Splitting a four-game series on the road against the best team in Major League Baseball is an accomplishment in and of itself. Pulling this off after being down 3-1 in the final game in the bottom of the 7th with the home team having the bases full, nobody out, and the top of the order waiting just around the corner is a near miracle.
A quick primer if you missed it or need your memory refreshed: Mike Leake started the 7th inning, and even though he was masterful innings 2-5, he probably should not have been on the mound as opposing hitters have a .967 OPS against him on their third time through the order (as opposed to .607 for the first time through the order, .760 for the second). Leake gave up a double to Chris Coghlan, and then an infield-he-was-probably-out-but-it-was-really-close-single to Jason Heyward. Bowman came in for relief and walked Willson Contreras but then got Matt Szczur to pop out to center - just shallow enough that Coghlan didn’t test Randal Grichuk’s arm. Bowman froze Dexter Fowler for a strike three call, and then got Kris Bryant to fly out to right. Inning over, crisis averted, Cardinals put up five runs the next inning and everyone went to bed happy.
Not bad for a guy who wasn’t supposed to be relied upon much at all and who’s only taking up $508k of payroll. Taken in the 2015 Rule 5 Draft from the Mets, Bowman, by most measures, has been the Cardinals’ second most effective reliever this season behind Seung Hwan Oh. If measuring by sheer reliance alone, this is certainly true as he’s pitched 51.1 total innings in relief, which is second on the team to Oh and 21st in the National League.
Statistics tell a similar story. Of all Cardinals relievers who have thrown at least 30 innings this year (Oh, Bowman, Lyons, Siegrist, Broxton, Rosenthal, Maness), Bowman has the second best SIERA (3.33), FIP (3.32), xFIP (3.56), walk rate (6.3%), and fWAR (0.5). To say his production has been valuable in a year when Trevor Rosenthal essentially broke and, as we learned last night, Kevin Siegrist may have a dead arm, doesn’t do Bowman justice. His presence along with Oh has been imperative to this team having any bullpen stability at all.
And this is also mostly from a guy who’s stuff is far from imposing. Other than Seth Maness, Bowman’s 17.5% strike out rate is the worst in the bullpen and well below the 22.5% NL average for relief pitchers.
The answer to why he’s been successful might be in his ground ball rate. There’s been debate in baseball in just how much value a ground ball pitcher brings. In some circles they’re overrated because they give up a higher percentage of home runs per fly ball and induce less infield pop-ups, which are typically just as good as strikeouts. On the other hand, very recent studies from Rob Mains at Baseball Prospectus show a parallel relationship between ground ball pitchers and better run prevention.
And for a relief pitcher, someone who often comes in with men aboard as Bowman did last night, the ability to keep balls on the ground and in the infield seems like a valuable commodity and Bowman excels. His 61.9% ground ball rate is first on the team (noted ground ball specialist Maness is second at 57.4%), and ranks fifth overall in the NL for relief pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched. Bump it up to at least 40 innings pitched and he trails only Blake Treinan and Jeurys Familia. And to put all of this in perspective, NL average for relief pitchers on ground ball rate is 45.1%
What’s more, Bowman has done a decent job at inducing infield pop-ups. Of the 11 best relief pitchers in the NL by ground ball rate, Bowman is the only one with an above-average infield pop-up rate (9.7% vs. a league average of 9.4%). He also has a 20% fly ball rate which is fifth best in the NL for relief pitchers. Bowman very well might be succeeding because he’s done an excellent job at simply keeping the ball in the infield.
We all know that relievers can be unpredictable. They’re hard to count on from year to year, which is why the Cardinals were probably smart not to give Pat Neshek two years/$12 million even after 2014 when he had one of the best showings from a Cardinals’ relief pitcher (and it’s why the Broxton contract was so perplexing then and now). The Matt Bowman we’ve seen so far might fade down the stretch and make his above numbers look a bit unrecognizable. Even so, this team is currently occupying a spot in the postseason and if they do manage to sneak in Bowman’s performance up until now should be often cited as one of the reasons why.