Sunday, February 26, 2012

What Giants Fans (Mostly Myself) Learned from "Bowkermania!"

(Photo courtesy of Crazy

In 2009, John Bowker burst onto the Giants fan scene like no other. He became pretty much the "favorite son" of Giants fans and bloggers everywhere, who came up with terms like "Bowkermania!" and "Free Bowker!"

Of course, there was some interest in the free-swinging lefty in 2008, who got off to a torrid start with the Giants where he hit eight home runs in the first three months of play, and posted a slash of .325/.373/.584 in the month of June. However, a down July sent him to the bench, and for the remainder of the year in 2008, Bowker was pretty much an afterthought in the Giants organization.

But 2009 was the real jump off for Bowker, and it all started with that 2009 season of his in the Pacific Coast League.

Bowker put up incredible numbers in the PCL as a 25 year old, posting a slash of .342/.451/.596 with an OPS of 1.047 in 450 plate appearances with the Fresno Grizzlies. Yes, the 21 home runs were impressive, as was the OPS, but what really turned a lot of Giants fans' heads around (especially the stat heavy guys) was Bowker's suddenly honed approach at the plate.

Prior to 2009, Bowker's approach at the plate profiled as one of a free-swinging power hitter who struck out a good amount and didn't draw a lot of walks to boot. In 2007 in San Jose, he posted an OPS of .762 but only sported a meager BB/K ratio of 0.37. In 2008, his power numbers jumped in Connecticut despite the pitcher-friendly environments of the Eastern League, as he hit 22 home runs and posted an OPS of .886 in 587 plate appearances with the Defenders. Unfortunately, despite the jump in power, the approach at the plate didn't get much better, as he finished the year with a BB/K ratio of 0.40. While Bowker certainly had the potential to hit with power at the Big League level (and he flashed that in his short campaign in 2008), many people believed that his approach at the plate would prevent him from achieving consistent success as a Major League player.

In 2009 though, that all changed as his BB/K ratio suddenly spiked to 1.16. That's right. He improved his BB/K ratio by 76 points from Double-A Connecticut and 90 points from his brief stint with the Giants (his BB/K ratio was 0.26 in San Francisco). Bowker suddenly went from an outfielder with utility potential to starting potential, perhaps even All-Star potential.

Or so that's what all of us Giants fans wanted to believe.

In reality, we should have tempered the expectations.

As Grant Brisbee eloquently put it in this piece on the McCovey Chronicles, Bowker was such a beloved figure amongst Giants fans because he was the kind of player offensively in Fresno that was the polar opposite of what Giants fans were seeing on a daily basis in the outfield. Randy Winn had no patience at the plate and added minimal power to boot. Fred Lewis was a strikeout machine. Aaron Rowand couldn't lay off balls in the dirt to save his life. Eugenio Velez was Eugenio Velez. With his unbelievable numbers in Triple-A, Giants fans felt that if they could even get a modicum of that production at the Big League level, then he would be an upgrade over whatever the Giants had trotting out in the outfield in 2009.

Alas, he couldn't translate his impressive numbers as a Grizzly to the Major League club. In a short cup of coffee (73 plate appearances), Bowker put up a .194 average, .620 OPS and a BB/K ratio of 0.22 (actually worse than his 2008 call up). He looked less like the guy who was dominating PCL pitchers like Barry Bonds, and more like the guy in July of 2008 who didn't have a clue at the plate.

It didn't stop Giants fans like us though from believing in Bowkermania. Giants fans (including myself) pointed out a myriad of reasons why the skills didn't translate from Triple-A to the Major Leagues. He wasn't getting enough at-bats. The hitting philosophy under Carney Lansford didn't suit his style. The organization was putting too much pressure on Bowker to produce right away, and not enough on guys like Winn or Velez.

To be honest, the Giants did everything they could to give Bowker the job in 2010. They hired Hensely Meulens from Fresno as the Giants hitting coach, and they didn't bring back Winn. Furthermore, they made the competition between Bowker and Nate Schierholtz for the starting right field job in Spring Training, and after out-performing Nate in Spring Training, they handed the right field position to Bowker on Opening Day.

