April 20, 2016 at 8:00 AM
PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- With Joe Kelly leaving Tuesday night’s game due to a right shoulder impingement, the starting pitching depth within the Red Sox system could be tested early. The Pawtucket rotation features three left-handed starters with varying levels of major league experience in Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and Roenis Elias. I have had the chance to see both Owens and Johnson start this season and each showed why they are in consideration for the call-up, but also why there is not a clear top option at this point.
- Owens started Opening Night in Pawtucket, throwing six innings while only giving up one hit and striking out eight hitters. However, Owens did walk three and his command and control were inconsistent, throwing only 55 strikes out of 92 pitches. It should be noted that it was very cold, with almost 20-mph wind during this start, so the conditions were not ideal. Hitters from both sides struggled, with only seven-combined hits and 30 strikeouts between the two teams.
Owens has a tall pitcher’s frame, listed at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds. Though he has put on some weight since signing, his frame is still lean. At this point, however, he does not project to add significant weight, as he does not have the body type even with his height to support much more size. Owens delivery is controlled from a three-quarters arm slot, and with a high leg kick. He has natural deception in his delivery, with his arm coming through slowly and staying behind his body until he releases the ball. As a result of this deception, even though his fastball only touched 90 mph a few times, he was able to be effective and even get a few swing-and-misses with it. Throwing the pitch for strikes was a struggle a few times during the outing, as was commanding it within the strike zone, something that has been a concern with Owens since he joined the organization.
As usual, Owens’ best secondary pitch was his changeup, which he threw 74-78 mph. He got three of his strikeouts with the offering. It showed late fade and drop, and was thrown with the same arm speed as his fastball. You can tell he has confidence in the pitch as he was willing to throw it in any count to both righties and lefties. The pitch is a true out-pitch and will play at the big league level. More encouragingly, Owens threw the most sliders I have ever seen him throw, and while it was inconsistent, it did flash average. Owens threw the pitch in the 81-84 mph range, with short horizontal movement. The pitch looked like a cutter at times and he struggled to throw it for strikes consistently. With continued refinement, it looks like a pitch that could be part of his arsenal and give a very different look to his slow curveball. Owens also mixed in that curveball, throwing it 68-73 mph, but primarily 70-71 mph. He snapped off a few good ones, burying them down and out of the zone. He also got two strikeouts with the pitch, one swing and one looking. I have concerns about how the pitch will play at the big level, as there are not many curveballs as slow as his. As a change of pace pitch, however, and given the emergence of his slider, it adds something to his arsenal.
- Johnson threw later in the homestand, going just four innings, while allowing five hits, one run, one walk, and striking out four. This was Johnson’s first regular season start since August 2015, and he was on a pitch count, only throwing 76 pitches, 51 of them for strikes.
Johnson has a strong, filled-out pitcher’s frame, listed at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds. He has a strong pitchability and does a nice job repeating his delivery from a high three-quarters arm slot. Johnson showed off five pitches during his outing, but none of them project as above-average offerings. Though he does not throw hard, he really knows how to pitch and mixes all of his pitches well. He can throw all of them for strikes and when he is repeating his delivery, he consistently pounds the strike zone.
Johnson’s fastball sat 87-89 mph, topping out at 90 mph. The pitch is on the straight side and he lost velocity as he worked deeper into the game, dropping down to 85-87 mph in his fourth and final inning of work. His primary secondary offering was his curveball, which ranged from 71-76 mph with slow, long break. The pitch was sharper in the higher velocity range—74 mph and up—and showed the potential to miss bats. He threw his changeup at 79-81 mph and the movement varied depending on how he manipulated the ball, showing cut at times and fade at others. He also mixed in a slider at 80-82 mph with short vertical movement, and a cutter at 83-85 mph.
Verdict: Owens has the best pitch of the duo, with his changeup grading out higher than any of Johnson’s pitches. As a result, Owens is more likely to miss bats and is also tougher to hit when he is on, especially when he is commanding his fastball. The concern with Owens, however, is given his inconsistent command and control, there is a wide range of potential outcomes in a given outing. He has had trouble throwing strikes at times in Pawtucket this year with ten walks in eighteen innings, and even when on, he is not often efficient. While he could give the team six shutout innings, there is also a chance he is unable to find the strike zone and only throws two or three innings, and leaves the team behind early.
Johnson has stronger pitchability and better command and control, but he does not have as much upside as Owens in a given outing. However, Johnson is less likely to blow up early and will most likely keep you in the game, throwing five or six solid innings. Another consideration that is a big point in Owen’s favor is pitch count. With Johnson’s injury last season and toe injury that set him back in spring training, he has been on a pitch count in each of his first two outings starting off with 76 pitches and then throwing 85 pitches in his second outing. Owens, on the other hand, has thrown 92, 99, and 95 pitches in his three outings. For that reason, I would give the slight edge to Owens should the Red Sox need a starter to fill in for Kelly right away.
Photo credit: Henry Owens and Brian Johnson by Kelly O'Connor
Ian Cundall is Director of Scouting for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall.