Rudy Owens has been phenomenal this season, easily a shoe in for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league pitcher of the year. He could also very well be the break out player of the year. Owens had a 4.97 ERA last year with State College, thanks to their innovative heavy fastball approach focused on fastball command. This season he put up a 1.70 ERA in West Virginia, followed by a 3.86 ERA in his limited time in Lynchburg.
I interviewed Rudy after his magnificent performance against the Wilmington Blue Rocks on September 10th, in which he threw six shutout innings, allowing four hits, one walk, and striking out six. This is what he had to say about his amazing season:
Tim: You’ve gone from being off the radar at the start of the season to being one of the best prospects in the Pirates’ minor league system this year. What has been the key to your success so far?
Rudy: I think just going out there and throwing the ball over the plate. Using my fastball to hit my spots, I think my fastball location has been key for me this year. Then just working off that with my curveball and changeup is keeping the hitters off balance, and just getting outs.
Tim: A lot of focus in State College last year was on commanding the fastball. How has that helped your success this year?
Rudy: A ton. It’s helped me a lot just being able to put the fastball wherever I want to. I feel like at any time if I want to throw the fastball inside or outside, I can hit that spot any time I want.
Tim: So you feel the heavy fastball approach has really worked?
Rudy: It’s helped me. Some people it might not, but it’s helped me with my progression through the year.
Tim: You’ve been described as a finesse pitcher. How do you feel about that? Is that how you would describe yourself?
Rudy: I really don’t know what to describe myself as. I don’t know what “finesse” means. I’m definitely not a power pitcher. I don’t throw low to mid 90s. I sit about 88-91 consistently. I just go out there and throw the ball over the plate and make the hitters get themselves out.
Tim: You mentioned the curveball. I read that you have been asked to throw the curveball more this year, mixing it in with your fastball and changeup, which your changeup has gotten good reviews. How do you feel about your curveball now, compared to the fastball and changeup?
Rudy: Last year I was throwing a slider, and it wasn’t missing the hitter’s bats, and they’ve got me throwing a curveball, or a slurve, this year. It’s helped out a lot. I’m definitely throwing it consistently for strikes. Last year in (the instructional league) and in Spring Training I was still getting the feel for it, but I feel like I’ve gotten the feel for that pitch. I’m able to throw it for strikes, and I’m able to throw it for a strikeout pitch as well.
Tim: How has the talent level been between West Virginia and Lynchburg?
Rudy: The hitting is obviously better. I think the biggest difference is their approach coming up. You definitely don’t get them swinging at every pitch in the strike zone. You can tell they come up with a plan, and whenever they get that pitch they want to hit, they definitely hit it. It’s not that big of a difference between here and West Virginia, but there is a slight difference that you can tell.
Tim: You’ve had a little bit of struggles lately. What would you attribute that to? Is that more the higher level, or would that be an increase in innings?
Rudy: I think the biggest thing with that part is just not consistently throwing five innings every five days. I think that might be a difference in the game that I’ve been throwing. It’s something that I’ve got to adjust to, and it’s something they had a plan for. I just have to go out there and throw the ball. I don’t feel tired. I still feel 100 percent from when I did at the beginning of the season. So I just gotta adjust to being shut down for awhile, then being able to come out and throw and shut down again and be able to handle it.
Tim: How has the increase in innings worn on you?
Rudy: You can definitely tell here and there. The aches and pains. Just little stuff like that. It’s not that big of an issue. It’s just something you’ve got to work with. You’ve gotta be able to notice your body is getting tired, and you’ve gotta know when to take it easy and when to go hard. I think I’ve made a pretty good adjustment with that, and I’m trying to continue with it.
Tim: You’ve been in the system with both management groups. What’s the difference between teaching styles in the 2007 season and the last two years with the new group?
Rudy: I don’t really remember the 2007 group that much, but I’d have to say it’s a lot more organized than it was. I think that them wanting us to use the fastball, as a fastball organization, getting us to develop the fastball and being able to use it in any count is pretty much the key to everything they’ve been doing.
Tim: With your success this year you’ve been talked about as a top ten prospect with the Pirates going in to next season. How does that feel, and is there any pressure with the increased expectations.