And still, Bowker couldn't produce. After a 90 plate appearance and .207/.254/.356 campaign as the Giants' right fielder, the Giants organization sent him down to Fresno and then included him in a trade package that eventually netted them lefty-specialist Javier Lopez from Pittsburgh. In the span of a year, Bowkermania in San Francisco was done, and two years later, Bowkermania was finished in Major League Baseball, as Bowker was released from the Phillies after last season to pursue a career in Japan (he signed with the Yomiuri Giants).

Bowker isn't the only example of Giants fans over-hoping for a prospect. Kevin Frandsen, Lance Niekro, Todd Linden, Jesse Foppert, Jerome Williams, Merkin Valdez, and Dante Powell are all examples of prospects Giants fans have had high hopes for, only to see them flail at the MLB level. After Bowker and the creation of this blog, Bowkermania taught me four things:

1.) Look at skills, not stats...and look at those skills at all levels, not just one.

Ron Shandler is a big proponent of this in his forecast. Though it is mostly referring to fantasy baseball purposes, the same rings true for prospects. You have to look at what his tools are and how they translate into the numbers, and not just the numbers themselves (or even the tools themselves, because as we know, some guys sport tremendous tools but can't back it up into good numbers). In addition, I would add onto this by saying that looking at all the "skill-related" numbers at all levels is equally important. Bowker didn't really flash any plate patience until he got to Fresno. His BB/K ratio and walk numbers were pedestrian at best from the Northwest League to the Eastern League. At the end of the day, one year of good plate patience is just that: one good year. Add that with the fact that he didn't show that at the Major League level, and Bowker pretty much proved to be the player we all thought he would be pre-2009: a free swinging lefty with some pop, but not a lot of discipline.

2.) Position is key.

If Bowker was a third baseman or catcher, perhaps the Giants would have had more patience with him. That being said, with a glut of outfielders such as Rowand, Mark Derosa, Nate Schierholtz, etc., Bowker didn't have much room for error. Add that with the mid-season signing of Pat Burrell and the writing was pretty much on the wall for Bowker. That is why, in my mind, position is such a key thing for prospects. It's the reason why a guy like Pablo Sandoval loses value if he moves from third to first base or if Tommy Joseph moves from catcher to first base. As first baseman, those guys not only struggle to compete with others at the position around the league, but they even pale in their own organization, as Brandon Belt is far superior to them defensively and perhaps offensively. Bowker was a corner outfielder whose lone "strength" was his bat, and when he didn't show that bat at the Big League level, he became expendable because there is usually a lot of depth in organizations when it comes to outfielders.

3.) Pay attention to trends in the leagues.

Brian Sabean said in an interview once that Triple-A pitching "wasn't very good." While he was referring to Buster Posey and he came off as condescending, Sabean has a point. Triple-A pitching isn't good. For the most part, Triple-A pitchers are journeyman who can't find a spot on the 25-man roster or prospects who have struggled at the Major League level and are taking some time for seasoning or to work on some things. Triple-A pitchers have some kind of flaw one way or the other, and one can't automatically believe that one's Triple-A numbers will automatically translate (even partially) to the Big League level. The California League is the same issue, as the environments greatly favor hitters, much like the Pacific Coast League. As for the Eastern League, the environments tend to favor pitchers, and one has to take some pitchers' numbers (mostly ERA for example) with a grain of salt. Hence, when it comes to evaluating prospects, one just can't look at one sample and say that's the recipe for success. There has to be a consistent showing of success from level to level.

4.) Age-related-to-league performance is huge.

In many ways, Bowker going to Fresno is lose-lose. He had 350 plate appearances in San Francisco the previous year. If he succeeded, then well, he was 25 and he had almost 3/4 of a season of experience at the Big League level. He is supposed to succeed. If he flops, then he probably wasn't that good of a prospect if he can't dominate Triple-A pitching at age 25. Now, if Bowker was 22 or 23 and putting up the numbers he was in 2009, that would be a different story. But he wasn't and as a result, Giants fans probably should have tempered their expectations. This isn't just specific to Bowker of course, and it should be applied to all prospects in any professional system. If a guy is younger than the competition and producing, then that's a good sign. If he's older than the competition, then it's a red flag. If he's repeating levels, that's also a red flag as well, especially if he has good numbers. Age-related-to-league is probably one of the most important things any baseball fan could look at when it comes to evaluating prospects. Bowker's older age and the fact that he was repeating Triple-A should have had more of us Giants fans on our toes.

