Looking back at Bowden Francis’ debut season and what role he might play with the Blue Jays in 2024

Photo credit:David Reginek
Ryan Snodgrass
6 months ago
One of the more looked-over aspects of the elite bullpen that the Toronto Blue Jays featured in 2023 was Bowden Francis, a 27-year-old rookie originally drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers. 
Francis, who was called up mid-season, pitched in just over 30 innings, however, his impact was felt in a crucial time of the year. When the Blue Jays only had four pitchers in their starting rotation, Francis formed a tandem with Trevor Richards to give the team some quality starts, while also giving them a multi-inning option in the bullpen. 
Toronto acquired Francis, along with Richards, from the Brewers back in June of 2021 in exchange for Rowdy Tellez. Standing in at 6’5/220, Francis is an impossible figure to miss. Equally noticeable is his love for his fastball, which he uses around 52% of the time. He throws a four-seamer with average velocity, however, it was the pitch with the highest put-away percentage. 
He attacks hitters early challenging them all over the strike zone, especially middle-middle. Francis got the first pitch strike so often, that if he qualified, he would be placed around 80th in the league. What’s more, the amount of vertical movement on the fastball makes it play well in limited appearances this season.
His fastball is extremely important, and it works because of its vertical movement. Francis gets above-average spin on his fastball which elevates its quality. His vertical movement vs average is 1.8, tied with the likes of Yu Darvish, Clayton Kershaw, and Félix Bautista. Interestingly, it was not his fastball that got the most whiffs it was his curveball.
While the jury might still be out on how well Francis’s fastball will project into the future, his curveball is my eye candy. When looking at swings and misses for this pitch of all rookie pitchers, he ranked 15th. It’s a nasty pitch that’s 20 mph slower than his fastball creating a disgusting combo. To top it off, he’s developing a slider that places itself right in the middle of both velocity-wise. So even though Bowden didn’t have a high whiff rate last season, his curveball was hovering around 35.5% which is double that of his fastball, a crucial pitch for generating strikeouts.
Let’s look at one of Francis’s more productive appearances. On August 29, he came in for relief in the seventh inning for José Berrios and pitched the rest of the game. He threw three shutout innings while collecting four strikeouts. He also managed to keep his hard-hit rate down, only giving up a single hard-hit ball compared to Berrios’s six from that game. Suffice it to say he was wheeling and dealing, but what can we take away from an appearance like this? Well, for one, he threw his fastball and curveball at an even split. The difference from his pitches is staggering considering the pitch with the highest velocity (Fastball) clocked in around 96 (mph), while the slowest pitch (Curveball), was clocked at 69.9 (mph). The further development of his slider could be what separates him from the rest of the staff this spring. It would not shock me if these pitches tunnel well, releasing all his pitches in at around the same release point.
I think the next step for Bowden will be to reduce the number of hard contact/barrels in 2024. Keeping league averages in mind, he was above the mark for barrels, and exit velocity. While it was not a problem last season, if this issue were to persist at a larger quantity of innings it could be a problem. Although his SIERRA, which is graded on a scale like FIP and ERA, but primarily factors in ball-in-play data, was still good at 3.53, similar to Zack Wheeler. Interestingly, his xFIP is higher than his SIERRA, indicating he generated a solid amount of groundballs/pop-ups vs line drives which are much more likely to be base hits.
Ultimately, improving his slider will round out his arsenal, allowing him to go deeper into games which will supplement his value in the long term. He already has plus stuff, so it’s not unreasonable to think he can’t develop a solid tertiary offering. However, keeping his walks down like they are now (BB% = 1.98), is the likeliest indicator of his success. If he can keep his command, then a consistent role should not be out of the question in 2024. What I think Francis can do to ensure his chances of success, is to focus on his command. His second-half stats show his ratio of strike/ball thrown is much better, indicating he felt more confident after some time with the pro club.
I think Francis is best in a swingman type of role, one in which he can learn from Trevor Richards, who he worked in tandem with for a while. If he can go beyond 3 innings consistently in spring training, he could find his way into the fifth starter position. If not, Francis could be optioned as a casualty of being depth. I think it’s more realistic, however, for him to find his way back into the pen since he has only shown himself to have thrown two pitches consistently. This is not to say you can’t be a successful starter with only two pitches, however, his stuff might work better as a long man.
In conclusion, I think Francis is a unique pitcher for the Blue Jays in 2024, and I hope the club gives him a legitimate shot at winning a spot, be it in the bullpen or as a starter. He’s one of the few arms that can go multiple innings with the ability to start games. That’s a powerful position as a pitcher looking to stick around full-time in the majors. While regression is likely inevitable, playing a full season in the MLB will for sure be great for his professional development.


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