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April 9, 2013 at 1:22 PM

Owens features harder breaking ball in efficient High A debut

Henry Owens caused a stir during spring training when he reportedly struck out 13 of 15 batters faced in an intrasquad game.

But as the tall left-hander continues to make good on the projection that has vaulted Owens onto many top prospect lists after his debut last year in Greenville, the California prep product is striving to go deeper into outings and pitch more efficiently in his sophomore campaign.

“Since I get so many strikeouts… I don’t want to walk two, strike out three (each inning),” the 20-year-old Owens said. “I’d rather get two groundballs and a strikeout, that’s fine with me.”

In his first Carolina League start with High A Salem on Saturday, Owens, a 2011 supplemental-round pick, made good on that wish. He fanned four — all within a span of five batters between the second and third inning — but coaxed seven groundballs out of the Frederick Keys on his way to five scoreless, two-hit innings. Salem ultimately lost 3-2 on a walk-off sacrifice fly in the ninth.

“It took him the first couple of batters to get into the groove,” Salem pitching coach Kevin Walker said after the game. “But once he got in and settled in and got comfortable, he established the fastball early, worked it aggressively and brought the changeup along. When he had that mix going, he was in complete control.”

In his first High-A inning, Owens worked almost exclusively with his fastball, which sat 90-92 mph. He began to mix in his high-70s breaking ball and changeup late in the first, but continued to work predominantly with his fastball in the first two frames.

He challenged Frederick outfielder Branden Webb, who went 4 for 5 with a home run the previous night, with three high fastballs — and Webb flailed at all three to go down swinging.

But from there, Owens began to mix his pitches and found a groove. He also worked his high-70s changeup effectively, consistently locating the pitch down in the zone and with late tail. His curveball, which sits in the 77-80 mph, shows two-plane break. He also throws a softer version of the pitch to locate for strikes early in the count, a pitch Owens said he’d stop throwing if it stopped being effective.

The breaking ball is an area of noticeable improvement for Owens. Last year, his slower, “get-me-over” breaking ball sat in the high-60s, while his harder curve was a mid-70s offering. The left-hander said the organization has encouraged him over the winter and through spring training to add velocity to the pitch.

“At times it was a little soft today but when he does throw it hard, its got power depth to it,” Walker said.

Additionally, Owens worked in the off-season to become more comfortable in his mechanics — something seen as a developmental key for him after Owens mixed flashes of dominance with frustrating inconsistency last year in Low A Greenville. Owens had a 4.87 ERA in 23 games with the Drive, but 130 strikeouts and 47 walks issued in 101 2/3 innings, he boasted one of the highest walk rates and strikeouts rates in the organization.

He said he’s trying not to rock back in his delivery, a quirk that would cause the ball to rise high to his arm side last season. Walker was particularly impressed with how controlled Owens’ pitching motion was given his long layoff from spring training and the nerves that come with starting at a new level.

“The guy’s still young, he’s still developing, and he had a nice three-pitch mix going today,” Walker said. “I’m just happy with the way he threw.

“Even though I’m removed from the game, I still know the emotions that go through it,” Walker said. “You don’t forget those first outings. You always want to start the season off as best as you can.”

Photo Credit: Henry Owens by Kelly O'Connor.

Jon Meoli is a Senior Columnist at SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli