In many respects, Mets pitching prospect Matthew Bowman is not unlike the hundreds of other young pitchers that have passed under the tutelage of current Sand Gnats pitching coach Frank Viola. Although undoubtedly promising, Bowman, the Mets 11th-round pick out of Princeton University last season, nevertheless lacks the tantalizing repertoire or highly heralded prospect status of say, Matt Harvey or Zack Wheeler. The 21-year-old eats as much Chipotle as his meager budget will allow, and suffers no delusions about the daunting odds of a college product in the South Atlantic League making the big leagues. While his unorthodox delivery, slight frame, and dark-haired, boyish looks bear an uncanny resemblance to Tim Lincecum, the reality is that such superficial surface similarities are just about where any realistic comparison between the two pitchers ends.
Yet, there is something about Bowman that strikes a chord with Viola. “Let me tell you, this is my third year back in professional baseball,” he says. “After my career was over, I coached ten years of high school, three years of summer collegiate, and three years of professional. And he’s [Bowman] the first pitcher after all that time, who wanted me to critique him after each outing. So I go home that night, review the game, so when I see him at the ball park next day, I can tell him, here’s the positive, here’s the things we can work on. He’s the first pitcher to make me think like that, to actually have an answer for him the next day. That’s how in tune he is with what he needs, and where he wants to go.”
It is this intellectual curiosity, perhaps more than any other factor, that has propelled Bowman’s somewhat idiosyncratic path toward the professional ranks. Born and raised in an upper middle class neighborhood in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Bowman’s father William, a Harvard-educated attorney, and mother Margaret, a neurologist, instilled in Matt and his older brother Scott the mental fortitude to succeed both athletically and academically.
“He [William] wasn’t much of a baseball player growing up,” says Bowman. “But he certainly taught me discipline, hard work, concentration, and not being complacent with results.”
It was not until Bowman’s sophomore year at St. Alban’s high school — where he pitched and played shortstop on the same team as Mariners prospect Danny Hultzen — however, when he began to experiment with his defining, deceptive, Lincecum-like motion. While it is easy to scoff at the 15 year-old’s seemingly poor-man’s impression of a trendy motion, Bowman was trying to be Tim Lincecum before it was cool. That is, he was not trying to be Lincecum at all. At the time, Bowman had not even heard of Lincecum, who was finishing his last season at the University of Washington before beginning his career with the Giants that summer.
Much like Lincecum, however, Bowman wanted to generate maximal velocity from his dimunitve frame. He began his self-experimentation cautiously, only employing his new motion with two strikes on the hitter, and wanted to reach back for something extra to put him away. Within a short amount of time, however, Bowman knew he was onto something — a belief bolstered by the emergence of Lincecum.
“In high school I had a very simple delivery. Very standard. When I tried to throw it harder, I would naturally lean back like him [Lincecum] and come more over the top with it. But I didn’t even know who he was in high school. But than I saw him and saw that he was a smaller guy and I thought that’s great. He’s a smaller guy and so succesful. So I realized that was sort of what I was doing, so I moved toward that a little more.”
By his junior year in 2008 — the same year that Lincecum himself would transform from a mere intriguing curiosity to a Cy Young winner and household name — Bowman’s success in high school drew the attention of plenty of major league scouts. Any attempts to lure the teenager to pro ball were short-lived, however. Bowman’s heart was set on going to Princeton.
“I spoke to some [scouts], but they knew I was committed to Princeton,” says Bowman. “And once I said that, I didn’t hear much from them after that.”
While Bowman readily admits that, based on academic merits alone, he stood no shot of being accepted to Princeton, he was still able to pass the school’s academic index for athletes.
“That’s the first question every Princeton or Ivy league coach asked me,” Bowman recalls. “It’s not how hard you throw. They asked how were your grades? How were your SATs? Because if you don’t pass the threshold for that, there’s nothing they can do to get you in.”
