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Conversations with the Herd: Blue Jays Pitcher Bowden Francis

By: Brian Frank

Bowden Francis is the latest player to be called up to the Blue Jays from the Bisons. The 6’5” right-hander had a 3.45 ERA in four starts for the Herd this season, recording 23 strikeouts and allowing only four walks in 15 2/3 innings pitched. He spoke with The Herd Chronicles just days before he was called up to Toronto.

Francis grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, home of college football powerhouse Florida State University. His unique first name comes from Florida State’s legendary football coach.

“My dad grew up a big FSU guy,” Francis explained in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “He went to a lot of football games. But I think they were joking around when my mom was pregnant – and it just kind of stuck. They used Robert, my mom’s dad’s name, as my first name – so it’s kind of like Bobby Bowden Francis. It kind of just stuck. I ended up getting called Bowden instead of Robert because it’s more unique I guess.”

Francis first took the mound for the Herd in 2021. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles

Francis attended Chipola College in Mariana, Florida. Chipola has an impressive lists of alumni who played baseball at the school, including José Bautista, Russell Martin, Adam Loewen, Eric Yelding, Patrick Corbin, and Adam Duvall.

“It was awesome because it was so close to home – just an hour away,” he said. “It was my kind of people too. Just very focused. It was kind of like another year of high school, the schooling part. You got so much time to be able to focus on getting stronger, getting faster, and pitching. It was a great intro to developing. I had a great coach, Jeff Johnson. He has a great track record. It was just a bunch of grinders. I love getting after it with those kind of guys. I definitely think it benefited my career, more than if I’d have gone D-1 or to a bigger spotlight school. I’m happy I went there.”

He was selected in the seventh round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft. His brother Harrison, who’s two-and-a half years younger than Bowden and also a pitcher, was drafted the same day – in the fourth round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“We were at home,” Francis said of his draft day. “I kind of knew he was going to be earlier. I was much more nervous for him because I wanted him to have that. I knew I was going to be okay. I knew if I would have signed late, then I would have signed late and I was okay with it. But with him being on that fringe of college or not, I just kind of wanted him to get his out of the way. We were at home and watching on a computer. He went and I think about an hour later I went. It was really cool. A good night for the family. It was a lot of fun.”

Francis decided to forgo an opportunity to pitch at Florida State in order to join the Brewers organization.

“I was going to go to Florida State,” he said. “I signed there for after JUCO. But the opportunity with Milwaukee, I think it was a good fit. I just liked what they told me, the money was good for me, and I really just wanted to start a career. I knew that’s really what I wanted to do. I didn’t really want to go to a big college and be in that scene. It’s just not where I wanted my line to go. Junior college and then pro ball was a good choice for me.”

Francis worked his way up through the Brewers system – all the way to Triple-A Nashville, when he was called into manager Rick Sweet’s office for some unexpected and life changing news.

“We were in Gwinnett, and the manager called me into his office,” he recalled. “I heard everyone chirping ‘Oh, he’s getting called up. He’s getting called up.’ I went into his office and he said ‘I’ve got some really good news.’ And I was feeling like I was about to get called up, and he said, ‘But it’s also bad for us. You’re getting traded to Toronto. It’s going to be a great opportunity for you.’ It was just a good goodbye. It was kind of time for me to get on to the next chapter and for me to be with Toronto – and I love Toronto.”

Francis has four pitches in his arsenal. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles

The change in organizations meant Francis would be calling four cities home during the 2019 season. He’d already pitched at Double-A Biloxi and Triple-A Nashville. After the trade, he joined the Bisons in Trenton, New Jersey, where the team was making a temporary home while the Blue Jays used Sahlen Field. In August, the Herd moved back to Buffalo when the border situation allowed the Blue Jays to return to Rogers Centre.

“And we had a baby,” Francis said of his whirlwind summer. “My wife was such a pillar for us during that situation. Being with a kid on the road all the time was hard and she just did it with no hesitation. We had our whole Airbnb packed in my car when I got traded because the Airbnb (in Nashville) ended the day we left for the Gwinnett trip. It was just such a cool time because we didn’t have to go back to Nashville and pack up all our stuff. It was just meant to be and the timing was perfect. So it was easy. We just drove up to Trenton and met the team. I loved Trenton and it was such an easy team to come over to. Then we headed here (to Buffalo) and I knew everyone was super excited about it. I’d heard such good things. When we got here, it was like – this place is amazing. It was an easy transition, really.”

In April 2022, Francis was called up to Toronto to make his major-league debut.

“I was sitting at home,” he remembered about the moment he was called up to the big leagues. “We were going to get ready to go to Worcester. I was sitting on the couch with my wife and my son was napping. Casey called and he was like, ‘Hey, you’re not going to Worcester. You’re going to go to Toronto.’ You know, everything starts shaking, you make your phone calls. It was just a lot of emotion. It was a really cool moment.”

