There was a time when Michael Bowden was one of the top prospects in the Red Sox organization. He was also one of baseball's most promising youngsters, ranking in Baseball America's Top 100 three straight years, starting in 2007 when he was all of 20 years old and in High-A.
Now it's 2012, Bowden is out of options, and it's no guarantee he has a job with the Red Sox either on Opening Day, or down the line. He doesn't have enough value to be a trade piece by himself for many clubs, but he's got just enough potential left to keep the Red Sox from feeling the need to toss him on waivers and hope he goes unclaimed.
The pitcher he used to be is no more, but Boston thinks they've molded him into something different that they could use. Bowden used to be known for his curveball, a plus offering that was his go-to out pitch. Out of the 378 pitches he threw in 2011 with the Red Sox, just one was a bender. For all intents and purposes, he's scrapped what used to be a plus pitch.
With good reason, though. Bowden's mechanics have always been a bit weird, and the inconsistency of his motion meant he would often lose command, velocity, and control of his stuff. The curve was a major part of this, as it started to flatten out -- a flat curve isn't fooling anyone, and each of the 25 that he threw in the majors that were put in play were launched as flyballs. The curve that was considered plus back in 2007 through 2009 profiled as just "average" according to Kevin Goldstein by 2010, with Goldstein also saying that Bowden took a step backwards in his full stint at Triple-A and occasional time in the majors:
Bowden missed far fewer bats at Triple-A, as his once-plus curve became slower and flatter, and he struggled to establish a slider in his arsenal. The inconsistency with his secondary pitches also elevated his walk rate and forced him to use his fastball more, but he needs to stay ahead in the count to succeed. He tends to work up in the zone.
Working up in the zone is part of the reason he was an extreme flyball pitcher. His failure to feature an out pitch to replace the curveball made life difficult for him against Triple-A hitters, as he struck out just 6.3 per nine and posted a 1.9 K/BB. Things didn't improve in 2010, either, as he posted a similar season with similar peripherals.
Since breaking balls just weren't happening anymore, the Red Sox and Bowden went another route for 2011, and had him focus on a cutter, as well as working exclusively in relief. Triple-A hitters finally learned to fear him: Bowden punched out 10.4 batters per nine, posted a 3.4 K/BB, and gave up just 0.9 homers per nine despite his flyball tendencies and the backdrop of a hitter's park in Pawtucket.
He still mixes in a slider -- according to Brooks Baseball, he threw more sliders in the majors than cutters in 2011 -- and the four-seam fastball continues to be his go-to offering. Despite their success in the minors, none of these pitches did much for Bowden in the majors: his fastball didn't induce whiffs or grounders, his cutter was even worse in that regard, and his change-up was about as average as can be. The 76 sliders he threw also didn't get whiffs, but they at least helped him induce grounders, something he just doesn't do very much of otherwise.
He still has good stuff -- those 2011 numbers from Pawtucket help show that -- but when it comes to succeeding in the majors, he hasn't had a plan that works yet. Even with a true swing-and-miss offering, working up in the zone is very dangerous, especially for someone who tends to rely on his fastball as much as Bowden does. Bowden doesn't have a legit out pitch, making things even tougher with his current plan of attack.
He'll need to focus on being down in the zone more, in an attempt to induce more grounders and force hitters to chase his slider more. Leaving everything up results in homers in the majors -- look no further than Bowden's career 1.3 homer per nine rate over 56 frames in the majors as a reminder of this -- as well as hard-hit, difficult-to-field balls. Bowden's career BABIP is .343, and while there's certainly some small sample blues in there, everything else we've discussed about his approach and repertoire suggests there's some truth to that as well.
Pitchers in the majors tend to hover around a .290 to .300 BABIP because they have all hit the ability threshold necessary to be pitchers in the majors. Is Bowden's BABIP as high as it is because he just doesn't have that ability to stick as a pitcher at the highest level? As long as he stays up in the zone, without a true swing-and-miss offering in his toolbox, there's a distinct possibility of that being true. He's long been known as a highly-competitive pitcher who seemed to take things to another level during intense moments, but if the ball stays up, the only higher level he'll make us think of is the one in the bleachers.
He's looked great this spring, striking out seven in eight frames against one walk, with nary a homer allowed while fighting for a job in the Red Sox bullpen. He's still the same flyball pitcher, though, so this might end up being his last chance to prove he's capable. And he'll be one more reminder that not all prospects pan out like fans or teams hope they will, even if he does succeed.