Blue Jays right handed pitching prospect Chris Rowley pitched 6 innings against the GCL Pirates on August 13th, 2013, allowing only 1 unearned run on 4 hits. The following morning, his 23rd birthday, he was on a flight to New York, headed to West Point to fulfill his military commitment after graduating from the United States Military Academy six weeks before. He would not pitch in a game for over two years while he served his country, which included a deployment to Eastern Europe. Despite huge odds, he's pitching himself in the picture at New Hampshire this season as a potential bullpem arm.
Even though he was the ace of the Black Knights' staff in a very competitive Division One League, Rowley's looming five-year service deterred all 30 MLB teams from drafting him in 2013 (he likely would have been a mid-round pick otherwise). The Blue Jays, who had been following him throughout his collegiate career, asked if he would be available to pitch in their minor league system that summer. Rowley, who had six weeks' leave before his committment began, jumped at the chance, and reported to the team's minor league complex in Dunedin immediately after the draft.
While the Blue Jays were well known for seeking out overlooked players at that time, Rowley was beyond a longshot, and the main reason for inviting him to pitch for their GCL team was to protect some of the higher-profile arms from having to pitch too many innings. Were he any other prospect, Rowley's 1.10 ERA and 10.7K/9 would have earned him a mid-season promotion to Bluefield or even Vancouver. Instead, he pitched every fifth day in Dunedin as his leave came to a end, waiting to fulfill his obligation.
It's rare for a student-athlete from one of the USA's service acadamies to be granted a service deferrment, but in the fall of 2015, after serving two years, Rowley received one, and headed to Instructs to resume his pro career. By the following spring, he had jumped two levels, and became a mainstay of the Dunedin Blue Jays' staff, appearing in 31 games, including 14 starts. Promoted to New Hampshire this year, he's picked up where he left off, pitching out of the bullpen until an injury to Francisco Rios prompted Manager Gary Allenson to give him a start on Saturday against a very tough lineup in the Phillies' Reading affiliate.
Rowley needed only 9 pitches to get through the first inning, and didn't give up a hit until the 3rd. Pounding the bottom of the strike zone with his downward-moving sinker, and using his slider and change effectively to keep hitters off balance, Rowley breezed through the 4th and 5th, surrendering only one hit, and needing only 19 pitches to retire six of seven. After getting the first out on a grounder to 1st Baseman Ryan McBroom to lead off the 6th, SS Richie Ureña, who had made a dazzling leaping grab of a line drive to end the 1st inning, skipped a throw to McBroom to allow the batter to reach safely. At 66 pitches, Rowley's night was over.
For the outing, Rowley threw 5.1 innings, blanking Reading on 3 hits. He walked one and fanned one. Rowley threw 44 of his 66 pitches for strikes, and induced 12 ground ball outs. He did not throw a great deal of first-pitch strikes, possibly because he wasn't afraid to use his secondaries early in the count. Rowley attacks hitters, and with that movement on his sinker, he can be very difficult to square up - "The sink is natural, I couldn't throw it straight even if I tried," Rowley said after the game. His change up is emerging as a solid secondary, with good movement, as is his slider, which has late break and good depth to it. All three pitches come from a conistent arm slot, which makes picking them up difficult for hitters. Rowley has a clean delivery with a slight pause in it, which can disrupt hitters' timing. He is a good athlete who fields his positon well.
Rowley will not blow the ball by hitters. Topping out at 91-92, he relies on command and his secondaries to keep hitters off balance:
Still, he has managed to strike out almost a batter per inning at AA. Rowley's 47% ground ball rate shows that he excels at keeping the ball down in the zone, and his 15.8% line drive rate is proof that while he pitches to contact, it's not often of the hard variey. The knock against him may be that he doesn't miss a lot of bats, but the other side of that coin is that his sinker is very tough to square up, and his change and slider keep hitters off balance.My game is based on throwing three pitches, all at different speeds, all in the strike zone and all moving differently, and the idea is for them to look the same until they get to the plate.
Is there a spot for a finesse pitcher in a bullpen in these days of flame-throwing relievers? One need look no further than Danny Barnes, who tops out at 92, for proof of that. Granted, higher velocity gives a pitcher more margin for error, but there seems to be a growing place for relievers who can change speeds, create some deception, and throw strikes. In an outing on May 10th at Hartford, Rowley allowed only one hit in three innings of relief work, walking none, and striking out 7, in a performance that surely put him on the radar. At 26, Rowley might be old to be considered a prospect, but he's reached AA in his second year of full-seaon ball, and while there may be a few arms ahead of him, he's clearly pitching himself into long or middle relief consideration.
For more: I wrote about Rowley's return to baseball here last year.