Pitcher Rudy Owens, traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Houston Astros, was assigned to Oklahoma City. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
As you may have read, TCB will have reviews of the minor league teams' seasons, and also profile a few players from the AAA, AA, and A+ minor league teams. This week, TCB is reviewing the Oklahoma City Red Hawks of the AAA Pacific Coast League (PCL). I will focus on Rudy Owens, a starting pitcher who was traded by the Pirates to the Astros, and pitched in the Oklahoma City rotation during the second half of the season.
Owens is not your typical choice for this series. He didn't have a particularly strong half season with the Red Hawks. But, given that he was part of the Wandy Rodriguez trade, I think fans have a special interest in examining how he performed. Plus, at age 24, Owens is a likely candidate to pitch for the Astros ML team at some point during the next year or so. Owens did pitch well in the last few weeks of the season, and was an integral part of the Red Hawks late season surge that kept the team in the playoff hunt during the final weekend of the season.
Owens pitched 117 innings for the Pirates' AAA affiliate (Indianapolis) in the International League (IL) and 45 innings for the Red Hawks in the PCL. So, any way you look at it, Owens' Oklahoma City performance is subject to small sample size caveats. For the overall season, playing for both organizations' AAA clubs, Owens had good results, with a 3.48 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP, and a 2.77 K/BB ratio. But, as we will discuss shortly, his OKC results were noticeably worse than his first half of the season with Indianapolis. Owens' last start for Indianapolis was on July 21 against Toledo, and his first start for the Red Hawks was on July 26 against Iowa.
Owens was No. 8 on PiratesProspects.com's mid-season Top 20. Owens' fine beginning (2.35 ERA in the first 75 innings) to his 2012 Indianapolis season probably influenced the high ranking by that web site. Minor League Ball had him ranked at No. 16 on the Pirates' list coming into the 2012 season, saying that "he has a shot a becoming a number 4 starter." When Owens was traded to the Astros, he was touted as nearly major league ready, and a possible immediate fill-in for the Astros rotation.
However, Owens had a rough start to his Red Hawks season. Owens' ERA increased from 3.14 to 4.34 in moving from Indianapolis to OKC. His FIP increased from 3.54 to 5.84. But, as noted above, the Red Hawks tenure is a particularly small sample, and could well be distorted by the effect of Owens' transition to a new organization and a new league.
Moreover, Owens' performance with the Red Hawks is a tale of two periods. Owens' ERA for July (two Red Hawks starts) was 7.72, but his ERA for the remainder of the Red Hawks season was a respectable 3.47, which is almost exactly the same as his overall 2012 ERA for both teams. In his first two starts, Owens' had an uncharacteristic 16% walk rate, but in the remainder of his starts for the Red Hawks, he posted a very good 4.6% walk rate. Owens is also an unusual case of a Red Hawks pitcher who had a lower ERA on the road (4.07) than at home (4.50). However, I wouldn't put much significance in that differential, given the sample size and the marginal differences in peripheral stats for home and road.
Down the stretch, Owens pitched well as the Red Hawks made a charge for playoff contention. On Aug. 21st, 26th, and 31st, Owens pitched 6 innings in each game and allowed 2 or fewer runs.
Perhaps the most significant concern in comparing Owens' performance for Oklahoma City, relative to Indianapolis earlier in the year, is the significant deterioration in his BB% and K%. His K rate decreased from 17.5% to 11.2%, and his BB rate increased from 5.2% to 7.1%. As mentioned above, his higher walk rate appears to be an aberration based upon the first two starts for OKC, since his walk rate fell below 5% in August. However, the lower K rate may be more concerning. Owens does not profile as a pitcher who will post high strike outs. But a 11% K rate is low even for his profile, and is unlikely to lead to major league success, particularly for a pitcher who does not have a high groundball rate. We don't really know if this diminished strike out rate is just random variation in a small sample or a symptom of other issues, like fatigue, injury, poor mechanics, etc.. Owens also saw a dip in his groundball rate for OKC, but I wouldn't view this as significant, given the sample size.
Owens generally throws a fastball in the 88 - 93 range. He has a good change up and a curveball. Owens' ultimate success will depend upon good command of his pitches and low walk rates, which he has shown in his minor league career. Over the last three years of his career, he has had bouts when his velocity wanes, sitting in the lower end of his range (mid to high 80's). Inconsistent velocity is not unusual for young pitchers, because they are still working on maintaining consistent mechanics and usually are carrying a higher work load at each level. Reportedly Owens was throwing his fastball in the mid or high 80's in at least one start for OKC, but I don't have access to velocity readings in other games. However, it's possible that a down tick in Owens' velocity contributed to the weaker K rates when he moved to the Red Hawks.
Several factors may have contributed to Owens' inconsistency with the Red Hawks. First, he was transitioning to a more offensive oriented league. The average BABIP for the PCL is 20 points higher than the IL, and the PCL average OPS is 50 points higher than than the IL. I wouldn't doubt that a pitcher like Owens has to get used to the change. Second, I don't know, but I suspect that Owens may have experienced some fatigue in the second half of the season, which can affect velocity and mechanics. Owens pitched 162 innings, more than he pitched in any minor league season. "Total batters faced" (TBF) is a workload indicator which is more granular than innings pitched. Owens faced 677 batters in 2012, which is 40% more than last season and 16% more than his highest workload season.
Last year Owens' performance in August blew up (16.7 ERA), and he was shutdown for shoulder fatigue. Given this background, I wouldn't be surprised if Owens was working through fatigue as he pitched for the Red Hawks.
Hopefully, Owens' most recent games with the Red Hawks are an indication of his ability to prevent runs in the future. He appears to be a lefthanded "pitch to contact" pitcher in the mold of a Zach Duke, Scott Diamond, or Matt Harrison. He could become a No. 4 or 5 pitcher in the Astros' rotation. If that doesn't work out, he could become a long reliever in the bullpen.