Red Sox: Henry Owens a “can’t miss” prospect that likely will

18 months ago, Henry Owens was the top prospect in the Red Sox organization. However, a loss of velocity and command has placed his career in grave danger.

Left-handed pitcher Henry Owens, selected by the Boston Red Sox as the 36th overall pick in the first round of 2011 amateur draft, resembles a stock bought at high cost. Unfortunately, while the “stock” escalated in value, peaking just prior to the 2015 season, it has become a “toxic” asset.

While it may seem hard to believe, Owens was touted as Boston’s number one prospect, and the 20th in all of baseball, just prior to the start of the 2015 season, according to MLB Pipeline.

The two primary reasons for Owens’ demise are his decline in fastball velocity and his abysmal control.

Control problems have plagued Owens throughout his entire minor league career; nonetheless, he remained successful because of his ability to strike batters out and limit the opposition’s batting average. For example, from 2013 through 2014 and across multiple minor league levels, Owens pitched 294 innings, was 28-11, posted a 2.82 ERA, a WHIP of 1.13 and a Home Run Rate of 1.6%. He also struck out 28.1% of all batters faced, walked 10.5% of all batters faced, and had a 2.67 strikeout to walk ratio.

Owens appeared to be on the fast track to the majors in 2014, as he was named a minor league All-Star and selected to the Futures Game. That same year, he went 17-5 with a 2.94 ERA, striking out 170 batters while walking only 59 in 159.0 innings pitched. Owens also limited opponents to 121 hits, 10 of which exited the ballpark.

In 2015 and 2016 as a member of the Pawtucket Red Sox, Owens’ star began to lose some of its luster as the Home Runs and Bases on Balls increased as the Strikeouts decreased. During this period, Owens went 11-14 with a 3.43 ERA in 241.2 innings pitched. He also posted a WHIP of 1.28, a 1.9% Home Run Rate, a Strikeout Rate of 21.5% and a Walk Rate of 12.8%.

Over the past two seasons, Owens has started 15 games in the Major Leagues, going 4-5 with a 5.27 ERA. Only four of those 15 starts have been of the “Quality” variety and his other numbers are even worse. He has allowed 81 hits in 80.1 innings pitched and 12 of those hits have left the ballpark, a Home Run Rate of 3.4%. He also owns a strikeout Rate of just 18.3% and a Walk Rate of 11.8%. His WHIP is a horrific 1.53.

As poor as Owens’ statistics are at both the minor-league level and the major-league level over the past two years, his statistics for 2016 at the aforementioned levels are precipitously worse.

In 2016 at Pawtucket, Owens is 8-6 with a 3.70 ERA in 119.1 innings pitched. He has posted a WHIP of 1.40, a Home Run Rate of 2.3%, a Strikeout Rate of 22.4%, and a Walk Rate of 14.3%.

In 2016 at the Major League level, Owens has pitched 17.1 innings across four starts. His record is 0-1 with an ERA of 7.79, and a WHIP of 2.13. His Home Run Rate is 6.0%, his Strikeout Rate is 18.1%, and his Walk Rate is 21.7%.

May 5, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Henry Owens (60) walks towards the dugout after being relieved against the Chicago White Sox during the fourth inning at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Owens’ Walk Rate has dramatically increased over the last three years, while his Strikeout Rate has dramatically decreased. I would suspect that a large portion of the blame for this trend is a substantial drop in his four-seam fastball velocity.

The only data at my disposal are his velocity readings at the Futures Game in June 2014, and all MLB games over the past two seasons.

According to Brooks Baseball, at the Futures game, his average four-seam velocity was a robust 93.1 mph. In 2015, Owens’ average fastball velocity was 90.4 mph while in 2016, that value has dropped all the way down to 89.2 mph.

18 months ago, Henry Owens was the 20th best prospect in Major League Baseball. At present, he is likely not a member of the top 20 MLB prospects with the name, “Henry.” The source of most decreases in pitcher effectiveness can be predominantly attributed to a decrease in velocity. Drops in fastball velocity of only a couple of mph can be the difference between a strikeout or a Home Run and a pitch fouled back or one squared up.

If the pitcher is unaware of this drop in velocity, the hitters’ responses to his pitches will quickly alert him. This results in an unwillingness to throw one’s fastball in the strike zone and is often manifested by an increase in bases on balls. While it appears that the pitcher has lost command, and technically he has, the root cause is the decline in velocity and pitcher confidence.

Perhaps Henry Owens’ velocity will eventually return or he will learn to pitch with his reduced velocity. If neither of the aforementioned events occur, then Owens will likely be looking at a career as a minor league hurler.