The Blue Jays starting rotation is limping right now. Thanks to Aaron Sanchez’s season-derailing blister and the trade of Francisco Liriano to the Houston Astros, the staff is rolling with only three bonafide starters, patching the other two spots as time goes on.
We saw Nick Tepesch last night, and we’ll see him again, but who’s going to fill in on Saturday? Among the possibilities are a handful of Quadruple-A journeymen like TJ House and Brett Oberholtzer, but there’s also Chris Rowley, a name you likely wouldn’t recognize unless you pay a lot of attention to the depths of the Blue Jays farm system.
This is who Mike Wilner assumes will get the call on Saturday when John Gibbons announces the starter after tonight’s game.
Rowley has been sort of shoehorned into the list of random depth starters because he doesn’t really fit the bill of a traditional prospect. I wouldn’t consider him a journeyman, but since he was undrafted and didn’t pitch at all in 2014 and 2015, he isn’t a name most will recognize. But considering the fact he’s posted a 2.29 ERA through 106 1/3 innings between Double- and Triple-A this season, this is a guy we should start paying attention to.
So, who is this guy? He’s somebody with a fascinating career path, that’s for sure.
Like I said, Rowley wasn’t selected in the Major League draft. This isn’t because of his skill, though. It’s because of the risk attached to selecting players who attended United States Military schools.
Rowley, who described himself as a “late bloomer” physically and athletically in high school, took a full-ride scholarship to West Point Military Academy in New York. American military schools offer full-ride scholarships to all athletes, which is an attractive option for somebody without much pedigree coming out of high school. But the catch is that you have to serve five years in the American military after you graduate.
As a result, Rowley wasn’t drafted in 2013 after his graduation despite putting up excellent numbers on the Black Knights, an NCAA DIV 1 school. In his senior year, Rowley, the ace of the Black Knights staff, tossed 97 2/3 innings with a sparking 2.67 ERA. The Blue Jays offered him a contract to join their shirt-season team in the Gulf Coast League, and he accepted it, pitching nine games before leaving to fulfill his military service.
After spending two years with the military, Rowley was granted deferment and was able to pick up his baseball career with the Blue Jays. In 2016, his first full season with the organization, he posted a 3.49 ERA over 123 2/3 innings with Single-A Dunedin, shifting between the bullpen and rotation. In 2017, Rowley has established himself as a legitimate major league prospect with an excellent season between New Hampshire and Buffalo.
Rowely is likely best described as a finesse pitcher. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff by any stretch, as his fastball tops out at 91-92 miles-per-hour, but he can mix speeds and pitches and paint the corners of the zone.
“My game is based on throwing three pitches [sinker, changeup, slider], 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,” Rowley said while with New Hampshire earlier this season.
His underlying numbers reflect that style of pitching, too. At Triple-A, Rowley is striking out only 6.8 batters per nine innings, but he’s done an excellent job limiting hard contact. He’s allowing just 0.3 home runs per nine, and has kept 47 per cent of batted balls on the ground. He also claims that his confidence and demeanour is one of his strongest attributes as a pitcher.
“I think it may be just my personality,” Rowley said in an interview with Jay Blue of Blue Jays From Away in 2016. “I guess in terms of not quitting and perseverance and mental toughness is really where I think I have an edge.
“I feel like mentally, I’m just very sharp and focused. I feel everything. I kind of know what I’m doing wrong without someone having to tell me because I can feel it. So I would say mental toughness and maybe a mental sharpness. I don’t know if that’s from the military or something else but it’s something that’s developed over the past few years.”
In the short-term, Rowley makes an interesting option as a starter for the Blue Jays to patch their rotation. But in the long-term, his pitching style is reminiscent of Danny Barnes, and he could be a name to watch follow a similar path in the Blue Jays bullpen over the next year. Even if he isn’t given the call to start Saturday, odds are we’re going to see Rowley once rosters expand in September.