A rough start for Kowar
It was a night to forget for rookie Jackson Kowar. Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler finally show signs of life at the plate. And the Royals are back to .500.
Big league debuts are difficult to gauge. The adrenaline has to be absolutely off the charts. Couple that with nerves and it’s potentially a toxic mix.
We saw that on display Monday night in Anaheim as the Royals faced the Angels. Jackson Kowar, the final member of the “Big Four” of the 2018 draft to reach the majors, had a disastrous opening salvo to his big league career. Nothing worked and he failed to get out of the first inning.
Not the start you wanted to see.
As I was planning this edition of the newsletter, I figured it would be fun to chart Kowar’s night via Baseball Savant, following along as he popped mid-90s heat with a plus-plus change. He had thrown 90+ pitches a couple of times for the Storm Chasers as he absolutely sliced through Triple-A East in his first six starts of 2021. I hoped he could be economical enough to navigate through five innings.
Instead, I only have seven batters to break down. That’s not how anyone envisioned this start unfolding.
Batter One — Justin Upton
Kowar yanked his first major league pitch at 96 mph and followed that up with another off the plate, but not as far. Upton did him a huge favor by offering and pushing a weak grounder down the first base line for the first out. It was a harbinger of what was to come.
Batter Two — Shohei Ohtani
The most dangerous Angels hitter was next in the order in Ohtani. Kowar was again pushing everything wide, including a pair of change-ups. He threw a BB for a strike at 3-0 that Ohtani, with no mercy in his soul, fouled off. Kowar was nowhere near the plate on his final change and lost him to a walk. Kowar issued only 10 base on balls in 31.2 innings at Triple-A this season.
Batter Three — Anthony Rendon
Kowar got a little closer to the zone against Rendon and got a called strike and foul to jump ahead 0-2, setting up the perfect opportunity to unleash that killer change. That’s what he did, except he delivered it only about 50 feet. He then hung a change 1-2 that Rendon jumped ahead of and smoked foul.
Living dangerously, Kowar went to a full count on Rendon. He fouled off a change down and out of the zone but jumped all over a fastball on the eighth pitch of the at bat to lace a run-scoring single at 99.5 mph. That was the hardest-hit ball of the night against Kowar.
Batter Four — Jared Walsh
Kowar tried a curve on the first pitch to Walsh but left it outside. After missing with a change to fall behind 2-0, he went with smoke down the pipe that Walsh missed. Another fastball off the plate and Kowar was again in the hole—the second time he fell behind 3-1 to the first four batters. He lost Walsh on the fifth pitch, a fastball well out of the zone.
Batter Five — Max Stassi
At 20 pitches and with runners on first and second and just one out, the Royals convened a meeting on the mound. Kowar responded by offering his best change to that point.
Max Stassi fouled off another change in almost the same location to fall behind 0-2. Promising! Except Kowar completely lost his command. On a 3-2 count, Kowar left a change middle-middle that Stassi dropped into center for the Angels’ second run.
Take a moment to linger on that pitch chart. The first two change-ups were in a perfect spot. If Stassi managed to put either offering into play, Kowar gets a ground ball and with a runner on first, he could’ve gotten a double play and out of the inning.
Batter Six — José Iglesias
By this point, Ervin Santana was getting loose in the Royals’ bullpen. With Iglesias at the plate, this was probably Kowar’s best sequence of pitches in the entire inning. Jumping ahead 0-2, Iglesias spoiled a handful of good pitches, and also went fishing way out of the zone for another fastball.
Kowar delivered his third wild pitch of the night in this sequence before surrendering a run-scoring grounder for his second out.
Batter Seven — Juan Legares
Against what would be his final batter of the night, it was more of the same with Kowar struggling to locate: A generous first-pitch called strike, two misses on the change and another on the fastball. None of the pitches were in the same area code as the strike zone. Kowar’s debut was mercifully over when Lagares lined a 3-1 pitch for another run-scoring single.
Kowar’s final line:
0.2 IP, 3 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 0 SO with three wild pitches.
Apart from the change-ups delivered to Stassi to open his at bat, there just wasn’t anything there for Kowar. This was a start to just wad up and throw into the dumpster. Don’t draw any conclusions and resist the temptation to overanalyze. We didn’t see the starter who buzzed through Triple-A. Or the one who put together a solid first full professional season in 2019.
In his postgame press conference, Matheny attempted to assess Kowar’s start.
