Rounding the Bases: Henry Owens, an appreciation

Rudy C. Jones

Rudy C. Jones

With some games under our belt, we can start to pick up on a few trends going on throughout Minor League Baseball. One is how much better some notable starting pitchers have been in their second starts compared to their first. Lucas Giolito — MLB.com’s No. 43 prospect — rebounded from his opening start, during which he allowed three earned runs in three innings, to toss five scoreless innings of one-hit ball Thursday. Andrew Heaney — MLB.com’s top left-handed prospect — had a similar story. Same goes for 2013 top pick Mark Appel, Mariners right-hander Edwin Diaz and Padres right-hander Joe Ross.

Beyond prospects who rank in the top 20 in their respective organizations, Chad Green (Tigers), Darin Gorski (Mets) and James Dykstra (White Sox) also went through similar rebounds. There are any number of reasons why pitchers would stumble in their first outing and bounce back in their second. Nerves could play a part, even if the pitchers themselves don’t mention it. There is that early April weather, which Giolito said he wasn’t adequately prepared for in his first go-round. There are necessary course-corrections that need to be made. (Better off-speed stuff seemed to be a popular topic among the above pitchers.)

What I’m getting at is that consistency can be incredibly hard to come by early in the season, when everyone is just getting his feet under him. And that’s what makes Henry Owens’s start to 2014 jump out even more. Armed with a low-90s fastball and a dangerous changeup, the Red Sox left-hander began by, oh, just throwing a six-inning, rain-shortened no-hitter for Double-A Portland on Opening Night in Reading. He struck out nine and walked two in the first complete-game no-hitter by a Sea Dogs hurler in franchise history. On Wednesday, he allowed six hits — ouch, I guess — but again fanned nine in another 6 2/3 scoreless frames against Trenton.

At this early stage, he’s second in the Minors with 18 strikeouts — only Visalia’s Andrew Barbosa has more with 23 — and of the 68 Minor League pitchers with a 0.00 ERA as of Friday afternoon, he’s pitched the most innings (12 2/3). It’d be one thing to simply claim that these are two great starts — nothing more — and hold off on the amazement, but this is just a continuation of where Owens left off in 2013. He moved to the Double-A level in August and hit the ground running, posting a 1.78 ERA with 46 strikeouts in six starts (30 1/3 innings). For the season as a whole, he finished second in Minor League strikeouts with 169 in 135 innings.

“The thing that stood out for me was his feel for pitching,” Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett told me after the 2013 season. “He was able to thrive at such an advanced level. Obviously, he has very good stuff, and that starts with the good feel he has for his changeup and keeping hitters off-balance. It complements the fastball well and makes for two tough pitches to hit.”

At this point, every Owens start is becoming must-follow for not only Red Sox fans but also all prospect hounds. (It’s perhaps not quite at Pedro Martinez-in-1999 level, although a few more starts like these first two would push it closer.) It’s not out of the question to foresee a promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket in a few months and a September call-up to Boston. As I’ve said, it’s early yet, but it’s still OK to have your interest piqued in a performance like Owens’. As we’ve seen, it’s not all that common.

The Bell Tolls Early: Is it too early to say I told you so? Don’t kid yourself. Of course it is. Still, I have to be a little encouraged by the early returns on Pirates No. 6 prospect Josh Bell down at Class A Advanced Bradenton. The 21-year-old right fielder is 10-for-24 (.417) with a homer, a triple, three doubles and three RBIs through his first six games with the Marauders. He has at least one hit in each of those half-dozen contests and multiple hits in four of them. Furthermore, the one homer on the resume wasn’t exactly a cheapo either. It came on a 1-2 pitch from Rays No. 16 prospect and Charlotte right-hander Jeff Ames that the switch-hitting Bell “smashed” for a solo shot to right field last Saturday.

I called Bell the “player most likely to rise in the prospect rankings in 2014” when MLB.com released its list in January because I believed — and still believe — that another healthy season from the Bucs outfielder should mean a more powerful one as well. Though it’s too early to claim any nails have been hit on the head, the start is encouraging. As for where Bell’s hot start places on the Shelton Sustainability Index, give him Two Sheltons. He’s neither going to bat .417 for too long nor will he slug .750. But is he capable of competing with Albert Almora for the title of the Florida State League’s best hitter? I’d say so.

Mascot Items of the Week: Akron revealed its newest mascot to go along with the name change.

And Tulsa. . .well, I’ve got nothing, except to say I don’t think I’ll be able to look my fridge in the face for a while.

Quick Hits

– Taijuan Walker struck out 10 over five scoreless innings with Double-A Jackson and told colleague Ashley Marshall, “Whenever they call me up, I’m ready for it. I don’t want to be a hero, I don’t want to be that guy that tries to push through just to get that next start. I know my own body best, and if I had felt something that didn’t feel right, I would tell the team and get re-evaluated.”

FanGraphs’ Carston Cistulli explains which pitching tools translated best to the Majors for the game’s best prospects from 2005. Cistulli found that hurlers with the best curveball (Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez) were more likely to stick to starting while those with the best sliders (Jonathan Papelbon) were more apt to move to the bullpen. That’s good news for the likes of Archie Bradley, Noah Syndergaard and Robert Stephenson, each of which received 60-plus grades on their curveballs from MLB.com.

– He’s no longer in the Minors, but it’s still fun to watch Billy Hamilton at his fastest. Jeff Sullivan, also at FanGraphs, shows how Hamilton, singled, stole second (against Yadier Molina!), moved to third on a fly-ball out and then scored on one of the shortest sac fly you’ve ever seen.

In Baseball Prospectus’  latest “What Scouts Are Saying” post, Braves infielder Tommy La Stella picks up some big praise while Royals outfielder Bubba Starling, well, doesn’t.

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