As stated before, Bowker isn't the only example of a "prospect getting hype but not living up to it." Myriads of organizations can claim almost hundreds of players who failed to live up to the hype in the past decade alone. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule. There are guys like Bowker who take a while to develop and then burst onto the scene at the Major League level. Mike Morse and Jose Bautista are examples of players who took longer than expected in the Minors, showed inconsistency at the Minor and Major League level and have now become everyday players. That being said, those are the exceptions, not the standards.

Did Bowker have a chance to be that exception? Of course, he did. I still feel he had a very good power tool set for a corner outfielder. But as with most prospects in his situation, the chips were stacked against him and as it is most of the time with prospects, the odds won out. For every Buster Posey, there's four to five Bowkers out there that don't live up to the "hype" generated by fans.

At least Giants fans (and myself) are better off now for understanding that the "hype machine" doesn't always strike gold with everyone.


  1. Nice post overall, great job.

    Yes, Bowkermania was more of a Giants fan thing. I would add that to your fine list of lessons learned at the end of your post, that players the general prospecting crowd does not take interest in is probably lacking in a number of ways that the general fans does not see or get.

    I must note some things.

    First, I disagree with Grant's article (or, since I didn't read it, what you excerpted). Fred Lewis had a big following of Giants fans and from my memory, the guys who were all en thrall with Bowkermania were also touting Freddy Lewis, on-base machine.

    Second, I guess this would be another lesson to add to your list: small sampling size. One of Shandler's rules in his great toolkit is that you don't rely on a player's stats from less than one season's worth of AAA play. The odds of a regression is much larger for prospects with less than one season's worth and then brought up than one with a full season of proving himself. While he had 450 PA, that was still not a full season.

    Also, as Giants fans, we have seen our share of such short-term pyro-technics that fizzled in the SF Bay mist: Pedro Feliz and Todd Linden. They had great AAA stats, but in less than a full season, and that (plus lack of prospect hound support) should be warning bells for us.

    I would add all those 1B over the years - Damon Minor, Lancelotti, countless others - to your list of prospects who we over estimated. One of my first ones was Randy Elliott, and one that I whiffed badly on was Royce Clayton (when we drafted him, he was hitting all sorts of homers in high school...).

    I would strike Foppert and Williams from the list. Both had legit talent. I read one article that noted that what Jerome Williams was doing was similar to what Dwight Gooden was doing at the same age. Foppert was listed among the Top prospects for the majors as well. Foppert just fell to injury (and possibly stubbornness or stupidity) and he probably did himself no favor trying to play through it instead of shutting himself down the moment he was experiencing physical problems. Williams, from what I understand, just ate himself out of baseball. Too many lau-laus and kalua pork when he was at home during the off-season.

    1. On your list of lessons:

      First, to clarify, Shandler says that when a player shows a skill, he owns the skill, meaning that he could do it again, but he'll need to do it again consistently. But I agree with your point that if the player didn't exhibit the skills previously or since, he was more probably lucky.

      I would also note here that Shandler only does minor league equivalencies for stats in AA and AAA, because when prospects are lower than that in the minors, there are still so many things that can happen to change things by the time they get up to the upper levels.

      The problem with Bowker, and I suspect with a lot of failed prospects, is that they think too much when they make it up to the majors. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great article talking about the human act of choking, and noted that what happens in the brain is that there are two modes of operation: one that you use when trying to learn something for the first time, where you are conscious of everything you do physicall, and one kicks in as muscle memory and you subconsciously do what you've practiced.

      However, in times of stress, honed athletes who kick ass when they are using muscle memory suddenly switch gears and refer to the learning mode where you are conscious of every movement, and then you suddenly suck.

      That's something that a lot of sabers forget: that baseball is a very human sport. That's why there is some element of clutchiness in the game, because there are many players who will wilt in the heat of the moment. That's why there are true closers and ones who are just posers (and thus very inconsistent).

      If you go through all the interviews Vogelsong has given, that seems to be the thing for him, he's always had the talent, it was just a matter of bringing it to the mound with him, believing in it, and showing the world.

      About position, while I agree that position is key, I think you are off there regarding Sandoval. Sandoval is still fine at 1B, he hits way better than the average 1Bman and his defense there has been pretty good too. I would much rather have Sandoval than Belt at 1B, if I were forced to chose right now between one or the other.

