perch.
Entering Thursday’s minor league games, Henry Owens led all of professional baseball with 43 walks allowed. His 5.5 walks per nine innings in Triple A this year are a career-worst, nearly doubling the 2.8 walks per nine he permitted in 2014 with Pawtucket following a late-season promotion.
Owens has likewise seen a considerable decline in his strikeout rate. After averaging more than a strikeout per inning during a steady march through the minors in his first three full campaigns, Owens has punched out a modest 7.4 per nine innings this year.
His struggles have not only raised scrutiny about how his fastball command impacts his big league ceiling but also left him clearly behind fellow lefties Eduardo Rodriguez and Brian Johnson on the organizational depth chart.
Seems like the stuff of nightmares for a pitching coach, right?
“It’s not alarming to me. I understand why it could be alarming to someone else, but I’ve had this conversation many times over the last two years,” said PawSox pitching coach Bob Kipper, who also worked with Owens at Double A Portland in 2013 and 2014, where he saw Owens struggle to throw strikes with his fastball for weeks at a time before harnessing the pitch. “He’s frustrated about where things probably stand early in the season. But with that said, he’s really encouraged with where things are beginning to head.
“He’s 22,” added Kipper. “I don’t think any of us have that crystal ball of when something is going to happen. But when there are certain things in place — work ethic, discipline, commitment, guys doing the right thing day in, day out — then over time there’s going to be development.”
Kipper mentions the fact that Owens continues to fill out his 6-foot-7-inch frame, something that can create challenges in controlling and repeating his delivery, which in turn can create strike-throwing challenges. The history of tall lefthanders backs Kipper’s claim.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, there are 29 lefties who are 6-6 and taller who have made at least 10 big league starts. Most — including the majority of the best of the group — had to overcome a pronounced control hiccup early in their careers.
Randy Johnson averaged more than eight walks per nine innings as a 23-year-old in Double A, and then in his first four full big league seasons, averaged 5.8 walks per nine; from his age-29 season through the rest of his career he averaged 2.7 walks per nine. CC Sabathia averaged more than four walks per nine in the minors before getting called up and becoming one of the better strike-throwers in the game. David Price went from issuing 3.8 walks per nine in the big leagues as a 23-year-old to averaging 1.5 walks per nine over the last three seasons. Andrew Miller averaged at least 4.5 walks per nine in each of his first eight big league seasons, from 2006-13, before his control breakthrough arrived as a 29-year-old last year.
There are others who thrived, and some who fell by the wayside, unable to harness their delivery. But Kipper and the Sox express confidence that Owens can fall in the former camp.
The focus on Owens’s walks has obscured some of what he has accomplished this year. His 3.45 ERA is solid and opponents are hitting just .195 against him, the lowest mark against any International League starter.
His signature swing-and-miss changeup, one of the best in the minors, has been missing for much of this year. However, Kipper raved about the development of Owens’s curveball, which he started throwing harder in spring training (bumping it up about 10 miles per hour from the 67-70 of last year).
In Owens’s most recent start, he showed fastball command (at his standard 89-92 m.p.h.) with both his curve and change at his disposal. The result? Six innings in which Owens allowed one run, struck out seven, walked one, and got 17 swings and misses.
“That’s a glimpse of what he could be,” said Kipper.
Evaluators from three organizations said that they still view Owens as a future big league starter with the upside of a No. 3 and a floor of a fifth starter.
“I just think he’s got a high ceiling. At 22 years old, I don’t know what that ceiling looks like,” said Kipper. “I’d like to believe he’s going to get a whole lot better as the days, months, and years move on.”
Kyle Schwarber, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft, made headlines when the Cubs called him up on Tuesday, making him the first position player from last year’s draft to reach the big leagues. His Indiana University teammate, 2014 Red Sox second-rounder Sam Travis, isn’t on that same blistering pace to the big leagues, but he’s impressing in his own first full pro season.
Over his last 20 games prior to Thursday night, Travis was hitting .410 with a .452 OBP and .615 slugging mark along with three homers, 15 RBIs, and 10 extra-base hits for high Single A Salem. For the season the first baseman is at .310/.372/.461 with five homers.
“It was so fun to watch [Schwarber and Travis] beat up on other teams and also compete with each other in a positive way,” said Sox area scout Blair Henry. “You could tell how much they rooted for each other.”
Schwarber was considered the more advanced hitter, but Travis still outperformed him en route to Big Ten Player of the Year honors as a junior.
“The thing that stood out with Sam was that he always hit the ball hard,” said Henry. “I think he’s still evolving. I think that’s why you don’t see that many home runs yet — in a tough hitter’s league. But once he learns how to take his shot, the strength that he has, that you see in the whip in his bat and the path to the ball, is going to lead to more balls going over the fence.”
After Travis, 21, represents Salem in the California-Carolina League All-Star Game next week, it would come as little surprise if he was promoted to Portland soon thereafter.
Portland shortstop Marco Hernandez — acquired from the Cubs in December as the player to be named for Felix Doubront — has earned strong marks for his aggressive, energetic play. He’s hitting .316 with a .343 OBP, .468 slugging mark, and 20 extra-base hits in 43 games.
“He’s shown the ability to drive the ball a little bit as well as use the field,” said farm director Ben Crockett.
Spinners are up
The Lowell Spinners begin play tonight. The Sox’ 2015 first-rounder, outfielder Andrew Benintendi, won’t be on the team for Opening Day but he’s expected to sign soon and headline Lowell’s roster. Other notable members of the Lowell roster include lightning-armed righthander Jake Cosart (brother of Astros pitcher Jared Cosart). As a starter in extended spring, he showed a fastball that touched 94-95 m.p.h. with a changeup that improved considerably to complement a curveball that has flashed potential.
The team also features a pair of outfielders with intriguing upside in 18-year-old Luis Alexander Basabe and 20-year-old Jordon Austin, a smaller infielder with quick wrists that generate surprising pop in 19-year-old Victor Acosta, and a first baseman who can mash in Josh Ockimey.
Fourth-round pick Tate Matheny, the son of Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, is also expected to sign and join Lowell soon; he receives high marks for a well-balanced complement of skills.