Henry Owens to Debut in Boston

With Rick Porcello headed to the disabled list following a triceps injury, the Red Sox were in need of a starting pitcher for tonight’s start against the Yankees. Rather than turning to a Triple-A scrub to take Porcello’s spot in the rotation, the Sox opted to call up top prospect Henry Owens. Owens will take the mound in Yankee stadium tonight for his big league debut.

Owens, 22, has pitched exclusively at Triple-A Pawtucket this year, where he’s put up a 3.16 ERA and 3.68 FIP over 122 innings of work. The 6-foot-6 lefty has struck out 21% of the batters he’s faced, and has walked 11%. Other than Owens’ height, none of the figures cited above sound particularly impressive. Owens’ strikeout rate is hardly better than the International League average of 18.6%, and his walk rate is significantly worse than average. If you didn’t know any better, you might look at Owens’ 2015 stat line and conclude that he’s a fringe prospect.

Owens’ 2015 numbers may not be much to look at, but he performed markedly better in his first three seasons as a pro. In 2012, the year after the Red Sox took him 36th overall, Owens struck out 29% of opponent batters faced in Low-A. The next year, he whiffed 30% between High-A and Double-A in 2013. However, while the strikeouts were certainly encouraging, his 11% walk rate inflated his FIP to 3.61 over that span.

Owens chipped away at his walk problem last season, when he walked a perfectly acceptable 9% of batters faced between Double-A and Triple-A. Coupled with a 26% strikeout rate, this made for a solid overall performance, and was enough to vault him into the top 50 on just about every prospect list.

Although those walks have resurfaced this year, Owens has fared substantially better of late, especially in the walks department. Over his last nine starts, he’s recorded a 2.64 ERA and 2.83 FIP, on the strength of an uncharacteristic 6% walk rate. Here’s a visualization of Owens’ walk rate by way of a time series graph. The trend is clear.

BB

Unsurprisingly, his FIP has moved in lockstep with his plummeting walks.

FIP

Despite his unremarkable season-wide numbers, KATOH is still relatively bullish on Owens’ future. My system forecasts him for 4.9 WAR through age-28, which would have made him the 67th ranked prospect on KATOH’s preseason list. This forecast is down a notch from his 6.2 WAR projection yielded by his 2014 numbers.

Let’s pull up some comps. Using league-adjusted, regressed stats, along with age, I calculated the Mahalanobis distance between Owens’ 2015 stats and every season at Triple-A since 1991 in which a pitcher faced at least 350 batters. Below, you’ll find a list of historical players whose performances were nearest and dearest to Owens’, ranked from most similar to least similar.

Rank Mah Dist Name IP through 28 WAR through 28
1 0.89 Damian Moss 362 0.3
2 0.92 Jason Hirsh 166 0.6
3 1.25 Anthony Ranaudo* 55 0.0
4 1.38 Sun-Woo Kim 337 1.4
5 1.67 Greg Gohr 183 0.5
6 1.72 Charlie Haeger 83 0.0
7 1.87 Julio Valera 304 3.1
8 1.98 Nick Kingham* 0 0.0
9 2.01 Roy Halladay 1,116 25.0
10 2.02 Justin Wilson* 176 1.6
11 2.19 Bob Wickman 532 5.6
12 2.44 Russ Springer 352 1.3
13 2.57 Roger Pavlik 671 8.6
14 2.58 John Patterson 423 6.5
15 2.59 Mike Meyers 0 0.0
16 2.73 Andy Ashby 710 7.5
17 2.75 Tim Pugh 355 2.1
18 2.80 Scott Service 91 0.0
19 2.82 Rodrigo Rosario 8 0.2
20 2.87 Sean Nolin* 2 0.0

*Pitchers who have yet to play their age-28 seasons.

Aside from Roy Halladay, that’s not a particularly exciting list of names. To be fair, though, many of these pitchers didn’t have anywhere near the type of stuff that Owens does. Per Kiley McDaniel, Owens’ fastball sits between 90 mph and 92 mph with good deception, extension, command and movement, and also wields a solid-average curveball and plus changeup. Oh yeah, and he’s also a lefty.

Relatively few pitchers come through the minors with stuff of that caliber, and Damian Moss and Charlie Haeger certainly weren’t among those few. Let’s thin the field a bit by weeding out the non-prospects, and zeroing in on the guys who were either drafted in the first round or cracked Baseball America’s top 100 list the winter before their Owens-esqe seasons.

Rank Mah Dist Name IP through 28 WAR through 28
2 0.92 Jason Hirsh 166 0.6
3 1.25 Anthony Ranaudo* 55 0.0
7 1.87 Julio Valera 304 3.1
8 1.98 Nick Kingham* 0 0.0
9 2.01 Roy Halladay 1,116 25.0
12 2.44 Russ Springer 352 1.3
14 2.58 John Patterson 423 6.5

*Pitchers who have yet to play their age-28 seasons.

Other than Roy Halladay, who blossomed into the best pitcher in baseball, none of these names are particularly impressive. Even among the prospects, we find a bunch of players who never quite lived up to expectations. A couple of these pitchers — Jason Hirsh and John Patterson — had otherwise promising careers derailed by injuries, while Julio Valera and Russ Springer simply never stuck in big league rotations. The jury’s still out on Anthony Ranaudo and Nick Kingham, but the outlook doesn’t look great for either pitcher. Ranaudo has a 4.60 FIP as a 25-year-old in Triple-A, while Kingham recently underwent Tommy John surgery.

Does the collective failure of the non-Halladay members of this group mean that Owens is a long shot to have a successful career? No, of course not. It would be foolish to make any conclusions about a prospect’s trajectory based on just a handful of players, no matter how similar they looked at the same age. However, the names above do a fine job of illustrating the risks associated with Owens, and more broadly, with pitching prospects in general. Like Owens, Hirsh and Valera looked like perfectly fine pitching prospects when they’re called up, but were bounced from the league just a few years later.

Tonight’s debut at Yankee Stadium notwithstanding, Owens will have the luxury of breaking into the majors in a relatively low-pressure scenario. At 47-59, the Red Sox are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff race. So John Farrell will have little reason not send Owens out there every fifth day, even if his pesky walk problem resurfaces. Over the next two months, the Red Sox should gain a sense of what they have in Owens. And if all goes as is expected, he could easily wind up being an important part of the next competitive Red Sox team.

We hoped you liked reading Henry Owens to Debut in Boston by Chris Mitchell!

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Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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arc
Guest
arc

Sox fans are saying the organization has instructed Owens to primarily throw his curveball instead of his plus-change this year for development purposes, leading to lower K-rates.

Sounds plausible, but also sounds like something easy to just make up. It’ll be interesting to see how he uses his arsenal after the promotion. I assume you forget about development and use your best weapons.

Meh
Guest
Meh

You beat me to it, but as a Pawsox fan who has seen him this year I can absolutely confirm this theory.