BY STEVE KRAH
Hunter Owen was playing in his fifth game since being promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis.
The Evansville, Ind., native was facing a knuckleball pitcher for the first time.
After grounding into a fielder’s choice in his first plate appearance on Thursday, July 18, Owen belted the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the third inning from Syracuse right-hander Mickey Jannis for a two-run home run and the Indians went on to beat the Mets 9-1 at Victory Field.
“You can’t prepare for (the knuckleball),” says Owen. “You have to be willing to battle and stick to your stubborn approach.”
Owen, who swings from the right side, says that when he’s going good he looks for a pitch in a particular location and doesn’t miss it.
That kind of pitch recognition comes with repetition.
“The majority is experience — a lot of at-bats at each level,” says Owen. “The higher up you go, the better the stuff is.
“(Experience) allows you to progress as a hitter — visually and physically.”
Owen was selected out of Indiana State University in the 25th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He experienced 187 at-bats for the short-season West Virginia Black Bears in 2016. In 2017, he had 12 AB’s with the Black Bears, 291 with the Low Class-A West Virginia Power and 10 with the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates.
There were 401 at-bats with the Advanced-A Bradenton (Fla.) Marauders in 2018. He opened 2019 with 235 more for the Double-A Altoona (Pa.) Curve.
Owen hit .257 with five homers and 34 runs batted in for 2016, .284 with 13 and 49 in 2017 and .262 with 18 and 60 in 2018.
At Altoona, his numbers were .298, 15 and 44 before his promotion.
The biggest difference between Double-A and Triple-A?
“The pitching,” says Owen. “Guys can throw three to four pitches wherever they want it.
“They have a better plan of how to attack you.”
Owen really learned how to play in attack mode from his head coach at Evansville Mater Dei High School and with Funkhouser American Legion Post 8 — Jeff Schulz (who played 40 games in the majors with the Pirates and Kansas City Royals).
“What sticks with me is the aggressiveness mentality,” says Owen. “You’re going up to the plate to do damage.
“You also want to be as much of a well-rounded player as a you can be.”
Growing up, Owen was mostly a shortstop. In high school, he was also used at second base and third base (and was also honorable mention all-state on the football field).
Indiana State head coach Mitch Hannahs told him to embrace versatility and Owen is comfortable in the infield, outfield or behind the plate.
“Any ability to crack the lineup and be versatile for my team,” says Owen. “(Hannahs) made me the ballplayer I am today — for sure.
“More than anything, he helped me grow mentally. He takes pride in having ballplayers with a lot of character that are good people.”
While he’s got 52 minor league homers, Owen does not classify himself as a pure home run hitter.
“I have gap-to-gap power,” says Owen, who is 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds. “I have the ability to drive the baseball over the wall (with a combination of bat speed and strength).”
Owen notes that every hitter has a launch angle — that’s just physics.
He sticks with the approach that’s more conducive to his swing.
“I’m hitting down through (the baseball),” says Owen, who also has 70 doubles and 12 triples in three-plus minor league seasons.
Owen, who resides in Fishers, Ind., in the off-season, began training last winter with Mike Robertson at Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training (IFIT) to increase his mobility, overall strength and speed.
“They help you maximize your physical potential,” says Owen.
Now that he’s playing home games in Indianapolis, Owen has had many family and friends in the stands and expects to see more.
“It’s super humbling to have so many people reach out who are interested in my career,” says Owen, who turns 26 Sept. 22. “The big support system behind me makes it super special.”
The youngest of former University of Evansville baseball player Steve and wife Kena Owen’s five children (following Michael, Leslie, Tyler and Mandi), Hunter took advantage of the lessons that position afforded him.
“It was awesome,” says Hunter. “I really took hold to my two brothers.”
Tyler Owen played four years of NCAA Division I baseball at Murray (Ky.) State University.
“He helped me through my high school and college career,” says Hunter of Tyler. “Picking my brother’s brain was super helpful.”
Hunter attended St. Philip Catholic School through the eighth grade and played for the school teams as well as the Southern Indiana Bombers prior to high school. He played a summer with the Jeremy Johnson-coached Evansville Razorbacks before heading off to ISU.
As a Sycamore, Owen was redshirted in 2013 then played from 2014-16. He hit .342 with nine homers and 59 RBIs, including .350, six and 47 as an all-Missouri Valley Conference outfielder in 2016.
At the time he began his pro baseball career, Owen was working toward and sport management degree and plans to complete it at some point.
Right now, he’s battling and being stubborn in his approach.
Hunter Owen, an Evansville (Ind.) Mater Dei High School graduate who played at Indiana State University, is now with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. (Indianapolis Indians Photo)