Unlike his dad’s alma mater Harvard — which heavily recruited Bowman as well — Princeton offered him the opportunity to play both shortstop and pitch, cementing his commitment. It was quickly apparent, however, that Bowman’s future lie on the mound. It was during this time, in the earlier stages of his collegiate career, when Bowman learned to reconcile the fact that, while he could learn much from studying Lincecum’s delivery, trying to perfectly mimic his motion, regardless of the fact that Lincecum was a unique, and undoubtedly more gifted animal, was an exercise in futility.
“During college there were times, especially during my freshman year, where I tried to mimic him too much, and obviously he’s a special talent and certainly more athletic than I am, and has better body control. Trying to mimic him isn’t really a good idea for other people, at least for me, because he’s so much more athletic and flexible. So I’ve sort of come to a happy medium now where I do my own thing. Obviously there are some elements I can mimic about his delivery, but obviously he is so far and away a better pitcher. I moved away from it when I realized its something that’s very unique to him based on how athletic he is. Maybe I can incorporate some parts of his motion, but not perfectly.”
Meanwhile, Bowman quickly realized life as a student-athlete at Princeton was a far cry from the typical experience of a division one athlete. For many high profile collegiate athletes, going to class and studying is a mere formality, as academics quickly take a backseat to one’s athletic pursuits. Many are endowed with special priviledges and treatment that ordinary students do not enjoy, provided by jock-sniffing professors and administrators who bend over backwards to accommodate player’s dual responsibilities. Bowman’s professors at Princeton, though, were not so easily enthralled.
“There are no perks to being a student athlete at Princeton,” Bowman, an economics major, emphatically says. “The professors don’t want to hear it. You’re a student first and then you’re an athlete, as far as the professors are concerned. So if you have a paper due you either have to really get someone to advocate for you from the athletic department that you have a game or something that you need to reschedule and find a way to make it work. But there’s not a lot of leeway as far as bending academic schedules there.”
Thus far, Bowman’s intellect has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. He is often handicapped by his propensity to overthink on the mound, leading to analysis paralysis. This tendency tends not to influence Bowman’s mechanics as much as one might assume; with time, he has learned to rely far more upon feel, touch, and muscle memory when it comes to his delivery, insisting he is no bioemechanics geek.
Rather, Bowman’s proclivity to over-analyze mostly influences his pitch selection and approach to hitters. Often, Bowman makes the relatively simple act of retiring A-ball hitters into something akin to nuclear physics. He has an unusually large number of weapons at his disposal, featuring an array of pitches that would make any pitcher this side of Yu Darvish blush; he throws both a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a slider, a 12-6 curveball, a changeup, and a newly added splitter.
“His Ivy League mentality is incredible,” says Viola. “I think the one knock on being so intelligent is that he thinks too much. As a pitcher, when I was in my prime, I used the terminology K.I.S.S. He’s just the opposite. He’s always constantly thinking up something new and going out and trying to apply it, which is wonderful. But sometimes, too much is too much.”
“So far, it’s [intelligence] proved a little detrimental,” Bowman admits. “I get on the mound and I try and overthink things. Instead of just staying with the fastball, I overthink it and I outthink the hitter, and I give the hitter too much credit for what he’s thinking.”
In fact, when Bowman first arrived in Brooklyn last summer, it didn’t take long for Mets brass to realize his intelligent nature presented all kinds of unique issues. Unlike nearly all young pitchers, who come into pro ball accustomed to simply shoving it with their fastball, and have to be forced to utilize their secondary arsenal, Bowman’s problem was that he didn’t throw his fastball enough.
“They [Cyclones coaches] nearly bit my head off every time I threw a first pitch curveball,” recalls Bowman laughing. They made sure I stuck with the fastball. They said if you’re going to be successful on any level, you’re going to have to have to learn to throw your fastball and be confident. Just because it works with a short season for a time, doesn’t mean it’ll work in the future, and you better learn to throw that fastball now, rather than getting away with your breaking ball, so it’s not too late by the time you want to learn to throw your fastball correctly.”
