CHARLESTON, WV – Hunter Owen may be the breakout player of the year for West Virginia.
Looking across the Power leaderboard of offensive stats, his name comes up over and over again. He leads the team in hits, triples, homers, runs, RBI, and on-base percentage. He ranks second in slugging percentage. He has played in 68 games this season, more than any other Power player. Everything points to this being a breakout campaign for the 25th round pick in last year’s draft.
Reports coming out of Spring Training extolled Owen’s offensive prowess, and lately his defensive improvements have received praise from the coaching staff in West Virginia. Owen has been the everyday Power third baseman for 2017, his first regular action at the position since high school.
“He’s still not 100 percent comfortable,” said West Virginia manager Wyatt Toregas, “but I like what he’s doing out there. I was just telling our infield coordinator [Gary Green] that the other day.”
“Everybody’s going to make errors, but I know when I put him out there, he’s not going to kill us,” said Toregas.
Owen has had his fair share (and more) of errors this year. He leads the Pirates system with 15 in 183 chances. Since May 26, he has only committed six errors, and he has made a number of impressive plays that demonstrate his hustle.
The video below, featuring a game-ending catch in foul territory, captures Owen’s grit, which has captivated Toregas. “He’s very reserved, but when he gets on the field, he’s kind of an animal out there,” he said.
“Making the leap from the outfield to the infield was a big deal for me,” said Owen, “but I feel like I’m adapting very well.”
Along with third base, Owen got experience in both the corner outfield spots last year with Morgantown. He fared much better in the outfield, committing just two errors in 67 chances.
It seems unlikely at this point that he’ll stay at third. He’s blocked by Ke’Bryan Hayes, who is a natural third baseman and a much better fielder, in Bradenton, but in a system crowded with corner outfield talent, the added versatility will only play in his favor. The lower levels feature a dearth of talent at the hot corner so the position change has kept Owen relevant and in the lineup.
“As long as I’m in the lineup, I don’t care where I play,” commented Owen.
Owen’s bat has ensured that he has stayed in the lineup in spite of the shaky defense. Owen hit well in Morgantown last year, finishing with a team-best five home runs and a .257/.313/.412 line. However, his production tailed off at the end of the season with a .225/.304/.300 line over the final 23 games of the season. His strikeout rate climbed to 26.6% of his plate appearances compared to 20.5% during the first two months.
“Going from college to pro ball, I lost a lot of weight,” Owen explained. “Living in the weight room and eating right was the biggest thing for me this offseason.”
Owen has gained about 20 pounds between his senior year of college and the 2017 season, which has translated to deeper drives and better offensive results. He has also targeted weak areas of his game in 2016. He struggled against lefties last year to the tune of a .190/.235/.349 line, but in 2017, he has turned that around. Owen now boasts a .297/.373/.473 line against southpaws.
He has played 16 more games so far in 2017 than he did in 2016 and has not seen an offensive slump. In fact, June has been the most impressive month in his professional career. Owen’s month has been comprised of five home runs and 18 RBI. His line in June stands at .304/.389/.500.
His plate patience has vastly improved in 2017. He has dropped his strikeout rate to 18.5% of his plate appearances (compared to 23.3% in 2016), and he has raised his on-base percentage by more than 70 points, from .313 to .384, which has caught Power hitting coach Ryan Long’s attention.
“Looking back at the numbers from last year, I don’t think the approach was nearly the same as far as what he’s doing now with controlling the zone,” Long said.
Long connects the uptick in on-base percentage with the increase in slugging percentage. Owen has increased that area of his game from .412 to .469.
“It’s not rocket science,” Long said. “The more pitches you get, the more barrel you’ll find. The more pitches you chase out of the zone, it’s harder to find the barrel so that’s where you see the numbers starting to go up.”
Owen explained his approach at the plate, saying, “A lot of [pitchers] try to get command of their fastball early and then, later in the game, after you’ve seen them for a while, flip to their off-speed.”
Sitting on the fastball early has produced a number of his home runs. Six of Owen’s nine homers have come off the starting pitcher in either his second or third at-bat, showing his ability to make adjustments as the game goes on.
With this approach, Owen has converted gap power into home run power. He has collected 11 doubles this year in addition to the team-leading nine home runs, but he also has a knack for getting on base, particularly via getting hit by pitches.
“I think that goes back to college ball,” Owen explained. “When you’re going to get out of the way of a pitch, that’s like flipping the middle finger to your teammates because you’re giving up a base.”
“It’s not always about you. The more times I stand in there and not get out of the way of pitches, the more chances I have of helping my team win,” he concluded.
Owen currently leads the Pirates system with 19 HBPs (two shy of his walk total), ahead of Kevin Kramer and Will Craig with 12 apiece. The tough approach at the plate extends to Owen’s presence in the clubhouse.
Toregas counts him alongside Ty Moore and Logan Ratledge (both of whom have moved up to Bradenton) as one of the leaders of the team because of his age (1.5 years above the league average) and his tenacity.
“His teammates like him,” said Toregas. “He’s hard nosed.”
Owen has fulfilled every duty assigned to him in 2017. He’s transferred to a new position. He’s led the team in almost every possible offensive category. He’s taken up the mantle of a team leader in the absence of strong veteran players.
This weekend Alexis Bastardo (who started as the Power’s fourth outfielder) moved up to Bradenton ahead of Owen, so it seems likely that the Pirates will keep Owen at the lower level to develop his abilities at third. His age, advanced approach, and offseason conditioning will allow Owen to continue preying upon less experienced pitchers.
Although Owen’s future in the system is murky, his offensive outburst and slowly improving defense make him one of the few players to watch coming out of the lower levels.