Sports are in a sense a collection of narratives. Some more pedestrian and typical, some more unusual and compelling. The are often narratives attached to the results on the field—Bautista’s bat flip homer being an obvious example—but as often they are born in the synergy between the players life off the field and their sports accomplishments.
The athlete that overcomes an impoverished background, or comes back from a bout of serious illness often becomes the center of emotional attachment for fans that goes beyond actual on-field accomplishments, but it’s natural that when the backstory and the accomplishment are both impressive, the power of the story can be magnified. Whether the story has a tragic element, or a triumphant one, we want our sports heroes to be real people with real stories and not just the pawns on a board, as if playing out the results of a statistical simulation.
The Toronto Blue Jays, like most teams, have their share of such stories. I’m here to tell you about a Blue Jays story that you may not have heard.
I had an opportunity to speak with unlikely Jays prospect RHP Chris Rowley recently about how he has arrived at the point of being taken seriously as a future major leaguer. Rowley was a big deal pitcher for the U.S. Army Academy at West Point but his story doesn’t begin there. He tells me:
“When I was in high school, I was a good arm. A low ERA, a ton of wins, and a bunch of strikeouts (I think I led the state of Georgia in strikeouts my senior year), but I was 85-88. So I was not only far from a draft prospect, but largely unwanted by major college programs. At the time I committed to Army, I only had two scholarship offers. One of those was to Mercer College in Georgia, where I’m from, and that was with the caveat that I would be a bottom bullpen guy, most likely in long relief. The other was to Army, who offered me the opportunity to compete for a weekend rotation spot immediately.”
Rowley, who models his game after Greg Maddux (because why wouldn’t you?) blossomed into a quality college pitcher and started showing up on various leader boards as a junior. He eventually projected in the middle rounds, but on top of his pedestrian 89-91 MPH fastball he had another strike against him: a five year obligation to serve as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. To be sure, some well regarded athletes manage to apply for and obtain waivers, typically after two years of service (one recent high draft pick was waived before he ever had to serve at all) but there’s no guarantee. In fact, there are three other players who are military academy graduates still listed on Blue Jays minor league rosters who have not been released to play: LHP Luke Gilligan who was drafted last year out of Navy, CF Alex Azor taken in 2012, and catcher Garrett Custons taken in 2013, the same year Rowley graduated.
Draft day came and went and no one called Rowley’s name, but almost immediately the Blue Jays called and ask whether he’d be willing to sign and head out to the Gulf Coast league during the leave time he had before his first Army assignment. After the initial hesitation that was born out of not having been drafted, he jumped at the opportunity. The team, of course, saw a chance to add a quality organization arm to eat innings in the Florida heat while the real prospects were nurtured. But Rowley went out and put on a show anyway. In nine appearances covering 32.1 innings pitched, he struck out 39 and walked three, overpowering the usually much younger hitters. Had he been a typical prospect, he would likely have visited Vancouver before the summer was out. In mid-August a trainer drove him to the airport in Tampa and his baseball career was on hold indefinitely.
Flash forward a bit over two years to the fall of 2015 and Chris Rowley, who’s application for waiver had been approved and was soon to be out of the Army, was granted permission to return to Dunedin for instructs. Rowley reconnected with some coaches, made fresh connections with new staff and gained an invaluable bit of coaching to refine his techniques after he’d basically self-coached himself through the previous two years. The velocity, however, was still there and he was confident he had plenty left to offer.
Confidence is, in a sense, Rowley’s carrying tool. All athletes have to have a full measure of confidence to succeed, but Rowley was one of those for whom it seemed to be the force which animated him. At every level he was told directly or by implication, “you’re not good enough to play here.” But he dominated in high school, dealt with the lack of recruiters upon graduation, and became an All-American. During that turn in the GCL, Jays’ scout Paul Quantrill described him as “100% bullpen, no pro value.” Perhaps no one at all beside Rowley was looking ahead at 2016 and thinking of him as anything but an organizational filler.
He broke camp in 2016 in the Dunedin Blue Jays bullpen. He enjoyed moderate success pitching almost exclusively out of the bullpen at the beginning of the year, notably sporting a 25:3 K:BB ratio when he was pressed into service in the rotation. By July 7 he’d had nine consecutive turns and was sporting a 2.89 ERA in 84 total IP when he hit a mini-wall. I asked him about fatigue playing a role:
“You hit it right on the money about my first full year last year, I had it a little rough last year in mid-season. I learned a lot about managing workload, the severity of 140-162 games on your body, etc. It was definitely attributed to fatigue in my opinion. I was working myself to death. Obviously so far this year it has been better. A lot of that is due to mentoring by people who have been in the game a lot longer than I have: other players and staff included. It boded well for me to listen to them.”
