Meet Your New Favorite Possible Dodgers Non-Roster Invitee

I lived through the 2008 Seattle Mariners. I’m not sure quite how I did it, but I paid attention to that damn team on a daily basis, and I wrote about that damn team on a daily basis, and while I’m sure there were lots of things I cared about and thought were significant in the moment, one of the only things I truly remember about the year, and especially the second half of the year, is Roy Corcoran. Corcoran was a nobody, a journeyman reliever, but he became one of the rare positive stories on a team that went right down the crapper. One of the few upsides of following a team through a disaster year is you uncover these little surprises who otherwise never would’ve gotten a chance. You get to stop caring about a team and start caring about individual players and individual stories, and 2008 put Roy Corcoran on my radar.

And then he fell off my radar the next year, but, anyway. Last year’s Rangers had their own disaster season. It was a disastrous season for different reasons from why the 2008 Mariners had a disastrous season, but it was a catastrophe almost from the start. And as a result, in time, unfamiliar players started to show up in the bigs. I never knew anything about Jake Smolinski. The same goes for Dan Robertson and Tomas Telis and Spencer Patton and Lisalverto Bonilla. And the Rangers also introduced one Ben Rowen. Now, the Rangers are no longer in possession of said Ben Rowen:

…and maybe that’s meaningful. They had him, and didn’t think enough of him to keep him. But I’d like to show you why you should be rooting for Ben Rowen. Daniel Brim already did, having beaten me in a race, but Rowen came up in my morning chat, and had it not been for the Rangers’ 2014 nightmare, Rowen wouldn’t have won me over with his unconventional…ness. They don’t make many like this guy.

Rowen was actually interviewed by David Laurila a while ago, the Q&A getting posted here last February. It didn’t generate too much attention, because at that point, Rowen was almost a complete unknown. And to be fair, he remains almost a complete unknown, but he’s more known than he was, because now he has big-league experience, and this is what some of it looked like:

RowenFA

That’s a fastball. Or a sinker. Or a sinking fastball. It wound up getting called for a borderline strike. That is by no means the important thing. Look up. The recorded velocity starts with a 7. Look down. Rowen submarines. Yeah, that’s the quirk.

RowenSL

72, called strikeout. Breaking ball. Rowen has a breaking ball. He submarines it. So it’s established: Ben Rowen is a right-handed submariner. In his limited big-league exposure last year, he threw a slow fastball and a slower breaking ball. He told Laurila he messes around with a changeup, but he never threw it for the Rangers. It’s in there, somewhere; probably, it’s not very good.

It’s not even clear that Rowen is very good. It’s not even clear that Rowen is getting invited to Dodgers spring training. Oftentimes that’s just a given when you see a guy get signed to a minor-league contract at this point in the year. But Rowen doesn’t show up on this list. David Huff does. Matt Carson does. Rowen is a long shot to make the team out of camp, and he’s probably a long shot to make the team at all, ever. But let’s all keep on dreaming. The Dodgers wouldn’t have bothered if they didn’t see something, and these Dodgers are supposed to be pretty smart.

There’s not much we can do with Rowen’s big-league data. There’s some PITCHf/x stuff, and we’ll get to that. But the actual results were generated over just a few games. Rowen has more of a minor-league track record, being 26, and having been drafted in 2010. His minor-league ERA is 1.72. It’s 1.84 in Double-A and Triple-A. He’s allowed just six home runs in 262 innings. His BABIP is right around .260. Roughly two-thirds of the balls in play he’s allowed have been grounders. Roughly two-thirds of the pitches he’s thrown have been strikes.

Rowen isn’t a big strikeout guy. It’s just about impossible to be a big strikeout guy when you top out around 82 miles per hour. But he’s proven himself to be a strike-thrower. He’s proven himself to be a groundball-generator. The latter, you expect from anyone with that sort of delivery. The former is what gives Rowen a chance.

