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Why did the Cardinals keep Matt Bowman?

The Cardinals non-tendered Seth Maness in favor of 2015 Rule 5 pick Matt Bowman. Did the Cardinals choose the right righty?

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In preface: Seth Maness is a precious cinnamon roll, and any club should be so fortunate as to have him on their team. Before his injury-plagued, injury-shorted 2016 season, Maness was the guy who came in when another pitcher lost command. He was the king of double plays in relief, with 11 in 2015 and 12 the year prior. If there were two runners on with less than two outs, Seth Maness was probably coming in from the pen. Then, a couple weeks ago, I saw this tweet:

What? The Cardinals dropped Maness for Matt Bowman? When I think of Seth Maness, I think of double plays. When I think of Matt Bowman, I see fifteen different times a ground ball squeaked through the infield. However, his 2016 value to the Cardinals was actually on par with Maness’s peak, from 2014. When you look at how they compare, Bowman may actually be a better match for the team the Cardinals want to be.

Matt Bowman has the potential to be even better than Seth Maness, and in some cases (with a smaller sample size), he already is. Looking at the cursory stats (pulled from FanGraphs), some may disagree:

Maness (2014) 73 80.1 .289 2.91
Bowman (2016) 59 67.2 .270 3.46

Bowman had a slightly lower BABIP, but his ERA is much higher—over half a run higher! I think what the Cardinals see in him is more of a subtle potential. Taking a look at the more subjective peripherals, it is evident Matt Bowman has a greater quantity of tools to work with.

G IP FIP K/9 GB% Swing% Hard%
73 80.1 3.38 6.16 56.0% 49.4% 29.3%
59 67.2 3.31 6.92 61.7% 44.6% 21.2%

Their FIP scores are essentially the same. Fielding-Independent Pitching attempts to weed out differences in defense and luck by looking only at a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks, and home runs, for a more stable way to compare pitchers than ERA. Removing the differences in the defense behind Bowman compared to the infield Seth Maness had, their value is the same. It is the other stats which prove Matt Bowman could be more useful.

Let’s talk about ground balls! Seth Maness is known as a pitcher who can consistently get ground ball outs, and that was his role: the magician with men on. However, Matt Bowman has a higher ground ball rate, 61.7%, compared to Maness’s 56.0% in his career-best 2014. For the upcoming season, this is particularly notable, because the Cardinals retooled their middle infield to make it more “athletic.” By committing to Kolten Wong instead of Jedd Gyorko or Matt Carpenter at second base, the Cardinals increased the range of their infield to accommodate a ground ball staff. (Kolten Wong leads the three second base options in Out Of Zone plays made, for what it’s worth.) This will work well with what we’ve seen of Matt Bowman’s arsenal.

Bowman also has a 5% lower swing rate, which indicates hitters are either trying to be more selective or do not see the ball as well out of his hand. This coincides with an 8% decrease in hard contact. That stat may be both a curse and a blessing. With runners on base, there are few things more soul-crushing than a ground ball not hit hard enough to turn a double play, but an extra-base hit that plates some of those runners probably makes the list.

Matt Bowman also struck out a higher percentage of batters when compared to Seth Maness’s 2014, almost an additional batter per 9 innings. When taken together, all these different attributes, perhaps a byproduct of the broader base of skills he had when drafted as a starter, make Bowman valuable in a different way. Mike Matheny said as much in May:

He’s been a nice surprise, especially as we’re trying to get Seth (Maness) right. We’ve been able to throw Bowman in a lot of those situations where we would normally just say, “This is Maness”’

But I would say also (Bowman) is a little more flexible. Seth has been the guy we would just get up every night and he would get us out of an inning. Matt’s done a little bit more than that. He’s gone multiple innings and has been in some close games.”

The numbers prove that what the Cardinals organization saw is legitimate. More ground balls, more strikeouts, and less hard contact translates into significant late-inning benefits. When it came time to choose between a known quantity in Seth Maness and the upside of Matt Bowman, St. Louis made the right call.

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Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.