Ben Bowden looked the part of a starting pitcher for the first month of the 2016 season, performing well in his first five collegiate starts. So, of course, it was time for him to go back to the bullpen.
The transition of Vanderbilt’s power closer into a starter and then back again traces back to last summer. The Lynn, Mass. native began his junior year by throwing 17 1/3 scoreless innings in the Cape Cod League, winning playoff MVP honors on a league champion team. His unblemished ERA earned both a summer league title and a big boost on MLB draft boards.
Back on campus, Bowden met a new challenge as he morphed into a starting pitcher this fall. Though he was used exclusively as a reliever his first two seasons at Vanderbilt, the lefty started two games of the intrasquad Black and Gold series in October, as his rotation bid became more and more serious.
Fast forward to February, and Bowden was the man on the mound in the Commodores’ second game of the season, throwing a career-high five innings in his first collegiate start. He would repeat that feat over each of the next four weekends, going five full frames in every start. His control was great, he limited damage and he mixed his pitches well as the traditional reliever developed a starter’s mentality.
“It’s pitch development when you start,” head coach Tim Corbin said. “You can’t pitch with one and you can’t pitch with two. You have to decelerate and you have to pitch to the edges a little bit.”
As a closer, Bowden relied on his mid-90s fastball to blow hitters away with the help of a low-80s curveball. As a starter, Bowden needed another pitch or two to complement the heater and the hook as he pitched deeper in games. Enter his previously under-utilized changeup and cutter.
“I used my changeup more towards the last three starts that I had, and that helped me develop it a little bit more,” Bowden said. “I always felt comfortable with my changeup, I’ve just always been more of a power pitcher and I never really had to use it too much.”
A perfect physical fit for the closer mold at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Bowden found a side of himself he’d never been fully in touch with as a starting pitcher. Despite his vast improvement as a starter and positive reviews, the move back to the bullpen between weeks one and two of Southeastern Conference play was a no-brainer for both Bowden and his coaches.
“I love the adrenaline coming out of the bullpen,” Bowden said. “There was adrenaline starting too [for the] first few innings, then you get in a groove and the adrenaline wears off. For me, I love the bullpen.”
Corbin showed no remorse taking one of his best arms out of the starting rotation, remaining adamant that Bowden’s personality perfectly matches the closer role.
“I think that might be more natural for him,” Corbin said. “I don’t wanna say that in a way [implying] that he couldn’t start, because we’ve seen his ability to start, but he enjoys that role of coming out of the bullpen and trying to finish a game.”
Bowden has finished six of his team’s eight wins since moving back to the bullpen, picking up six saves while striking out 17 hitters in 10 1/3 scoreless innings over seven appearances. Though he hasn’t needed his changeup much yet, the tools and stamina Bowden adopted as a starter have served him well in the bullpen. Three of his six saves have been two innings or longer, and his save against Lipscomb on April 5 necessitated working around two inherited runners with the go-ahead run at the plate.
Ben Bowden’s development over the last calendar year from the Cape to the rotation and straight into the minds of MLB general managers has landed him right back where he started: as the man whom Tim Corbin trusts the most with the game on the line.
“The toughest three outs to get in the SEC are the last three,” Corbin said. “He does a very nice job getting them.”