      I guess you missed it, but Sandoval was head and shoulders better defensively than any 3B in 2011 and that was based on counting stats, despite missing a quarter of the season. I have no doubt that he would be just as spectacular defensively at 1B, and he runs rings around Belt offensively there.

      But you are right, position is key, if he were as good a hitter as he has shown but playing a premium position like C or SS, he probably would have been given more chances, plus the fact that there are less crowding of prospects at those positions. I'm not as sure about him at 3B, as the Giants seem to like defense at the corners, so he would have to be good there to still get more chances.

      Sometimes you need to feel that your time in the sport is slipping away to just let go and be as good as you could be. That appears to be what happened to Jeremy Lin. From the articles I've read, he had a lot of grip-itis when he was with the Warriors, but when he finally got his chance with the Knicks, he knew that this could be his last chance.

      That happened with Ishikawa too, he was just terrible offensively, then Bochy said that he would start benching Travis, so he let go (or in his words, put himself in God's hands) and let his talent out, and he hit in the mid-to-high 700's OPS the rest of the season.

    2. About trends in the league, Sabean basically says too many things without a filter and make poor word choices. Still, it is a fact that AAA pitching is not that good. There is a huge difference between AAA and major league pitching. That's the facts, Jack.

      And whatever caveats one places on AAA stats, they are exponentially higher for Advanced A San Jose, because the pitchers there are not even as good as the AAA pitchers.

      I would not say that there has to be consistent showing of success level to level. It depends on the age (so this rule would especially apply to prospects 23 and older, but not as much to prospects 20 and younger) and as long as they mostly show that skill, whatever it is, a one year blip should not derail any good shown before, it should just be food for thought and caution to apply some brakes on those lofty expectations you may have for that prospect.

      About age relative to league, I totally agree. But I must notet that Bowker was actually young for the league in his "breakout" season with Fresno. It was his 25 YO season and the average age of pitchers in the league was 27.

      Again, I would refer to Shandler's great toolkit, true prospects are generally 22 YO in AAA, 21 in AA, 20-ish in Advanced A, 19-20 in A. So Bowker being 25 YO and hitting well in AAA, he's now in the "show-me" state of prospectdom, he owns the skill but now has to show it at the next level. Unfortunately for him (and us) he was unable to.

      If I had to chose one rule that prospect followers should follow but rarely do, I think your lesson about age relative to league is the key one that most people miss but should follow.

      Again, nice post, great lessons.

    3. Thanks OGC for your comments. Again, I'm not trying to say I got it all down. But if you've read my earlier stuff from Remember '51 and even earlier posts on this blog, you'll see how I approach and evaluate prospects a lot differently now than I did before. I still need a lot of work of course, but I feel a lot more confident evaluating minor league players than I did almost a year ago when I was just starting this blog.

      I think the age aspect is definitely the most important, but you did bring up some interesting points on the skills aspect with Bowker. Yes, ideally he should have translated those skills to the Major League level (the batting eye, specifically), but despite owning that skill in Fresno, he didn't even come close to displaying the same approach in SF. I think you're definitely onto something in terms of saying that mentally he had something that you just can't measure with numbers. It was obvious in person that he was pressing and that's something unfortunately one can't measure with numbers. At the end of the day, this game is played by humans, not computers, and things like emotions and mental things can affect a guy at the MLB level, especially if he's on the cusp in terms of holding a roster spot or not. Some guys step up to the challenge (like some of the castoffs Sabean has assembled in the bullpen the past couple of years) and some just struggle despite their history of success in the minors. Lewis is another key example. I loved Lewis a lot, and probably was more defensive of him than I should've been. But for some reason, after 2008, he just hit a road block mentally and everything just regressed big time starting in 2009.

      Another key issue you brought up that I forgot about but believe in is simply the fact that he wasn't an elite prospect and fans should always be careful of unheralded overachieving prospects. Bowker was a third round pick out of college, and I'm guessing he was signed more out of signability and polish reasons rather than upside. He did have a good power tool, but Bowker wasn't appearing on anybody's Top-5 Giants prospects lists from what I could remember. This is where scouting and stats need to find a balance. One doesn't want to hang up all on a guy's projection, but at the same time, just looking at the numbers solely doesn't tell the whole story either. I think fans focused too much on the numbers in Bowker's case and it kinda fogged our lenses. After his numerous stints though in the Majors, we started to understand why he wasn't as heralded a prospect pre-2009.

