Written by: Carter Cromwell
November 23, 2022
“The manager would like to see you in his office” is a line usually guaranteed to make a ballplayer think “uh, oh” and envision a trek to the guillotine. But in Kaleb Bowman’s case, it meant he would be moving onward and upward in the baseball world.
Bowman, an American who starred for Regensburg in the German Bundesliga the last two seasons, was pitching in September for Gastonia (N.C.) of the Atlantic League, the highest-profile independent circuit in the United States. He and teammate Zach Godley, a former major league pitcher, were chatting in the locker room just prior to a game when he got a tap on the shoulder from Assistant General Manager Brady Salisbury.
“We were going into our last series, and we knew some of us would be put on the inactive list because of roster limitations for the playoffs,” Bowman said. “I thought it might be me.”
Instead, he was told that the Milwaukee Brewers of Major League Baseball were actively pursuing him.
“Most guys don’t like it when they get called into the manager’s office,” Salisbury said with a chuckle, “but Kaleb is a pretty straight-up guy and said ‘no problem’ and followed me into the office. Obviously, it was a really good conversation.”
Bowman then had a phone call with Bryan Gale, special assistant in the Brewers’ scouting department, and eventually signed a minor-league contract.
“I was so excited,” Bowman said. “It’s great to know I’ll be back playing in the States again. I went and told Zach, and he gathered all the bullpen guys around and told them. He knew what that moment meant to me. Then we called my parents and my sister and her husband, and the excitement they had for me was amazing.”
Photo credit: Michael Schöberl
Given that the U.S. minor-league season was nearly over by then, the Brewers allowed Bowman to finish the season with Gastonia. He then spent a couple of weeks at Milwaukee’s spring training and player development facility in Arizona getting acclimated and undergoing standard physical exams. He’ll now take a month or so off from throwing and then start training in November so he’ll be ready when he reports to camp in February.
So how did he get to this point in his career? Just how did an unheralded 25-year-old who went undrafted by MLB teams after college and traveled overseas to play get noticed? That requires a bit of explanation.
The son of a church pastor born in Texas and raised mostly in Virginia, he attended junior college in South Carolina and then moved to Applaichan State University in North Carolina, where he played two seasons, purely as a relief pitcher. In his senior year, he was 6-2 with a 3.05 ERA for a team that finished nine games under .500 and 11th in a 12-team league. He was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player.
That did not impress major league clubs enough to draft him in 2019, but he didn’t let his baseball dreams die.
Photo credit: App State Athletics
“I’ve been my best friend and also my worst enemy,” Bowman said. “When you go undrafted, you sort of give up on that chance a bit. But when I heard about Baseball Jobs Overseas, I thought it was at least a chance to keep playing. I love to travel, too, and this gave me an opportunity to do that while also playing ball.”
He went to Canada for a season with Fredericton in the New Brunswick Senior League and immediately followed that by going to Surfers Paradise for the 2019-2020 Australian winter season. The next season was canceled because of Covid-19, but he then played the 2021 and 2022 seasons with Regensburg, one of the more visible and forward-thinking clubs in Europe.
He was successful at every stop. He pitched to a 3.30 ERA with a 1.25 WHIP for Fredericton, was league pitcher of the year and the team MVP for Surfers Paradise (5-2, 2.54, 1.16 WHIP), was voted Pitcher of the Year in the 1st German Bundesliga (9-0, 2.52, 1.09 WHIP, 124 strikeouts in 93 innings) in 2021, and was a stalwart with Regensburg in 2022 (11-1, 0.83, 0.55 WHIP, 137 strikeouts in 86 innings).
None of which surprised Devon Ramirez, a player and pitching coach for Regensburg, and also the person who brought him to the club.
“We needed a pitcher, and we needed a frontline starter to be competitive,” Ramirez said. “I had gotten some names, including Kaleb’s, through Baseball Jobs Overseas, and after looking at his video highlights and having just one conversation with him, I knew he was the right guy. He comes from a good family, has a lot of positive energy, and has a good vibe about him. His character is off the charts. Plus, he’d done the overseas thing before, which was important. Guys coming over from the U.S. don’t always know what to expect.
Photo: Bowman pitching for Surfers Paradise of the Greater Brisbane Baseball League, essentially a glorified adult men’s league where import players work on the side and live with a host family
“He’s a happy-go-lucky guy, but he’s really locked in on days he’s pitching. When he’s on the mound, he sets the tone. He was a bulldog, and he pitched well each time he went out there. His fastball/slider combination was terrific. Then he came back his second year and began throwing from a three-quarter arm slot, in addition to sidearm, which gave him more ways to get batters out.”
Bowman, a 6-1, 190-pounder, said, “I improved my flexibility and also switched to pitching from the third-base side of the rubber and started hitting 95 and 96 (mph) occasionally and being tougher on righthanders. I talked to a lot of [right-handed] hitters, and they said the ball seemed to be coming from behind them but would then break over the inside corner.”
Bowman throws a slider from both arm slots, along with what he calls a “true forkball” from over the top. He has some hesitation in his motion, and he tries to mix the tempo to help keep hitters off balance.
His skills and 2022 performance at last got him some attention, as the Washington Nationals of MLB showed interest, though nothing materialized.
“We’d been working on getting him signed and had come really close a few times,” Ramirez said. “The Nationals, (Atlanta) Braves and a few others had scouted him. I told Kaleb after his first year – and especially after his second – that I didn’t want to see him back at Regensburg. He was too good and too young and had too good a work ethic to not keep his dream alive.”
Bowman acknowledges becoming discouraged at times, but said signing with a major league team “was never fully out of the picture for me” and had planned to keep at it. After the 2022 season in Germany, he returned home, taught special education students and also managed a baseball facility. His plan was to again play in Australia this winter and go back to Europe next summer, but fate intervened when the Gastonia club gave him the call.
“We were down quite a few pitchers and needed help,” Salisbury said. “I happened to see a video of some highlights that he had posted on Twitter. After watching it a couple of times, I called our manager, and things worked out pretty quickly.”
Bowman went to Gastonia in late August and stayed through September, appearing in six games and allowing just four hits and no walks in seven innings of relief. He struck out 10 batters over that period and posted a microscopic 0.57 WHIP.
Photo credit: Gastonia Honey Hunters
“He was with us the last 2-3 weeks of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs,” Salisbury said. “When you pick up guys in the middle of a season, you don’t know how they’re going to fit into the clubhouse, but he was great. He was one of the younger players, but he fit right in with the veterans. He was one of our best pickups of the season.”
Which led to the Brewers picking him up.
“I was surprised to get the call from Milwaukee because I didn’t know the Brewers were scouting me, and I hadn’t pitched many innings for Gastonia,” Bowman said.
Milwaukee had actually been watching him for some time.
“One of our scouts, Matt Roffe, originally flagged him, so we started checking him out,” said Gale, who oversees scouting in the independent ranks. “I scouted him, and we also had a couple of other scouts evaluate him.
“Kaleb’s performances over the years certainly didn’t go unnoticed, but what really moved the needle for us was how he did in the Atlantic League. There are ex-major leaguers and former AA and AAA guys there, but he stepped in at 25 – which is young for that league – and hit the ground running. From that point, we viewed him as someone who had pitched well against good hitters.
“The combination of his stuff and how he uses it is what interests us,” Gale added. “He does a lot of creative things with his delivery and arm slot that help keep hitters off balance and enable him to succeed. It’s always good to acquire a player who does things a little differently. Plus, he’s been through a lot to get to this point. There aren’t many who commit this long to the goal of getting into affiliated ball. That kind of separates him.”
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