Blue Jays’ Francis finds the art of pitching through son’s custom-painted shoes

Bowden Francis looks more like a pitcher likely to start the season in the Toronto Blue Jays’ rotation than a depth arm with a little role versatility. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. — In preparation for the 2024 season, Bowden Francis ordered a pair of white Nike cleats. They looked okay. Seriously, they were fine. A little boring, maybe, but he had a plan.

All he needed was some tape, a few types of blue paint and his three-year-old son, Book. 

“I felt like they needed some colour and I didn’t want to pay a bunch of money for someone to paint them,” Francis told Sportsnet. “So I just taped them up, gave him three different colours of blue and had him go at it.”

To be sure the shoes adhered to MLB’s rules, Francis taped off the toe box to make it look like any custom Jordan sneaker and selected paint colours the Blue Jays already wear. Then, for the second year in a row, he handed them over to his son, who “loves painting” and let him get to work.

The results are pleasing to the eye, giving the impression of an abstract painting. Francis loves them because they remind him of his son every time he pitches. And already teammates are making requests for custom shoe art of their own.

One way or the other, chances are good that Blue Jays fans will see a lot of those shoes in 2024. After posting a 1.73 ERA as a rookie in 2023, the 27-year-old Francis is firmly in the mix to contribute in a significant way for this year’s Blue Jays. There are no guarantees he’ll break camp with the team, but with Alek Manoah dealing with a sore shoulder he’s perhaps next in line to start.

Regardless of what form the opportunity takes, many in the organization believe Francis is now ready for more.

“He’s not afraid,” manager John Schneider said. “He comes right after you. He’s got a purpose with every pitch. He understands now that he’s a major-league pitcher, and he can get guys out. He put in a ton of work in the off-season, adding a new (splitter) and his confidence is pretty high right now. I love his demeanour.”

But while Francis attacks on the mound, he’s pretty relaxed off of it, and his low-key look reflects as much. While some players don’t care at all about fashion and others prefer the comfort and prestige of luxury brands like Prada, Hugo Boss or Louis Vuitton, Francis has a different kind of aesthetic. He conducts this interview in one of his vintage, cut-off Blue Jays t-shirts. They’re team-branded, but not team-issued — he sources these himself, one at a time from vintage stores in the cities his teams visit.

“I like thrifting a lot,” he said. “I like throwing on some headphones and going at it. I love the second-hand stuff that people don’t really have. Everyone can go to the mall and get the new stuff, but the old stuff’s like a treasure.”

At six-foot-five and 220 pounds, Francis doesn’t fit into everything, so he will venture online if he’s having a hard time finding the right fit, but his preference is to sort through items in person.

“I love Toronto’s thrift stores and markets,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of hours there. And if I’m in minor-league towns, I’ll go to Goodwills.” 

The hand-painted cleats Bowden Francis will wear in 2024.

Since he has minor-league options remaining, Francis may well be visiting those same stores again at times this year. But on talent, he showed last year that he can pitch in the majors, and it wasn’t just his 1.73 ERA.

In 36.1 innings last year, he struck out 35 while walking eight and allowing just 22 hits. Even beyond those numbers, he was above MLB average with both Stuff+ (103) and Location+ (102), as documented by FanGraphs. Of course that was before he added a splitter, his latest offering.

“He attacks hitters, he doesn’t doesn’t shy away from anybody, and he obviously has a lot of pitches,” said starter Chris Bassitt. “A lot of guys have some weaknesses in their swings and he has all the pitches to attack. So his pitchability is a lot higher than normal.”

With less than a month remaining before the start of the regular season, Francis is feeling good physically, mentally and mechanically. The goal is to show the Blue Jays he can use his array of pitches to work his way through lineups multiple times and cover lots of innings.

“That’s what I was always known for in the minor-leagues,” Francis said. “It’s throwing every pitch with intent. Not wasting any pitches.”

The hand-painted cleats Bowden Francis wore in 2023.

Before shifting to relief in the majors, Francis covered 128 innings in 2018, 142.2 innings in 2019, 132.2 innings in 2021 and 98.1 innings in 2022. Those are significant totals approaching the workload of a back-end big-league starter in today’s game. The Blue Jays have taken notice.

“When we say start, you know, sometimes it may be four innings,” Schneider said. “Five innings. And he’s more than equipped to do that too. So he’s built himself up to be in this position and hopefully he can continue to do it.”

Best case scenario, everyone in the Blue Jays’ pitching mix stays healthy, including Manoah, and it’s hard to find enough innings to go around. Yet it’s rare for seasons to unfold that way, which creates the possibility that the Blue Jays will be seeing plenty of Francis and his newly painted shoes.

“I just feel like I’m carrying (Book) with me,” he said. “And he can see them, so it’s kind of cool.”

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