FORT MYERS, Fla. — Prospect status does not merely reflect the passage of time but also an evolving relationship with it. Time veers from ally to enemy, from an unlimited sense of possibility to an emptying hourglass, from a vision of a boundless future to a collapsing present.
No one in Red Sox camp more fully represents that notion than Henry Owens. On Tuesday, the Red Sox optioned the 24-year-old lefthander out of big league camp to Triple A Pawtucket. He needs more time in the minor leagues after a Grapefruit League struggle in which he posted a 15.95 ERA with 13 strikeouts and 12 walks in 7⅓ innings.
Owens, once considered a key part of the Red Sox’ future, now represents uncertainty, with questions arising this spring about whether he is at a crossroads or, worse, has already passed one. A fan base once eager for his big league arrival — how long ago the clamor for his call-up in September 2014 now seems — expresses loud doubt about whether it will ever come.
The reality? Players develop on different schedules. Pitchers arrive on different schedules.
Some fly through the minors, as Owens once seemed he might be destined to do. Fellow tall lefties David Price and Chris Sale were big league starters by their age 23 seasons.
There were 90 pitchers who made 25 or more starts in the big leagues last year. That group’s average age for the first season in which they made 20 starts in the major leagues was 24 — the same “season age” at which Owens will be pitching this year.
Of the 24 lefties who started 25 or more big league games last year, the average age of their first full big league season of 20-plus starts was 23.
Some star-caliber pitchers such as Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Adam Wainwright, Dallas Keuchel, and Corey Kluber didn’t enjoy their first year of 20 or more starts until they were 25 or older. Across from Owens in the Red Sox dugout, Drew Pomeranz had to wait until he was 27 to crack a big league rotation in 2016.
But for Owens, there is an acknowledgment of the difficulty of a longer-than-expected process.
“You wait so long for it to click and it hasn’t happened,” Owens said Monday. “But I know I have confidence in my abilities. I have confidence in myself that eventually everything is going to synch up. I just keep that mentality, that same attitude, and hopefully it happens sooner rather than later.
“I think it’s just patience. Just being patient with your own game. I’m different than Drew. Drew is different than me. I’m different than every other guy in this rotation. It’s just a matter of how much patience you have and the ability to stay positive throughout the process.
“When you don’t have success on the mound, it’s going to make patience a lot harder, obviously. But at the same time, I think I do a good job of just staying with an even keel, coming to the clubhouse every day with the same attitude, working hard, having fun, mixing it up with the guys.”
The “working hard” component is one that Owens recognizes as the key factor in the direction of his career. This offseason, in an effort to hit the ground running and put his best size-17 foot forward in spring training, he started his weightlifting and throwing programs earlier than he ever had as a professional.
That effort produced some results. Owens now weighs 230 pounds, a far cry from what the pitcher recalls as the “170-something” pound pitcher whose bones seemed nearly visible when he was taken in the first round of the 2011 draft. And his fastball velocity, so often stuck in the high 80s last year, proved appreciably better this spring, as the lefthander worked at 90-94 in his most recent outing.
But the success was limited. The lefthander hoped that he’d arrive in spring training with his mechanics locked in, ready to throw strikes.
“Last year, there were a lot of adjustments start to start,” he said. “I don’t think I threw four starts in a row with the same mechanics. I think I was tinkering and trying to find — especially in Triple A, not in the big leagues as much — in Triple A really trying to find what worked for me and what worked on a consistent basis.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find it last year in Triple A. This offseason, I spent a lot of time mechanically, making adjustments. I came into camp feeling good but it just hasn’t turned over yet.
“I have long limbs and I want to fix my body mechanics and make myself more of an athlete. There was a lot of attention to that in Triple A and now finding what, mechanically, works for me and repeating it over and over until it becomes muscle memory so that when I’m on the mound, I’m not thinking about anything except executing a pitch.”
Last year, he walked 20 batters in 22 big league innings, while issuing a career-worst 5.3 free passes per nine innings in the minors. While his faltering control prevented big league success, he worked around his strike zone struggles to post a 3.53 ERA in Triple A Pawtucket.
It’s notable that he walked or hit 18 percent of the batters he faced in Triple A with the bases empty, pitching from the windup. With runners on base and pitching from the stretch, that mark sank to 13 percent — still high, but closer to manageable.
On Monday, Owens had a bullpen session that he and the Red Sox hope is the start of a correction. Instead of facing the plate at the start of his delivery, he squared his shoulders to first base, much as he does out of the stretch, in an effort to make it easier to maintain his proper direction toward the plate.
His openness to making a major change in his mechanics underscores Owens’s awareness of where he is right now.
“To Henry’s credit, he didn’t mince words,” manager John Farrell said. “He knows he’s capable of more. He knows he needs to pitch better.
“When a player articulates it clearly, it may be the first step toward making real change and adjustment. He’s got stuff to pitch in the big leagues. It’s got to be more consistent.”
There are no guarantees that Owens will piece together the puzzle.
“Henry is important to us,” said Farrell, noting that both David Price and Roenis Elias are unlikely to be ready to start the season on time. “His role here, his place here in our pitching depth is key. And yet we’ve got to do some things to get him more consistent, to be more dependable at this point in the short run.”
Owens recognizes the challenge.
“I still firmly believe in myself,” said Owens. “I still have the same mind-set of winning games for this ball club late in the year.”