Jeremy Sowers: From Flawed Southpaw to MBA Ray

Jeremy Sowers doesn’t turn 33 until later this month. He’s young enough that he could still be pitching. Having succumbed to shoulder woes and ineffectiveness, he’s instead embarking on a new career with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Drafted sixth overall in 2004 out of Vanderbilt, Sowers never did fulfill expectations on the mound. In four seasons with the Cleveland Indians, the left-hander logged a 5.18 ERA while winning just 18 of 48 decisions. Known more for moxie than velocity, he fanned 10% of the batters he faced across 400 innings of work.

Unable to sufficiently school hitters, Sowers stepped away from the game and returned to the classroom, earning an MBA from the University of North Carolina. Now he’s back in baseball. After a summer spent interning with the Orioles, Sowers is currently a major-league operations assistant with the Rays, a position he sees as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Sowers talked about his path from first-round pick to entry-level baseball ops on a recent visit to Fenway Park.

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Sowers on working for the Rays: “Just because I played does not qualify me as an absolute source of information about this game. I think I offer a unique perspective, but my value is only increased by hearing out and understanding everybody else’s perspective. To use a really crappy movie analogy, in Sling Blade, everybody is trying to figure out how to make a lawnmower work. All of a sudden, the one character is like, ‘I reckon there’s no gas in it.’

“Sometimes you get in this bubble where you think you have all the information, and then someone comes from an outside source and it becomes, ‘Hey, I never thought about it this way.’ Everybody needs that check-balance.

“Noah Woodward was interning with the Orioles at the same time I was — this is before he took a job with the Braves — and he had a more technical-analytic background. I came in with a playing background. My conversations with Noah were really good, because we listened to, and respected, each other’s takes on things.

“I know what the game looks like standing on the mound, and I know what it looks like sitting in the dugout. That’s valuable, but it’s not everything. After about two weeks with the Rays, and hearing some of the information they could bring to me, I kind of began wishing I had approached pitching differently. It wasn’t super profound, intellectual stuff. It was just another way of thinking about first-pitch strikes, or trusting my breaking ball, or understanding sink versus carry. It’s all stuff you could think about in 2009, but not in the same way we can look at it now.

“I’m very good with real numbers. I’m not going to look at data and say that it is, for lack of a better word, ‘crap.’ I’m going to try to understand what it means. If I’m a pitcher and it’s about my stuff, I’m going to look at how to converge it. When I pitched, it was, ‘Oh, you’re a left-hander and throw a two-seamer; you must be a sinker-ball guy, so this.’ I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong, but it would have been nice to have corroborative data.

“So, I’m learning a lot here. There’s a lot of data and it can be extremely valuable. We’d never have this if it wasn’t for guys who decided they wanted to bring math to the forefront.”

On the end of his playing career: “I threw my last major-league pitch in 2009. That offseason, I got a cortisone injection after I was diagnosed with a partially torn rotator cuff. That erased the pain, but just because I was pitching pain-free didn’t mean I was pitching well. There was a lot of destabilization in my shoulder.

“Every pitcher pitches with some sort of atrophy in the elbow or shoulder. You just have different thresholds, and I’m guessing my threshold was a little bit less. The ironic part is, for 26 years of my life I had no pain, no nothing. I was just good to go. Then all of a sudden you pick up a baseball and it’s not the same. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I hurt my shoulder, but I do know that when I was playing catch after the 2009 season, it hurt like hell.

“When your velocity is 87-88, you can be effective if you know where it’s going. But once you lose that command, it becomes incredibly challenging. In 2010, I ended up struggling as basically the last guy in the bullpen in Triple-A. Then the pain came back in August and I had to shut it down. That offseason, I went under the knife.

“After rehabbing, I decided to pitch in the Atlantic League to see if I could get my velocity back and maybe get another chance. While I was there, I tore my Achilles, playing basketball. At that point, I was facing another long rehab simply to get back to being a minor leaguer. I didn’t think it was worth it. I suspected the end result would be a cup of coffee in the big leagues. I also didn’t think it was the best for my family.”

On getting an MBA and appreciating the game: “I had my degree from Vanderbilt [in Political Science] and decided that going back to school was a good course of action. It would be two years of stability in one location, and from there I could pivot into something business-related. While I was in Chapel Hill, I realized I had a genuine love for this game. Sometimes you need to step away from it to realize just how special it is to be a part of this industry.

“We’re sitting in a dugout, in a historic ballpark. People dream about sitting where we are right now. When you’re playing professional baseball, it’s very easy to take this for granted. It’s actually kind of expected that you do. This becomes normal, even though it isn’t, and you have to treat it like it’s normal. You can’t allow yourself to get caught up in the awe of it. On the flip side, you shouldn’t lose sight of how special the opportunity really is. The time I spent away from the game got me thinking about that, and about maybe working in a front office.”

On interning with the Orioles last summer: “I called around, saying ‘This is my situation,’ and some of the conversations I had with teams went well. Others didn’t go so well. I obviously made contact with the Indians, as I knew those guys, and Mark Shapiro was a big help; he guided me to some extent. But it ended up being the Orioles who gave me an opportunity.

“I was with them from roughly July to December and was basically an intern. My initial responsibility was to help out doing some video scouting for the NPB and KBO. That lasted for about a month. From there, the director of analytics [Sarah Gelles] had me looking at a wide variety of things. One of them was wearables, like HRV [Heart Rate Variability] monitors, which are popular in basketball and soccer, but are still kind of an untapped area in baseball. It’s more or less trying to figure out what workload is on players, so that you can better manage days off and expectations for a 180-day season. Every team is trying to figure out how to use that type of technology.

“That’s just a sliver of what I did in Baltimore. I didn’t have a very defined role, and that allowed me to explore a lot of different things. I went down to instructs for a week and spent some time talking to [director of pitching development] Rick Peterson and [director of player development] Brian Graham, and to a couple of players. I was basically learning about the organization. At the end of the day it didn’t really pan out.”

On getting hired by the Rays: “I’d established a relationship with [Rays vice president of baseball operations] Chaim Bloom when I was in business school — we’d talk on occasion — and I let him know I was back to looking. Replay was something they wanted to put more focus on, and they figured I’d fit in there.

“My official title is Major League Operations Assistant. That sounds pretty ambiguous, but it allows me to travel with the team. I get on the field during batting practice, and I’m developing relationships with the players and coaches. I contribute with some advance stuff, watch video, and provide insights on anything I might see. Manning the replay station during games is my primary role.”

On his future: “I’m hoping to get an opportunity to see the organization from as many perspectives as I can. At the end of the day, I’d probably rather push toward working in the front office. That would allow me to spend more time with my family — I’d be in Tampa — plus I could put my business degree more to use. But I don’t want to close the doors to anything else, because I’m also very interested in helping young players become good major-league players. My track record gives me a pretty good perspective for something like that. So, I guess I’m not sure exactly what my role is going to be down the road. I’m just taking things as they come, and as cliched as it sounds, my primary goal right now is to help this team win.”

We hoped you liked reading Jeremy Sowers: From Flawed Southpaw to MBA Ray by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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DKH
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DKH

Hi David, thanks for getting this perspective and sharing it.