His debut came at the Rogers Centre against the Boston Red Sox. He worked two-thirds of an inning, allowing a double to Rob Refsnyder, before striking out Enrique Hernandez and retiring Jackie Bradley Jr. on a groundout.

“It felt like a movie,” he remembered. “It felt like I was moving in slow motion. I just trusted myself and went out and tried to be myself and have fun. It was super cool and the team was really nice. Everyone was super welcoming. It made me feel at home right away. I was only there for a week but it felt like I was there for a month. I felt very grateful.”

Francis’s pitching repertoire consists of a fastball, curveball, slider, and he’s in the process of introducing a changeup. His fastball works well with the three-quarter arm slot he uses.

“I throw a four-seam,” he said. “I have a low release so it kind of has that perceived ride. I spin the baseball well so I think it has some pop to it. In JUCO I was a sinker guy, so it (a three-quarter arm slot) was just natural for me to be there. But then as analytics came around when I got drafted, they were like, ‘You spin the baseball really well, you should try a four-seam.’ Because I really spun it almost too much. So the four-seam was a better option.”

“I have the big curveball. It’s kind of like a sweeping curveball.”

“Then I have a shorter sweeper-slider that kind of stays on plain. The slider has helped. I’ve always had the curveball and I’ve always had the four-seam, but getting that slider to have that medium speed, to get them off the curve and off the fast ball has been a big one. Right when I got traded over I tried to work on the slider more and it started to come back around.”

“I’m working on a changeup right now. It’s a split changeup. I’m trying to get that fourth pitch in there. I’m going to start using it more because I know I’m getting more of a feel on it and I’m getting more comfortable with it.”

In the last few years, Francis has embraced mindfulness as a way to help keep him centered.

“My brother always tried to get me into it early on before I was drafted, but it was something I got into around 2019,” he said. “Then when 2020 hit, I really got into it just because I had so much time, I was like, well this is a good time to work on the mind. So I really got into it during 2020 and I think it’s really been a huge part of my game.”

His unique pregame routine includes breathing exercises and burning palo santo.

“I like to take a cold shower to get my nervous system going a little bit. Good hydration. Then I do some breathing, kind of like a Wim Hof, pretty heavy to get the oxygen flowing. I burn palo santo, like sage, just to kind of clear the bad air out there. I’ll do that at my locker. It’s something I’ve done with a guy I worked with, a shaman in Arizona. It’s just something I carried over and I like.”

Francis with the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles

He uses his breathing to slow him down when he’s on the mound and keep him in the moment.

“I try to nasal breathe as much as I can,” he explained. “It’s just being mindful or conscience of it when I start speeding up, like when guys get on base. Just to close my mouth and start nasal breathing and get calm with it. Because at times, especially with the pitch clock, it’s really easy to get sped up. I feel like when you start breathing heavy, it’s not good.”

Last season, his numbers suffered due to a loss of velocity he experienced on his fastball. He was able to identify the problem as a mechanical issue and fix it in season.

“Just getting the body stronger, more stable, more timed up,” he said of how he regained the velocity. “It was really all about timing. My lower half was timed up. Just letting my upper body be loose and let it work like how it’s supposed to be.”

“It seemed like my stuff was pretty good last year, except the fastball, really. It was just a tick down, but there wasn’t much room for error. When it’s down like that, you really have to command it really well. I’m much more confident with it now and I can kind of just let it go. It’s something the hitter feels too when a pitcher can fearlessly let the pitch go with no restriction. They feel that and it’s more timid for them I think. They get a little less comfortable and it obviously helps.”

His improved mechanics helped him excel while pitching for Crillos de Caguas in the Puerto Rico Winter League last offseason. He had a 1.51 ERA in nine starts (35 2/3 IP).

“It was awesome,” he said of the experience. “Caguas was a great team. They really took care of me. They made me feel at home right away. I felt like I could be myself out there. It was a great vibe, the beaches and everything. They put me right on the water. It was very free. I felt like I could be myself and the team really wanted to win. It was intense. I felt that from the team and I felt like I had to go out there and give my all. It was a good opportunity to get some more innings because last year I was a little short. It was a great opportunity. I loved it and I would do it again.”

Francis has had a solid start to the 2023 season. In mid-April, he was sidelined with a “little flair up” of the flexor muscles in his forearm. But he hasn’t missed a beat since returning to Buffalo’s rotation. After his winter in Puerto Rico, a strong showing in spring training, and a solid start to the season, his confidence is riding high.

“It feels good,” he said. “I don’t like to be the cocky guy though. It’s me versus me. I don’t want to think that’s it’s me versus the guys in the locker room. We’re all trying to get better. I’m trying to make them better. It fuels all of us. Guys rise to the occasion when you have all the guys in the locker room doing well. So, I’m just trying to spread the confidence really. I don’t want to horde it all and be a jerk about it. I want to spread it and have everyone do well.”


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