Who is Ben Rowen?
Ben Rowen is a reliever for the AAA Round Rock Express, who seems to be afflicted with some malady that keeps attention and reports away from him.
Seriously, if it weren't for Wilmer Font, Rowen might be Texas' best upper-level relief prospect. And he averages about 84 miles per hour on his fastball
Most likely, that malady is a submarining delivery. Rowen stands 6’4, and the ball comes out around his ankle. Since baseball has learned nothing (Darren O'Day has rung up 4 Wins Above Replacement over the last two seasons!), guys like Rowen tend to get dismissed.
It’s ironic considering that dismissing batters is pretty much all Rowen has done for the past three minor league seasons. Dismissing them to the bench, that is. Because he gets them out is why.
Ben Rowen will succeed because:
Roughly 70% of the league hits right-handed.
The knock on side-armers and submariners is that they'll display large platoon splits. A right-handed sidearmer will be murder on right-handed batters but is likely to get knocked around by left-handers. Darren O'Day plays this out himself. He's allowed a 460 OPS against right handed hitters but a 898 against left handers this year. In other words, he turns left-handed hitters into Adrian Beltre and right-handed hitters into Jeff Keppinger (only a lot worse).
But, Rowen lands on the happy side of that split, for the simple fact that there are a lot more right-handers on the planet then left-handers.
Past that, it's possible that Rowen doesn't display such drastic splits. Last season, Rowen won both the Carolina League's Closer of the year and MLB.com's Best Relief Pitcher in Minor League Baseball Award. An award which also happens to be the winner of the inaugural Joe Ursery's “My Gosh You Guys Really Gave This Award A Clumsy Name” Award. That year, Rowen held righties to a 493 OPS- while lefties hit 432.
This season, those numbers have held at 438 for righties and 472 for lefties, for 453 total. Remember when O'Day's 460 OPS-against righties was really good? I ask because 453 is just a little bit better than that. Jhoulys Chacin holds a 467 OPS this year. Jhoulys Chacin is a pitcher and he's a pitcher who doesn't hit very well for a pitcher.
The truth is this season is still a small sample to look at Rowen because he's only pitched 55 innings. But it's also important because he's pitched those innings against AA and AAA opponents. A sidewinder dominating the low minors isn't so noteworthy because those batters are really young and most likely just haven't seen a pitcher with a release point like that very often. But the Texas League (AA) and Pacific Coast League (AAA) are both stocked with minor and major league vets, guys who've seen just about everything. And Rowen's been sitting them down all season. In fact, he's improved on virtually every single periphery stat after his promotion to AAA. I've expounded on my love for guys who improve against better competition before. Rowen might be the clearest example of that in the minor leagues right now.
Ben Rowen will fail because:
This might all still be a mirage.
Luck is a weird, strange thing. In life and even more so in baseball.
And that goes triple for minor leaguers.
Despite all the domination I've listed above, there's something that should give you pause, other than Rowen's fastball topping out in the mid-80s. His BABiP (Batting Average on Ball in Play) is sitting at 235 for this season. BABiP is the Dark Matter of baseball statistics. We know it's there and we know it's extraordinarily important to explaining baseball in a numerical sense. We just haven't quite figured it all out just yet. It just happens. Probably the best explanation we have is (and I kind of wish that I was kidding) the Magic Luck Dragon. When it smiles on a pitcher, balls find gloves and runners just don't beat out tags. When it doesn't, grounders find holes, outfielders just can't make it to the ball or runners beat out throws. For a pitcher, BABiP tends to sit around the 280s or so.
Which means the ugly side of regression is staring at Rowen, waiting to turn those outs into singles that stretch out innings and put runs on the board
However, BABiP tends to correlate pretty well to LD% which is the percentage of balls that come off bats as line drives. And Rowen shines when looked at through the LD% lens; he's allowed 10.6 of ball in play as line drives. That would correlate to about a 240 BABiP, using the line drive rule of thumb (take the LD rate and add 12 per cent, which is a coarse number, but it also tends to work). It's a sign that, more often than not, hitters just don't barrel Rowen up. That lines up with the fact that Rowen's allowed 3 doubles and 1 homer this season.
That's four extra base hits in 207 plate appearances against. That's not good, it's obscene. For perspective, Mariano Rivera (who's the world champion of weak contact, for two decades running) has allowed 11 extra base hits in 179 plate appearances against.
Any time your season line resembles that of Mariano Rivera, things are pretty ok.
A baseball player Rowen should remind you of:
If I told you a reliever accumulated 25 bWAR over 10 seasons, you would probably guess I was talking about Mariano Rivera, mostly because I was literally just talking about Mariano Rivera. But I'm not (from 2000-2010, Mo was more like a 38 bWAR guy). Mariano Rivera is a pitching demigod, though, and it's not fair to compare anyone to him. But Dan Quisenberry did just that through the 80s. Quisenberry pitched almost exactly 1000 innings from 1980 to 1990, and averaged 146 ERA+, which is an easy way of saying he was 23 per cent better than league average as a pitcher, which is pretty phenomenal. And he pitched sidearm.
More recently, Chad Bradford pitched for ten years, accumulating 10 bWAR. That’s still really, really good, especially given the move to single-inning relief that Quisenberry never really pitched through, throwing 500 innings of 138 ERA+ basebell.
The kicker? Quisenberry struck out 3.3 guys per nine innings pitched. Bradford strck out 5.5.
Rowen has averaged 7.8 through his career, and is averaging 10.1 at AAA.
Quisenberry allowed 1.4 homers per nine innings pitched to Bradford’s .5. Rowen's averaged .2 in the minors. And, continuing with his theme of being stupid-good this year, 0.00 at AAA.
So he's a lot like those two guys who had long, successful careers in the majors, only maybe better at two very key peripherals.
A retired pro wrestler Rowen should remind you of:
Rowen seems like a one-dimensional, gimmick guy; except he's been astoundingly good all-around.
Doink was a guy who dressed up like a clown, but was probably the most awesomely entertaining wrestler ever. Plus, Joe Ortiz can be his Dink.
In one year, Rowen will be:
Probably completely exhausted, because Ron Washington is going to love him.
I'd be mildly surprised if rosters aren't wrangled to make a spot for Rowen around or on September 1st, when MLB rosters expand to 40. Rowen will need to be protected on the 40 man roster after the season, or he'll be lost to the Rule 5 draft.
I say that with certainty, because I'm pretty sure Rowen would be one of the first players taken if the Rangers don't add him.
After that, it all depends on how Rowen does in whatever chances he has in the majors in September and how he does during Spring Training. The major league 'pen out of Spring Training next year should house Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Tanner Scheppers, and Robbie Ross again, along with the hopeful returns of Neal Cotts and Neftali Feliz.
There might not be a spot for a guy like Rowen until injuries and or ineffectiveness hit; however, such a setup may be ideal for Rowen, since it would let him develop and adjust to major leaguers in low-leverage situations. I'm pretty convinced that Rowen is ready to contribute to a major league bullpen right now, though.