      Thanks again for the support and the insightful comments that helped clarify some things that I tried to touch on. Definitely helps a lot.

    4. Also interesting takes on Foppert and Williams. Williams amazingly has played his way back in the Majors, actually making some appearances with the Angels last year. I think conditioning and weight issues were Williams' downfall, for you're right, he had legitimate stuff and tools to be a good pitcher, or at the very least a middle of the rotation guy. However, some guys can live the Livan Hernandez diet plan and get away with it and some can't. Williams couldn't, and it took him a while to wise up and discipline himself. Too bad he couldn't have done that in SF when his skills were still in their peak.

      As for Foppert, injury did derail him and to say he was overrated was probably shortsighted on my part. He really had incredible stuff and his strikeout numbers were incredible in the early minors. But you're right, he didn't take care of himself and tried to play through injury, and considering the time and management style at the time, it hurt him. I don't think the same thing happens to a prospect like Foppert again. I think the Giants medical staff now tends to be more careful with their prospects than they were seven to eight years ago much to their benefit. All it took was some Foppert and Noah Lowry career derailments for them to wise up.

  2. Nice article. I am slowly embracing the age relative to league as a big key. The hard part for me is that if you have a excellent prospect, such as Will Clark, he's going to zip through and make the show. The grinder follow the org chart path guys will usually not be breakout stars. Their baseball life path is to be useful pieces of some sort. There are clear divisions between the Clarks and Poseys of the world and the AAAA guys the Giants have had.

    I was never that into Bowker. Maybe it was the T-rex nickname, maybe I was too jaded by Minor, Linden et al. His opening home runs were awesome, but the league gets a book and pitchers are merciless once weaknesses are discovered.

    Your point 3 is interesting to me. Sabean is never very articulate and way too blunt. I think what he was trying to say is teams had been trending towards putting the best prospects in AA to prove out and then skipping AAA for the most part. In the Giants case, the Eastern is full of very good Yankee and Red Sox pitching for example. I view the Eastern as our toughest test for hitters by far except the majors.

    Its interesting you bring up Morse - I've been using him as a counter argument for people completely giving up on Dominguez. Some players need more time. Now most likely Chris D's contact issues will be too much to overcome and his power will never flourish. And Morse was always a better prospect. But wouldn't Seattle want Morse back right about now? Bautista, as well as Nelson Cruz and to some extent Hamilton - those are all examples of talented prospects who took a longer path and rewarded 2nd, 3rd or even 4th organizations. An exception to the general CW that the home (drafting) organization knows the most about a prospect.

    I think Giants fans were just so frustrated after a couple of years of futility they started grasping at straws. Some nice juicy AAA stats came along at the right time.

    1. Thanks Shank. I agree with what Sabean said in retrospect, and do agree with your point that the Eastern League is the best measuring stick for prospects. Triple-A is nice, but to me it's more tuneup for the better prospects before they reach the Majors. That being said, I was surprised Sabean had Posey skip Double-A. It turned out okay of course, but usually you see prospects play Double-A and skip Triple-A rather than vice versa. But overall, I agree with the sentiment that Triple-A numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, especially with lesser prospects who all of a sudden break out in the PCL. They may be good, but it's not a sure-fire sign that they're going to rake at the Major League level.

      Nice connection with Morse and Dominguez. I'm not totally giving up on Dominguez because he does have two tools that scouts rate very highly (power and arm strength). He has showed improvement as well, even if it hasn't been dramatic. Sometimes though with prospects, a change of scenery is all that is needed. Maybe prospects don't take to instruction or management well in the organization that drafted them. I could see Morse being overlooked in the Chicago and Seattle systems, especially since those organizations at the time were either a.) not very patient with prospects or b.) trying to re-tool their organizations (especially in the Seattle case, where they were transitioning from the disastrous Bavasi tenure to Jack Z). Bautista could have been the same thing, especially since they invested in some higher end prospects like Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, who played positions where Bautista played. I hate to see former prospects in the Giants system thrive, but sometimes, it's just part of the gamw.