Wednesday Dish: Owens Breaks Out

Rudy Owens isn’t the kind of pitcher who will light up radar guns or prospect rankings. But look at the top of the South Atlantic League’s ERA leaderboard and that’s where you’ll find him.

The 21-year-old lefthander with low Class A West Virginia leads the SAL in both ERA (1.79) and wins (10) and went 8-1 in the season’s first-half despite pitching for a team that finished last in its division.

Owens was a member of the last class of draft-and-follows. The Pirates took him in the 28th round of the 2006 Draft out of Mesa (Ariz.) High, then saw Owens flash low-90s velocity at Chandler-Gilbert (Ariz.) CC, prompting them to ante up $390,000 to sign him and keep him out of the ’07 Draft. Owens spent his first two pro seasons in short-season leagues, compiling an uninspiring 4-10, 5.06 record in the process. Not that those numbers are comforting for Sally League hitters, who are hitting .194 against Owens.

Owens employs a standard three-pitch arsenal of a four-seam fastball, curveball and changeup. His fastball clocks in at 88-91 mph on most nights and Owens looks like your typical pitchability lefthander, though that’s a label his pitching coach, Jeff Johnson, is hesitant to apply.

"I wouldn’t say he’s a typical lefty," Johnson said. "But he’s what you think. He pitches away to righthanders very well, has the ability to come inside, and likes to do that a lot on righthanded hitters. Fastball usage is where it’s at for him right now."

Owens pounds the strikezone with his fastball, which tails away from righthanded hitters, and doesn’t hesitate to throw to both sides of the plate, consistently getting ahead in the count. For now, the Pirates have shelved his two-seamer, emphasizing the importance of his four-seamer. Johnson expects the team will let him re-introduce the two-seamer next year.

"We’re trying to keep his velocity and extension up with four-seamers," Johnson said. "Learn how to pitch down in the zone first, and then once we add the two-seamer to him, that’ll give him some needed sink at that time."

Owens throws a slurvy curveball, and both of his offspeed pitches have gotten more consistent as the year has gone on.

Oh, and he might be the hottest pitcher in the minors.

Owens hasn’t allowed a run in over a month, a shutout streak of 31 innings that spans his last five starts. He’s allowed only 14 hits over that span and went four starts without issuing a single walk. His strikeout-to-walk ratio during the streak now stands at a mere 30-to-1. Included in the streak are a start on June 16 against Kannapolis when he allowed only one hit over eight scoreless innings while fanning nine. In his next start, Owens struck out seven over five no-hit innings in Hickory.

Overall, Owens has won eight straight decisions dating back to early May, running his record for the year to 10-1.

"He’s really only had one outing (during the streak) where he had to battle with runners in scoring position and less that two outs and stuff like that," Johnson said. "He’s kept himself out of trouble, getting the leadoff hitter out and all those things that are important to keeping runs off the board."