You always figure a guy like this will have a big platoon split. And Rowen himself has said he’d like to make his changeup better, specifically so he can use it against lefties. Yet for whatever it’s worth, in the minors, Rowen has held both righties and lefties to OPS figures in the mid-.500s. And as long as he throws strikes, he can at least be effective against righties in the majors, making him useful. The stuff he throws isn’t unprecedented, but it’s extraordinarily rare.

I decided to take a look at the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards, going back to 2008. Here are some characteristics of Rowen’s sinker:

  • 80 mph
  • 5.7 inches, horizontal movement
  • -8.7 inches, vertical movement

Characteristics of the average sinker:

  • 91 mph
  • 8.4 inches, horizontal movement
  • 6.0 inches, vertical movement

The two big differences are obvious. Rowen throws a lot slower than almost everyone. And he gets a ton of sink. Relative to the average, here, you have about 15 inches of separation. Based on the specific sinker leaderboard, Rowen has the lowest average vertical movement, and there’s a gap of a full two inches before you see Brian Shouse’s sinker. It’s three inches between Rowen and Brad Ziegler, who’s a lot better than you think.

Now, you can also look at four-seam fastballs. Sometimes a pitch might get mis-classified. And here we find a pretty obvious comp, the bread-and-butter of the famous Chad Bradford:

  • 81 mph
  • 9.4 inches, horizontal movement
  • -8.1 inches, vertical movement

Bradford threw the closest pitch on record to Rowen’s sinker. Or, Rowen throws the closest pitch on record to Chad Bradford’s sinker. The obvious reason is that both feature or featured submarine-style throwing motions. And though Bradford didn’t pitch in the majors after 2009, and though he had some predictable platoon problems, he appeared in almost 600 games. He held righties to a .281 OBP. Lefties did well against Bradford, but they didn’t light him up, in large part because of a high groundball rate. Even when you have the platoon advantage against an unusual throwing motion, that doesn’t mean the ball sinks any less.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Ben Rowen is going to be the next Chad Bradford. Bradford was great at what he did. Rowen might simply have inferior command. Marcus Stroman isn’t automatically going to be the next Roy Halladay just because he throws the same sinker. But you can see the possibility here. If someone were to be the next Bradford, it seems like it would be Rowen. And, there’s something else.

Bradford ended up with a career ERA that was better than his FIP. The same goes for submariner Dan Quisenberry. Ditto Kent Tekulve. Ditto Steve Olin. Ditto Mark Eichhorn. Byung-Hyun Kim had a great career start as a reliever. I mentioned before that Rowen has allowed a low homer rate and a low BABIP in the minors. It could be he’s difficult to make quality contact against. He’s clearly unusual, so batters might not be so comfortable. Because of the sample size, perhaps it’s just nothing, but it’s one of those fringy things that might work in Rowen’s favor. If he can actually manage to induce slightly weaker-than-average contact, beyond just generating the groundballs, a team would almost have to find a place for him.

As we stand, it seems like the Dodgers’ place for Rowen might be Triple-A. He’s unproven and he’s unorthodox, and it’s hard to like any reliever who can’t throw as hard as any number of second-tier high-schoolers. Baseball, for the most part, works against guys like Rowen, especially in this age of blistering heat and innumerable strikeouts. But the Dodgers must’ve had some reason for picking Rowen up, and until the dream is dead, the dream is very much alive. Ben Rowen might well be the next Chad Bradford. He might well be something even more. All Brad Ziegler has is one of the lower ERAs in the modern era.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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KCDaveInLA
8 years ago

Special place in my heart for submariners (I’m sure that hardly makes me unique). One Sportscenter highlight that still makes me laugh: Todd Frowirth missed a very borderline strike against a batter (Rafael Palmeiro?). His next pitch, he serves up a grand slam. He becomes so furious with previous call that he throws his glove…submarine-style, of course.

Dayn Perry's Dame Puree
8 years ago
Reply to  KCDaveInLA

Shoutout to Brian Shouse. He was a submariner, threw 80, and was left handed. That’s like the fringe trifecta.

Mike Myers
8 years ago

Ahem.