12/31/09 10:00 AM ET
Owens' focus leads to breakout year
Pirates southpaw shows maturity, earns Class A MiLBY
By Jonathan Mayo / MLB.com
"He is a left-handed pitcher in every sense of the word," Pirates farm director Kyle Stark quipped.
"I've always been one of the guys who likes to have fun," Owens said. "I tried to keep it down and tried to be a little more professional this past year. That's one thing I've definitely learned, when to shut my mouth and do what they tell me. I've grown up a lot.
The southpaw's ability to keep that left-handedness in check is a big reason why he earned the MiLBY for Class A Starting Pitcher of the Year.
"I still had a lot of fun out there," he said. "I like being left-handed. I guess that's what they call me and I guess it fits perfectly."
Owens, who just turned 22 on Dec. 18, was a South Atlantic League All-Star and was chosen as the league's Most Outstanding Pitcher after going 10-1 with a 1.70 ERA in 19 starts. His ERA would've easily led the SAL had he not been promoted a level to Class A Advanced Lynchburg, keeping him from logging enough innings with West Virginia.
In 100 2/3 innings with the Power, Owens allowed just 71 hits for a .197 batting average against, walked only 15 and struck out 91. Calling it a break-out season for the 2006 28th-round Draft-and-follow selection would be a big understatement.
Stark credited Owens' improved outlook on pitching for his success in '09.
"Probably the maturity on how he approached his job," Stark said of Owens, who finished 11-2 with a 2.10 ERA overall after six starts with Lynchburg in '09, compared to a 4-10 record with a 5.06 ERA over his first two summers. "There was a greater level of focus and intensity every time he threw a baseball, in his throwing program, in his bullpens, and that carried over into games. His approach toward preparation reached a new level and that carried over into execution."
That execution included a 32-inning scoreless streak that began in June and five no-hit innings in one of those starts. Owens gave up just five earned runs over his last nine starts with West Virginia, a span that covered 52 innings (that's an 0.87 ERA).
"I knew it was there," Owens said. "I had always pitched well in high school and college. Starting in pro ball, coming off a two-month rehab program, I didn't feel comfortable. This year, I came out and felt comfortable with everything I had.
"Everything I was working on, my curveball, changeup and fastball command, I had that ready to go, so I just went out and did the things I needed to do. That was the main thing. I felt comfortable on the mound and that I could get people out."
Not that there weren't lessons along the way. Owens remembers an outing in early May, against the Hagerstown Suns, where he was off his game. The Pirates, like many organizations, have a rule that if a pitcher exceeds a certain pitch count in a given inning, he has to come out of the game. Owens gave up four runs on three hits in one inning in that start and had to be lifted.
"The pitching coach basically told me, 'Don't do that again. I think you're better than that,'" Owens said. "I took that to heart and focused every single day on what I needed to do the rest of the season to work my way to the big leagues."
The bump up to Lynchburg was definitely a move in that direction and a reward for the new-found maturity Owens had displayed over the course of the season. He got in six starts during the regular season, then made two more as the Hillcats won the Carolina League title.
"Moving up to Lynchburg was awesome, playing in the playoffs and winning a championship," Owens said. "I'll never forget that. That was something else -- I can't wait to get back out there."
Neither can the Pirates, who hope Owens can maintain his focus and use his three-pitch mix to get hitters out at the upper levels. Owens may have been under the radar entering the 2009 season, but his award-winning performance will definitely mean more eyes will be on him in 2010.
"I've answered more questions about him than anyone other than Pedro Alvarez," Stark said. "He kept going out and pitching better and better and almost forced our hands where we had to move him up.
"People have asked if we're surprised that he came out of nowhere," Stark added. "He came out of nowhere if you weren't in the organization. No one expected him to go out and do what he did, but we had high expectations for him."