ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Matt Bowman is well-acquainted with messes. He’s a fixer; the guy you call when things are headed in a bad direction and you need to someone to get you out of trouble. His office is the bullpen, and his job description is unique to his fellow relievers.
Some know they need to be ready in the eighth inning. Others know when a certain lefty is due up late in the game, that’s their cue.
Bowman never knows for sure when he’s coming in, but when he does, he’s most likely going to have to solve a problem.
“It’s easy to get up for the situation. Sometimes early on in 2016, I was very happy to be in the big leagues and that was enough adrenaline. But I can see over time it being difficult that if you’re coming in and cleaning up to make sure that you’re as dialed in as you need to be for a Major League game,” he said. “But if there are runners on base, especially when it’s someone else’s runners, I try to take a lot of pride in making sure I don’t give up anyone else’s runs.”
And Bowman sees plenty of baserunners. In 2017, he inherited 51 runners, the seventh most in baseball. 15 of them found their way home, for a 29.4 scoring percentage. That mark puts him behind his contemporaries a bit, with Kansas City’s Peter Moylan, Tampa’s Dan Jennings and Toronto’s Dominic Leone all inheriting more runners and posting scoring percentages in the low 20s.
“It’s a difficult situation because there is certainly a lot of luck that comes into that, especially for someone like me who is not a strikeout pitcher. You bring in someone who is expected to strike guys out, there’s not a whole lot of variation in how many runners are going to score,” Bowman said. “But given that I’m a ground ball guy, if the numbers happen to be bad but I do my job and get the ball on the ground and it happens to get through the infield then I’m not going to beat myself up over it. I don’t like it, but at the end of the day, they bring me in to get ground balls. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”
Bowman’s ground ball percentage dipped in 2017, falling from 1.7 ground balls per fly ball in 2016 to 1.23. Some of that is undoubtedly due to the frequency of his work going up. Despite throwing nine fewer innings, he appeared 26 more times in 2017 than in his first turn with the Cards. Only six pitchers in the majors were called on more.
For a the type of pitcher he is, one who coaxes bad contact by precisely locating his offerings, pitching on back to back days more often can be more difficult that going for multiple innings.
“It’s a little difficult to tell if it’s a long season, all these things are new to me because I wasn’t always in the bullpen. At times I was a little tired, but for the most part, I felt like these were the normal ebbs and flows of the season,” he said.
Beyond the physical toll of being a problem solver, Bowman’s unique position demands intense mental discipline as well. It’s not enough to know the opposing lineup. When he senses he may be needed, the 26-year-old must know the opposing lineup, their bench and any possible permutation of the batters he may face. If he’ll do anything to prevent the mess, he needs to know all the ways the opposition will try to cause it.
“Being aware of all the hitters that they have. A lot of times, they’ll do a pinch-hitter or they’ll bring me in for a righty at the end of the lineup and know they’re going to bring a lefty in off the bench,” he said. “I need to know what their hitters do, and I think that preparation is the most important to me to sort of understand who I am facing. Because Yadi will call the pitches, and I’ll go with whatever Yadi says. But knowing if I should be attacking a guy or backing off of them based on what I perceive as a strength of his or a strength of mine is where most of my preparation is done.”
With talents like Trevor Rosenthal, Seung-Hwan Oh and, most recently, Juan Nicasio around to close out games the last couple seasons, the Cardinal bullpen behind Bowman has usually slotted itself comfortably. Even within the fickle nature of relief pitching, the Cardinals have consistently had a clear hierarchy for late-inning leverage opportunities during Bowman’s tenure with the team; if one closer faltered, the next man up felt like a natural fit for the role.
Considering those departed, that may no longer be the case. The Cardinals will audition some new faces for key roles, while considering their slew of returning young arms for greater contributions. Despite the uncertainty, Bowman feels good about where things stand for his group.
“I thought it was a good bullpen last year and that some of the guys, including myself who you think of as rookies and new guys, we’ll hopefully have been coming into our own,” Bowman said. “I have a lot of confidence. As it stands right now, I think there will be a lot of match-ups being played. You have Tyler Lyons, who could get everyone out. But I think for the most part right now, we’re going to see a lot of match-ups as it stands."
Some pitchers aren’t as comfortable with the idea that established bullpen roles could give way in St. Louis to a more match-up oriented approach—Brett Cecil expressed the desire for roles to be established early in spring training so expectations on each reliever would be clear. But Matt Bowman is different.
He’s a fixer, and he’s ready to clean up after whatever messes you leave before him.