Rudy: It feels good obviously. My hard work is paying off, but I try not to get too big headed about it. I try not to think about it at all. I still have to go out and do my work, and if I don’t do the work I need to do, it’s not going to show. So I just gotta go out there and do my thing and work hard, and continue to work hard, and I think that’s the biggest thing about it.
Tim: There’s been a lot of talk about a bias towards players acquired by the new management group, compared to guys brought in by the old group. As somebody brought in with the old group, have you noticed any such bias? How do you feel about those remarks?
Rudy: I haven’t heard or noticed anything about it. I don’t think that’s that big of a deal. If people do, then that’s what they think. I don’t have anything to say about that.
Tim: What is the biggest area of your game that you’re working on now?
Rudy: Just trying to keep the ball over the plate. Trying to get the guys out. Trying to get used to (the hitter’s) mentality. Just trying to think of what they’re thinking. Trying to think of what they want to hit, and I’ve got to throw something other than that.
Tim: Florida Instructional League comes up in a few weeks. What’s the biggest thing you’ll be working on?
Rudy: I was told I’m going to be working on a new two seam fastball. I haven’t thrown it a
t all this year, and that’s something that I’m going to have to develop. Hopefully the instructs does me well, and I can learn how to throw the pitch over the plate.
Tim: Looking forward to next year, where do you think you’ll be? What are your plans for the season?
Rudy: I have no idea. I’m not thinking about that time right now. I’m just thinking about getting through the year and winning a ring.
Tim: You had an impressive start tonight. Pretty impressive lineup against the Royals’ farm system. How did that feel tonight? Describe going up against two good hitters in (Eric) Hosmer and (Mike) Moustakas.
Rudy: Feels great. I needed that one. Since I’ve been down here I’ve given up a few runs here and there in three outings in a row. I think that today’s outing was big for me, because it shows myself that I can throw against these hitters, and I can succeed like I have been.
Tim: What was your game plan going in to the game with that lineup?
Rudy: We go over the game plan before the game, so they kind of tell me what to expect from the hitters. Me and my catcher, (Tony) Sanchez, we think about it and use it in the game.
Tim: You’ve worked with Sanchez a lot in West Virginia, and now he’s up here in Lynchburg. How is the connection there?
Rudy: It’s going well. I’m still getting to know him. I only knew him for a few weeks. I’m still getting to know him, he’s getting to know all of the pitchers. He still has to get used to us and what we do, and we’re still doing the same for him. He’s a great guy, and it’s going to be a good relationship later down the road.
It appears that the approach used in State College has paid off. Earlier in the season I broke down the numbers, and noticed that Owens wasn’t the only pitcher having success from the 2008 Spikes. Fellow Hillcat Ramon Aguero is another pitcher that got beat up in State College, only to have success this season. Also contributing to Owens’ success is the switch from an ineffective slider, to a slurve that seems to be working well.
Owens has gone from off the radar before the season, to possibly being penciled in the back of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation in future projections. Last month I did a video recap of Owens (although it was only two innings, and nothing like the recap of the game on 9/10) and compared him to Zach Duke. I still maintain that comparison. Owens is a tall pitcher with a good frame. He doesn’t have a lot of velocity, as he says, but he does have great control.
Owens has recorded a lot of strikeouts, although as he moves up to the higher levels, I think the K/9 ratios will go down. That doesn’t mean he will be hit more, just that I see him being more of a pitch to contact guy in the future, and with his stuff, I don’t think many hitters will make good contact, which will lead to a lot of easy ground ball outs. The addition of a two seam fastball will help in that area, giving Owens another pitch that sinks in the zone, in addition to his new curveball.
I expect Owens to make the jump to AA next season, as he hasn’t really had much trouble with high A hitting (it should be noted that his worst start came after a ten day layoff). The only way I see him starting off in Lynchburg would be to work on his two seam fastball. There’s no need to rush him, as Owens turns 22 years old in December. The Pirates may finally have some legit pitching prospects, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take their time in developing them. If I’m projecting an ETA on Owens, I’d say mid-season 2011 at the earliest.
Like this interview? I’ll have a new interview with a Pittsburgh Pirates prospect each day this week. Check back tomorrow for my interview with Bryan Morris. Also, be sure to check out my previous interview with Tony Sanchez.