This spring, after Bowman learned the Mets planned to work him as a starter in 2013 following his invitation to the team’s STEP camp, he immediately sought out the advice of the Mets coaching staff about how to improve his changeup, which he felt lagged behind his other secondary offerings. In response, pitching coordinator Ron Romanick taught him to throw a splitter, adding yet another pitch to his arsenal. Despite adopting the splitter, Bowman has decided to keep the changeup as well; the splitter acts as a better swing-and-miss pitch, but the changeup is more reliable as far as throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count. Ideally, Mets officials envision Bowman eventually condensing his repertoire to some extent; if for no other reason than to calm his brain once in awhile. At this stage in his development, however, they are content with letting the young man experiment, gradually narrowing his efforts as he gains more experience and feedback.
As Viola says, “I think what’s going to happen is, he’ll be able to throw the curveball and the slider. But on any given day it’ll be one over the other. With the splitter and the changeup, I think he’ll eventually have to do away with one of those pitches. At this point, he’s just experimenting. As you’re going up the ladder, you’ll figure out what’s effective and what’s not effective at that point. I think the hitters will dictate what pitches go and what pitches stay.”
At this point, it is the continued refinement of Bowman’s repertoire, rather than his unique mechanics, that will largely determine if he develops into a big league pitcher. Although he is still in the process of developing the muscle memory to repeat his motion with Lincecum-like efficiency, the Mets are not nearly as concerned with his mechanics, which are remarkably consistent considering the number of moving parts involved. Bowman utilizes an extensive pregame stretching routine, emphasizing dynamic and functional flexibility.
“[I focus on] just keeping the tempo, not rushing for bigger games or games where I get too excited, when I rush to the plate, and I don’t keep my rhythm,” says Bowman. “Right now, I just work on that, especially with the fastball, so I don’t yank it, or fall off and push it. I just make sure that I’m coming set and coming to balance points, and try and stay steady instead of jumping out ahead of myself.”
“Really, if you break it down, it’s not as bad as you think it is,” adds Viola. “His delivery is solid. He keeps his body back. He’s driving through. He’s using his whole body. It looks funky, but it gets the job done and is correct.”
While Bowman’s unique mechanics have helped compensate for what he lacks in physicality, it is imperative upon the skinny right-hander- who is listed at 6’0, 165. lbs. – to continue to fill out and gain weight. Compared to some of his muscular, physically developed teammates, or the typical big league workhorse, Bowman looks like Christian Bale in The Machinist. He has started the process by gaining fifteen pounds this past off-season, but more work remains to be done.
Bowman’s economic studies have helped spawned his interest in the more finer points of baseball analysis, specifically sabermetrics. He wrote his junior thesis last year, analyzing the Phillies ticket sales. This fall, he plans to write his senior thesis on something baseball-related as well, after which he will graduate; as part of his signing bonus, the Mets will pay for senior year of college.
“One [idea] I was really looking at was defensive performance, and how much range a guy has. You have a Mendoza-line kind of guy, a guy who doesn’t really perform well at the plate, who clearly gets a contract for his defense, and you can break down how much you’re willing to pay based on his defense, and the fact that you can quantify defense, which typically you didn’t think you could do. Basically what I would do is make a regression, and see how much each player is worth, and if people are overpaying for defense.”
For now, however, Bowman has plenty of actual baseball on his plate.
“When you’re going to any Ivy League, the brand of baseball compared to the rest of the country is not considered fantastic,” says Viola. “I don’t think he has doubt in his mind. But he needs somebody to tell him, ‘hey you’re doing it the right way’. When push comes to shove, I would take him out at any time.”
Here is some video footage of Matt Bowman from three years ago:
About the Author
Matt is a high school student in New Jersey and avid Mets fan. He occasionally updates his blog at: matthimelfarb.wordpress.com