It certainly isn’t unusual for a kid growing up in North Carolina in the late-1990s, early 2000s to identify Greg Maddux as his favorite player. In the case of Heath Bowers, however, the choice of Maddux as a favorite player was a bit prophetic.
Bowers was the A’s 24th-round selection in last week’s draft. He comes to the A’s after a four-year career at Campbell University during which Bowers posted a career K/BB of 3.34 and a 2015 K/BB of 4.09. Like Maddux, Bowers doesn’t posses an over-powering fastball, so he relies on movement and location to go after hitters.
“My strength as a pitcher is the ability to manipulate the ball,” Bowers said from Mesa, Arizona, where he is participating in the A’s rookie mini-camp. “I move the ball a lot. I do it while throwing a lot of strikes. I pride myself on trying to keep guys off of the bases. I try to control the things that I can control. If they hit it on the ground, that means they probably are going to get a single. You can’t beat me with a bunch of singles. I’m going to take my chances keeping the ball on the ground.”
Bowers kept his infielders busy during his four years at Campbell. He allowed only four homeruns in 325 college innings. Bowers’ fastball rarely tops 90, but he used that movement and location, as well as a good slider, to strike-out more than eight batters per nine innings this season for the Camels.
Bowers points to Maddux as an inspiration for how he tries to approach each game.
“Greg Maddux was my hero,” Bowers said. “Greg Maddux and John Smoltz both, but I was always watching Greg Maddux pitch. When I was young, I kind of understood what he was doing but I just thought he was good. I didn’t really understand why he was good. I used to go out there and try to throw as hard as I could.
“When I got to college and realized that I wasn’t going to be able to just throw it by everybody at this higher level of baseball, I looked back on it and realized that it was kind of fitting that Greg Maddux was my favorite pitcher growing up. I try to do things similarly to how he did them. Maybe not quite as well as he does them yet [laughs]. He had a pretty good career, but I’d like to do that, for sure.”
Sinkerball pitchers aren’t often known as strike-out pitchers, but Bowers had a pair of strike-out games for the ages at Campbell. This season, he had one game where he struck-out 15 and in 2014, he had a 13-strike-out outing. Bowers says he doesn’t look to strike-out batters, but that sometimes they come when he is executing his gameplan.
“It’s just one of those things that happens,” Bowers said of the high strike-out games. “My gameplan every time I go out there is to locate the ball and hit my spots and move it around and have a lot of movement and sink on the ball. I think what helped me in those games when I struck-out 13 and 15 is that I went out there with the same gameplan and the teams weren’t maybe having their best offensive days, but I had my slider. My breaking ball was as sharp as it’s ever been on those days.
“On the days when I go out there and locate my fastball and my breaking ball about wherever I want to, those are the days I am going to get some strike-outs. Those are special days for me. It was a lot of fun, but it was one of those things that just happened. I don’t try to go out there and strike-out 15 a game. I’d rather go out there and try to pitch and throw seven innings on 60 pitches and just get a bunch of groundballs.”
Groundball pitchers with good command have been a staple of the A’s organization for many years, so it is no surprise that the A’s were the team that kept the most contact with Bowers in the weeks leading up to the draft. Bowers says he also heard from the St. Louis Cardinals and the Baltimore Orioles, but that he thought there was a decent chance it would be Oakland that called his name.
“You never know with the draft, though,” Bowers said. “It’s kind of a crapshoot. You could be sitting around expecting to be picked in the 20th round and you get picked in the fifth round. That’s just how it works. Crazy stuff happens. I was just hoping that someone would call my name.”
With school done for the year, Bowers was home with his parents during Day Three of the draft. He said he was only following the Day Three conference call casually when he received an important text.
“I got a text from [A’s area scout] Neil Avent during the 23rd round saying that they were going to take in the 24th, so I should get my computer if I wanted to listen to it,” Bowers said. “We pulled it up and me and my family were sitting in the room listening to it. It was awesome. It was one of the best moments of my life. I’ll never forget it, that’s for sure.”
Bowers had some insight into the A’s organization even before he signed with the team. His off-season throwing partner at Campbell was Ben McQuown, a former Campbell star who played in the A’s system in 2013 and 2014 and was back at Campbell to finish his degree. Bowers asked McQuown plenty of questions about the A’s organization.
“I picked [McQuown’s] brain on it as much as I could,” Bowers said. “He talks about how much fun it was and how cool the coaches were and how he liked everybody around here. He said the A’s organization was a great one to be in. He definitely speaks highly of the organization and he regrets that he isn’t here anymore but he definitely informed me about how much fun it is going to be.”
Bowers signed with the A’s soon after the draft was completed and arrived in Arizona for the A’s rookie mini-camp on Monday. After a day of paperwork and physicals on Monday, Bowers and the rest of the A’s signed draft picks were headed out to Fitch Park for their first practice on Tuesday afternoon.
“It has been fun already,” Bowers said. “I’m excited to see what else is in store.”
Although Bowers hadn’t met any of the A’s other draft picks before Monday, there were some familiar faces among the group. Fellow Big South Conference hurlers Jared Lyons (round 9) and Andrew Tomasovich (round 21) were also selected by the A’s this year. Bowers says the three conference rivals have already enjoyed bantering about their collegiate showdowns.
“I didn’t know them personally until I just got here yesterday and I met both of them,” Bowers said. “They are nice guys and are fun to be around. It’s funny because I pitched against both of them at some point this year. Those were some pretty heated games, conference games that mean a lot, especially the Friday night game, the opening game. We have talked back and forth about it a little bit. It’s funny that we are part of the same organization now, so we don’t dislike each other like we did a few months ago. [laughs]”
All three pitchers had a heavy workload this season in college, and Bowers said the A’s player development staff told him that all three would be on a similar innings- and pitch-limit during short-season play. While that may mean Bowers throws only two- or three-inning stints this season, he says his goal is still to remain a starter in the pros long-term.
“I understand that to be a starter, you really have to work for it and some things have to work out for you,” Bowers said. “If I’m not a starter, I’ll accept any role that I am in and be happy with it. I believe that I can succeed in whatever role I am put in. That’s the role [starting] I like the best and I believe that I am capable of doing it.”