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.