Blue Jays reliever Ben Rowen has been lighting up triple-A

Feb 25, 2016; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ben Rowen throws during spring training camp at the Bobby Mattic training center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 25, 2016; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ben Rowen throws during spring training camp at the Bobby Mattic training center. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

The Blue Jays’ submarine man has not allowed an earned run in over a month and a half with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons

Buffalo’s bullpen has been a busy place this season, with 17 pitchers already recording at least one relief appearance. Topping that list is Ben Rowen, who is leading all relievers with 27 appearances and 33.2 innings pitched.

Consistent innings and roles have been difficult to come by, especially given the ever-changing bullpen landscape caused by Ryan Tepera, Pat Venditte, and others making frequent trips back and forth between Buffalo and Toronto. Rowen has earned his heavy workload, however, and is currently one of the organization’s hottest pitchers.

Since allowing his last earned run all the way back on May 4th against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, Rowen has made 16 appearances covering 22.1 innings. He’s struck out 18 batters over that span with just four walks, holding opponents to a .122 batting average and lowering his season ERA to 1.87.

Rowen must be knocking down the door of an MLB promotion, right? Well, not necessarily.

Take Wade LeBlanc as a case study here, recently dealt from the Blue Jays to the Seattle Mariners despite being Buffalo’s best pitcher and a sure triple-A All-Star. Randy Wolf is another example, pitching an excellent season for Toronto at the triple-A level last season but never earning an MLB opportunity with the Blue Jays.

There are certain arms that are too good for triple-A, but often, team’s do not forecast that success translating to the major league level.

Rowen did have a quick cup of coffee with the Texas Rangers in 2014, pitching 8.2 innings, but hasn’t climbed back since. This is despite some very strong minor league numbers and a ground ball rate that could profile very well with Toronto’s strong defensive infield. Below is some footage from that 2014 MLB debut, and while it’s slightly dated, it does offer a relevant look on the unique delivery and pitch movement he features.

Pitching submarine style with sinking movement down in the zone, Rowen’s ticket to success is weak contact and finding the bottom third of opposing bats. This season he’s posted a GO/AO of 3.24, meaning that he’s forced 3.24 ground ball outs for every 1.00 fly ball out. There’s the potential for that to translate into a ~60% ground ball rate at the next level.

Unfortunately for Rowen, ground ball specialists aren’t exactly trending in major league bullpens (though they are in starting rotations). With his velocity topping out in the low-80s and a strikeout rate that likely would sit around 6.5 K/9 against MLB hitters, Rowen would come with limitations. For example, he wouldn’t be a desired arm with runners in scoring position or in high-leverage situations.

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Going back to the loose parallel of Wolf in 2015, his issue was that there was always one arm ahead of him in when it came time for a promotion. A younger arm, one with greater velocity, a higher prospect shine, or some other combination of other factors. The same challenge could face Rowen this season, but with a spot on the 40-man roster and options remaining, there aren’t that many barriers here.

The annual bullpen churn can dig deep, though. Just last season, names like Andrew Albers, Phil Coke, Rob Rasmussen, Colt Hynes, and Jeff Francis saw MLB innings. If Rowen can continue to pitch at this level, an opportunity for him to force major league ground balls should present itself at some point throughout the season.