“There’s a lot going on that first day out there. I told him in on the mound, his stuff looks good. His stuff is going to be in the game a long time. Just take one of these days as one of those growing opportunities…he’s not going to have another one like that. He’s got too good of stuff, the way he competes…he gets into some pretty good counts, guys barely fouling off pitches staying alive…what he brings out there is really good.”
The focus is going to be on fastball command and how really missed the zone, but I thought Matheny did kind of have a fair point about the foul balls. Ten of Kowar’s 29 pitches were fouled off. Although five were in the at bat against Iglesias.
He was ahead in the count on every one of those fouls, save for the 3-0 heater to Ohtani down the middle. The collection of change-ups along with the curve down is something that we will see from Kowar all season. And probably same for the fastballs up when he’s ahead. If he gets a swing and a miss on one of those change-ups, or a ground ball, he escapes the inning and can regroup.
Also, if you want to look for another positive, of the five balls put in play against Kowar, only one was truly hard-hit. And only two had an xBA greater than .310.
It’s not much, but it’s something.
Obviously, we need to maintain perspective. Kowar isn’t the first player who struggled out the chute in his first exposure to the majors. The Mariners just sent Jerrad Kelnic back to Triple-A after he scuffled to .096/.185/193 with an OPS+ of 10 in 92 plate appearances. The Angels themselves experienced this with Jo Adell last year. Granted, they aren’t pitchers, but it just serves to illustrate that baseball isn’t simple.
Plus, this isn’t some no-name scrub the Royals called up from Double-A to face the best team in the league. This is a highly regarded prospect who has a future in this organization and in this rotation. For whatever reason, he couldn’t handle the moment and it got out of hand, as things tend to do when one jumps from Triple-A to the majors. I figured after the first two pitches to Upton to start the game with an out, Kowar would find a little rhythm and establish a groove. It just didn’t happen.
When Daniel Lynch was pulled from his third start after recording just eight outs, following a disastrous second start where, like Kowar, he failed to make it out of the first, the TV cameras caught Mike Matheny giving his pitcher some words of encouragement. Matheny told Lynch he believed in his stuff and that Lynch would ultimately be successful in the big leagues. It was similar to what he said to the media last night about Kowar. While we didn’t really even get to see Kowar’s stuff, one start will not define his career. And he, like Lynch (and Brady Singer and Kris Bubic) are too important to the Royals. It’s time for the club to rally around Kowar and make sure he’s prepared to make his next start, scheduled for Saturday in Oakland.
I look forward to watching him bounce back.
Jorge Soler hit a dinger!
This is cause for celebration. And a gif!
Soler now has five home runs in 2021 to go along with the five times he’s reached base via catcher’s interference.
Dozier comes alive
All it takes is the Pacific Time Zone to get Hunter Dozier going in 2021. He posted his first three-hit game all season and it was the first time he had multiple hits in a game since May 4. He finished the night with a pair of doubles and, get this, an opposite-field single. Yes, he went to right field. It was the second time he collected a base hit on a ball it to the right side of second base all year.
I’m so excited I can barely update his spray chart.
Hail, hail Erv
With the focus on the kids in the rotation, the veteran Ervin Santana is the guy who (mostly) held things together. Santana has been a rock for the Royals in long relief and did well out of the bullpen once again. He wobbled a little bit in his third inning of work when he allowed a pair of singles sandwiched around a wild pitch for a single tally. The Angels tacked on another pair with a two-out rally in the fifth on a walk to Walsh and a Stassi home run.
Looking at Santana’s velocity, it began to seriously dip as the fourth progressed. He bottomed out with his first fastball of the fifth and while he recovered that speed for the rest of the frame, it was clear he was running on fumes.
However, by that point, the Royals were still in the game against Angels’ starter Dylan Bundy, so as we’ve seen from Matheny at various points this season, he’s going to try to squeeze every last out of his pitches whenever possible. On Monday, Santana came up just one out short.
Santana has now made 11 appearances for the Royals (nine in relief with a pair of brief starts), posting a 3.70 ERA and 16 strikeouts against seven walks in 24.1 innings. It’s an amazing comeback story and one the Royals’ have benefitted from.
It was a weird night in baseball where only three games were played. None of the other Central Division rivals were in action. So the Royals, in dropping their third consecutive game, only dropped a half-game in the standings.
And just like that, the Royals are back to .500.
Two more to go in Anaheim before the Royals head north to Oakland.
Tuesday — Kris Bubic vs Andrew Heaney
Wednesday — Brad Keller vs Griffin Canning
As noted before, Kowar’s next turn in the rotation sets up for Saturday in Oakland. He is tentatively scheduled to face off against James Kaprielian.