Battle of the Smart Guys: A Q&A with Matt Bowman

MILWAUKEE -- St. Louis Cardinals reliever Matt Bowman attended Princeton. His teammate, right fielder Stephen Piscotty, attended Stanford. According to U.S. News & World Report's latest rankings, Princeton is the No. 1 college in the nation and Stanford is tied with Columbia at No. 4. Piscotty, of course, might beg to differ with the rankings.

Needless to say, both players are a little sharper, with more eclectic interests, than your average professional ball player. We sat down with both to talk about topics ranging from baseball analytics to nuclear fusion. You be the judge -- or don’t judge, just enjoy. It’s the Battle of the Smart Guys.

Today: Bowman.

Wednesday: Piscotty

So, I’m told you modeled your delivery on that of Tim Lincecum. Tell us about that, please.

Bowman: I tried it in college. It didn’t work out that well. He’s a special athlete and those mechanics are very unique and a little taxing. There are elements that I think are kind of similar. It’s mostly like the lean back and being an undersized righty that most people think of when they connect us. I think, mechanics-wise, [Michael] Wacha probably looks more like him. He’s just a big dude, and so no one’s really looking at that.

So, it’s kind of how people compare Latin players with other Latin players, Caucasian players with other Caucasian players and African-American players with other African-American players. It's typecasting?

Bowman: Right, exactly. There are some elements to it that are true, but I’m trying to move away from it. It was sort of recognizing that he’s unique and there may only be one Tim Lincecum. Why not try to do your own thing?

I imagine the Ivy League is not exactly swarming with baseball scouts. How did you get discovered?

Bowman: We do have an OK number of scouts that come to games. My stats in college weren’t fantastic, but there were a few guys at games. In college I could throw a little harder. I knew they liked seeing velocity, so I just tried to throw really hard. I don’t think I was really on anyone’s radar, but then the Mets invited me to a workout. I think they were really just trying to get a good look at some high-level high school position players, and they needed two pitchers who would just throw strikes to them. Myself and a lefty from Holy Cross were invited. I kind of realized throughout the workout that that’s what we were there for, and I wasn’t super pumped about it. It was like of course I’m happy I got invited, but I realized what my purpose was. I threw pretty hard that day. The entire Mets front office was there to see all these high school guys and they were also like, 'Oh, well, who’s this guy,' so I think the Mets were probably as high on me as anyone was going to be during the draft.

Economics doesn’t sound like an easy major. At some schools, all the athletes take Sociology or Communications. I imagine you had to work pretty hard.

Bowman: It depends on what your Sociology department is like. They have grade deflation there, which is always the big topic of conversation. If a certain percentage of students in each class would get an A and a B, it’s possible you’d get like a 91 and they’d say, 'Sorry, you got a B-plus in this class.' People don’t like that very much. With the junior paper and the senior thesis, I felt like I had to work pretty hard.

What was your thesis?

Bowman: My junior paper was on variable dynamic ticket sales at baseball games, which I found pretty interesting. My senior thesis was kind of a comprehensive look at free-agency spending over the last 15 to 20 years. It was more descriptive as opposed to predictive in terms of looking at what teams were looking to get and how they captured value. It was more of a sabermetric look -- at what point does WAR start to become an important predictor for what teams are willing to pay guys? Conclusions were things like the A’s in recent years had a huge amount of variance in their WAR and guys that they paid. Well, clearly they’re not looking for the consistent guy. They’re looking for crazy value on the cheap. Maybe that is what they were trying to do.

So, had you not gotten drafted, would you have written letters to front offices trying to get a job in analytics?

Bowman: Probably not. Part of that is that choosing baseball topics was just something that would hold my interest for a long time, because you have to spend a whole year on it. I could have done something a little more traditional in economics, but I probably would have gotten tired of it. This way, I could pay attention to baseball since I like baseball.

So you would have ended up in the corporate world?

Bowman: Sure, a good number of my friends went into banking, and that’s certainly a channel that people like to take. I’m not sure if I would have taken it or not, but I definitely wouldn’t say that I would have tried to get into a front office. I don’t know. I would have had to start thinking about that after my junior year, but I’ve been playing summer ball ever since, so haven’t thought about it.

Do you and Piscotty have any conversations that people like me wouldn’t understand?

Bowman: Not really. Pitchers and position players are a little bit separate, and I don’t think our conversations are any different than any other conversations. I think there are a lot of baseball players who are very interested in the statistics. Many who are not, but many who are, and where you went to school I don’t think is a good predictor for whether or not you find that stuff interesting. Tim Cooney, who was on the team last year and is down in Florida now, talked with me a lot about FanGraph articles. We were locker mates, so there are guys who like the stuff and some who don’t.

Who are some of the analytics writers you find interesting?

Bowman: I read plenty of Bill James, but to be honest, I don’t look at the authors very much. If the title grabs my attention, I’ll read whatever.

What are some numbers that you think really capture the quality of a pitcher’s overall contribution to the team?

Bowman: So, from a front office perspective, obviously xFIP is big, but I also look at teams like the Pirates and I think, 'OK, how does it work within the structure of what they do?' So, they do aggressive shifting, sinkerball pitchers and guys who pitch inside with two-seamers. They brought their outfield in this year, because most of the hits they give up are on the ground. I think about how it works within that system, so the Royals have a bunch of fly ball pitchers, play in a huge park and have invested in great outfielders. It’s about how does it work within a system? Yeah, you can look at xFIP and that’s going to tell you that [Clayton] Kershaw's great, but that doesn’t really tell you something you don’t know. I think putting the whole team together with ground ball rates, fly ball rates, things like that, can be important based on how you surround a guy.

OK, then how would you describe your team’s model?

Bowman: They clearly like the ground ball. It’s a lot of guys who have good movement in the bottom of the zone. They like the long ball. But I don’t think it’s anything crazy. You’re not looking at it saying it’s anything out of whack. I think it’s a good balance, is what it is. They like pitchers who get ground balls. Clearly, I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. Beyond that, they pick and choose their spots for how much they shift. It’s all the things you can see pretty easily. A lot of games go our way because of the long ball, and sometimes they don’t because of that. Also, the culture is obviously a real advantage. I’ve only been in the bigs with one organization, so I can’t comment on it, but if every team is like this, it’s pretty amazing. From talking to buddies around the league, I don’t think every team is like this. I think the culture is good, I think they get the best out of their players. They seem to have a revolving door of guys who, according to prospect lists and things like that, seem to rise up out of nowhere. I don’t think they’re ever surprised. If you want to talk about the biggest difference-maker, it’s that there seems to be a very good connection between the minor leagues and the major league club right on up.