He got knocked around in three of his next four starts and moved back to the bullpen where he finished strong giving up three earned runs in 18+ IP. This year, in New Hampshire, he’s stepped up his game again. Pitching in the shadow of the Blue Jays two highest ranked pitching prospects, and a former first round choice, all he did was dominate. Among Eastern League pitchers with at least 50 IP he . . .
- Leads all pitchers in BB/9
- Leads all pitchers in K:BB
- Has the lowest WHIP
- Has the second lowest BABiP
- Has the highest LOB% (a ridiculous 88.8%)
- Has the highest swinging strike % (a laughable 4.1% higher than his closest competitor)
- Has the second lowest in BAA (that first round pick is highest in the league)
- Has the second lowest ERA (first rounder is highest in the league)
- Has the second lowest in walk % (those two highly ranked guys are 2nd and 3rd for highest walk %)
Yes, he’s a 26 year old racking up those stats at AA, but he’s also a guy who has just over 200 professional IP, for contrast that’s less than half the amount logged by teammate Conner Greene who’s only 22. According to the scouting report published by Doug Fox on his blog at Clutchlings, he is a three pitch guy: a sinker with good natural sink sitting in the low 90’s to go with a slider and change-up. Based on this I asked Rowley about his approach and how he used his repertoire:
“I pitch with 3 pitches, and my game plan revolves around being able to throw all 3 in any count and having them move different ways, with the hitter ideally not knowing what pitch I threw until the ball is about 3/4 of the way to the plate, at which point it’s too late. As a starter I obviously try to throw more sinkers because I’m working in a different role, but I found success as well with a lower FB rate. So I think it’s all game dependent. As a bullpen guy, I come into the game ready to throw all three, again game situation depending. “
In five starts for NH, filling in for the injured Francisco Rios, Rowley posted a 0.92 ERA in 29.1 IP, walking only four against 24 strikeouts, which fueled my imagination about the team committed to him as a staring pitcher until he showed at any point he was overmatched in the role. Alas, when Rios returned he was shifted back to the ‘pen (despite rotation mate Shane Dawson logging his second consecutive sucky season on the circuit) and so I asked Rowley about how he saw his role going forward:
“I think in an ideal world, I’m a starter. I think my stuff fits that role more. That being said, I don’t really care what I do. I’m here to get better, help the team win and make it to Toronto, where I’d like to help them win as well. I truthfully don’t care. They are both fun, each in their own separate ways, and I like to show versatility and hopefully bring value that way.
I throw pretty consistently whether in relief or starting, in terms of velocity. I am definitely working to get that up, and am seeing baby steps there. I have been up to 93 this year, which was a first, but I still feel comfortable pitching at 88-90 if my velo is down any particular day.
As far as promotions or roles going forward, I truthfully don’t know . . . I have always been a guy that will have to pitch his way to the big leagues, so I just try to control what I do on the mound and in the clubhouse, and trust the people making the decisions know what they’re doing, because I really think they do. . . I would love to compete for a spot in the rotation. I’d also love to pitch in the big leagues out of the pen. I don’t know what they see for me going forward, but I know that I have shown some versatility and I hope that plays in the long run.”
Days after this exchange, word came down that Rowley had been promoted—hopefully for good—to AAA Buffalo. His first appearance there, in relief after the night’s starter was driven from the game after only 2.1 IP, resulted in one earned run over 4.2 IP. The Jays have had recent success with internally developed relief pitchers like hard-throwing Ryan Tepera and control artist Danny Barnes. Do not be even a little shocked if Rowley achieves at least that sort of success, if not more so. I’m not a scout, or a team coach or exec (obviously) but from my desk chair hundreds of miles away, I can see Rowley at least getting the respect that Casey Lawrence got this past spring, and with much better results. Remember his name.
Special thanks to Doug Fox for his input on Rowley, to Fisher-Cats broadcaster Tyler Zickel for arranging my exchange with Chris Rowley and of course to the man himself for taking time to answer my questions
Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports