Robby Rowland’s first two professional seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks weren’t what the he expected from himself. The 20-year-old, who was drafted in the third round of 2010 out of Cloverdale, California High, was committed to the University of Oregon, but chose to sign with Arizona instead.
Rowland posted a 5.67 ERA in 2010, and an 8.07 ERA in the following season over 14 starts, and knew he needed a change. Over this offseason, Rowland dropped his arm slot to a three-quarters release and began the process of reinventing himself.
“I’ve put in a lot of work last year and into the offseason,” Rowland said. ” I kind of reinvented myself. Just being a sinker ball, ground ball pitcher now is a lot different to what I’m used to. Each outing, just trying to learn something from it. Just trying to get with people that kind of made the same adjustment in their career and trying to get some information from them. Just going with it. It’s a fun ride and I love every bit of it.”
While looking at Major League pitchers to model himself after, Rowland found interest in Pirates starter Charlie Morton. He, too, went through struggles, but reinvented himself and had an impressive 2011 season in Pittsburgh, posting a career-best 3.83 ERA and led the staff in innings pitched. Rowland said he looks up to Morton and what he’s been through.
“I’ve read and watched a lot of his stuff,” Rowland said. “It was kind of a big motivator for me in the off-season actually. I’d like to call him my idol. Just a guy that kind of struggled, and then rose from the ashes. Obviously, right now, no [Morton is recovering from Tommy John surgery]. But had a very successful year last year. Everyone kind of loves those stories. Everyone falls in love with that guy.”
Being a sinker ball pitcher is very different from the style of pitcher he was previously in his career. Gone are the strikeouts, which the right-hander was known for getting. During his senior year of High School in California, Rowland whiffed 117 batters over 65.0 innings. Even last year in rookie ball, Rowland racked up a good amount of strikeouts, 52 over 68.0 frames.
“I live by the quote that, ‘Strikeouts are boring, and they’re fascist, and the groundballs are more democratic.’ That’s something I tell myself,” Rowland said. “And plus, being a sinker baller guy, you kind of have to take that mind set that, I’m going to go late into a ballgame, I’m going to save the bullpen, I’m going to do the best to my ability to get early contact, three pitches or less, you’re out. Just doing that and trying to not be too fine with the sinker and just kind of throwing it and getting ground balls, not going deep into counts. Everyone likes the guy that can save the bullpen.”
“That’s not his strength really,” West Virginia Power’s pitching coach Willie Glen said of Rowland’s low strikeout rate. Rowland has struck out just 35 over 71.2 innings with Low-A West Virginia this season. “He is out there to get outs as quick as he can with groundballs. I don’t think he tries to get out of that very often. I think strikeouts are results of some executed pitches, but it’s not something he’s searching for.”
Not looking to notch as many strikeouts has allowed Rowland to be able to pitch deeper in the games. The plan is to retire the batter on three pitches or less, and it’s allowed him to pitch at least six innings in seven of his 13 outings this season. That mark is tied for the team lead (Also, Zack Dodson). Rowland also pitched a seven inning complete game this season with West Virginia on July 21st.
“If you look at my stats from last year and my first year in pro ball, I didn’t have many six innings, seven inning games,” Rowland said. “I wasn’t really a ground ball pitcher, kind of more strikeout happy, kind of fell in love with the strikeouts, therefore you saw deeper counts. I was just trying to be too dirty and get guys out by swinging and missing. That’s one thing during the offseason I really took that on and was like, I’m really going to reinvent myself. I’m going to focus on just pitching down, keeping the ball down, secondary pitches down, and just trying to get the bottom half of the barrel, get ground balls early and often.”
Rowland was traded to Pittsburgh on March 31st in exchange for right-hander Bret Lorin. When the Pirates left Lorin unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, Arizona claimed him. The Dbacks didn’t have a spot for him on their 25-man roster, so the two clubs worked out a deal that sent Rowland to Pittsburgh.
But it wasn’t the first time that the organization had their eyes on the righty. During his senior season, the Bucs had scouted Rowland heavily and considered drafting him in the third round but lost out to him when Arizona took him four picks earlier. When Rowland received the phone call that he had been traded, he said the experience was surreal and shocking.
“It’s actually funny,” Rowland recalled. “I got traded on March 31st, so the next day would be April Fool’s Day. The previous year, I kind of played a joke on my parents saying that I got traded, and obviously I didn’t, so I said, ‘April Fools!’. Then a year after, it turns out I did get traded. It was kind of a funny story.”
Adjusting to a new organization can be tough, especially for a 20-year-old. When Rowland was sent to the Pirates, it came after spring training was just about over so he didn’t get the opportunity to meet many players in the system.
“It wasn’t bad as people think just because everyone was very warm welcoming,” Rowland said. “I came in right when spring training was ending so I didn’t really get to meet all the people I would have liked. But the people that I did meet were all really nice and caring and helpful. Baseball is baseball. It’s all the same. It’s just kind of different ways that people look at it, or different drills that they do. For the most part, it’s all the same.”
After spending time pitching in extended Spring Training in Bradenton, Florida, Rowland was promoted to Low-A West Virginia on May 23 and has been their most consistent starter. The right-hander has posted solid numbers in his first season at the new level. Over 13 starts, Rowland has a 3.39 ERA in 71.2 innings — which is the best mark among starters for the Power. He also has a 35:19 K/BB ratio in that stretch, and a 1.87 groundout to air out ratio.
Baseball runs in Rowland’s blood, too. Not only has he dreamed of being a Major League baseball player since he was a little kid, but he grew up around it. The right-hander’s father, Rich Rowland, is a former big league catcher, who played parts of six seasons in the Majors with Detroit (1990-93) and Boston (1994-95). Rowland’s brother Richie was also drafted by Arizona and spend a year in pro ball with the organization.
“I think his mental understanding of what he wants to do kind of separates him at this level,” Glen said. “He’s a little bit advanced in-terms of that compared to some of the other guys, not just on this team, but in the league in general. I think that’s one of the things that puts him ahead of the game. He’s got an understanding of what he wants to do and how he wants to get there.”