The Kansas City Royals, as of Monday night, still have not hired a pitching coach for the upcoming season, and safe to say Royals fans are getting a bit impatient.
And that impatience was particularly amplified after the Chicago White Sox signed Mike Clevinger to a one-year, $12 million deal over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Clevinger was seen as a possible reclamation project for Kansas City and would do well in a return to the AL Central in 2023 after a sub-par tenure with the San Diego Padres. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed, and it is likely that the Royals’ lack of a pitching coach at this time didn’t help in negotiations with Clevinger (if those negotiations ever happened).
The Royals would certainly benefit this offseason (and placate the fanbase a bit) by adding a veteran starting pitcher or two in free agency. MLB.com Royals beat writer Anne Rogers actually outlined some options today. She included Zack Greinke (not a surprise), and Jameson Taillon, who’s actually been floated out as a realistic option for the Royals, due to him having the same agent as Brady Singer, according to sources.
Nonetheless, a free-agent pitcher or two isn’t going to suddenly turn around a team that finished last place in the AL Central with a 65-97 record in 2022. If the Royals want to see progress in the standings in 2023, even if it may only be 5-10 wins better, new manager Matt Quatraro will need to see some improvement from the young starting pitchers.
And Jackson Kowar could be the most intriguing of the bunch, especially since next season may be his last chance to prove himself with the Royals organization.
What Has Gone Wrong With Kowar?
There’s no way to say it nicely: Kowar has been pretty bad at the Major League level since debuting in 2021.
In 16 career MLB appearances and 46 innings of work over the past two seasons, Kowar had produced a 10.76 ERA, 6.41 FIP, and generated an fWAR of -0.6. Of Royals pitchers who have accumulated 40 or more innings since 2021, no pitcher has been worse than Kowar on an fWAR, ERA, or FIP end, as Royals fans can see in the table below.
Kowar has produced a “triple crown” of sorts that certainly isn’t anything to be proud of, especially considering the Royals’ pitching staff’s woes overall under former pitching coach Cal Eldred.
A big issue for Kowar has been his lack of command at the Major League level, which has manifested itself in both walks as well as home runs.
Of Royals pitchers with 40 or more innings pitched the past two seasons, Kowar has given up the highest HR/FB rate at 19.3 percent. In addition, his 6.07 BB/9 is the third-highest mark of that group of Royals pitchers, behind only Jake Brentz (6.23 BB/9) and Amir Garrett (6.35).
In terms of the first point, here is a look at Kowar’s heatmap from the past two seasons on pitches where he gave up home runs.
Kowar has frequently left pitches either middle-middle or middle-up in the strike zone. Unsurprisingly, hitters have feasted on those mistakes in the zone in Kowar’s first two seasons in the Majors.
Here is an example of Nolan Jones, formerly of the Guardians (now with the Rockies), absolutely launching a middle-middle fastball into the fountains at Kauffman Stadium in an early July game.
To make matters worse, here is Kowar back in 2021, making the same mistake in the same part of the zone with the same pitch (four-seamer) at Kauffman Stadium. The only difference this time is it is Seattle’s Jarred Kelenic who rakes Kowar’s pitch out of the yard.
Unfortunately for Kowar, things weren’t much better in his second stint in Triple-A Omaha last season.
After posting a 3.46 ERA in 80.2 IP in 2021 (which earned him Royals Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors), Kowar saw his Storm Chasers ERA blow up to 6.16 in 20 outings and 83.1 IP.
Typically, pitchers get better as they get more experience at a particular level of the Minor Leagues. However, it was the inverse for Kowar, and not surprisingly, his prospect stock has tumbled as a result.
Once a pitcher who was deemed the “dark horse” pitching prospect of the 2018 Royals draft class (which included Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, and Jon Heasley), it is uncertain what kind of role Kowar will have with the Royals in 2023…
If he has any kind of role at all.
Should Royals Fans Still Have Hope With Kowar?
While the past two seasons have been bleak, there still is potential with Kowar, even if it is hard to tell if that promise will be realized in the bullpen or rotation at the Major League level.
Kowar does possess some velocity and life on his four-seamer, even if it is not the most consistent.
According to Baseball Savant, his four-seamer ranked in the 83rd percentile, which is really good. His fastball spin also ranked in the 55th percentile, which isn’t as impressive, but isn’t bad when one considers how rough his 2022 campaign was.
When he combined his four-seamer effectively with his changeup, the former Florida Gator (and college teammate of Singer’s) showed that he could be one of the better swing-and-miss pitchers in the Royals organization.
Despite his lackluster numbers, he did increase his overall K rate from 18.8 percent in 2021 to 20.7 percent in 2022. That was largely helped by his changeup, which generated a whiff rate of 35.8 percent and a K rate of 33.3 percent, according to Savant.
Here’s a look at Kowar commanding his changeup effectively and low in the zone against Toronto’s Bo Bichette in their final series before the All-Star Break:
Notice how that pitch clocks in at 85 MPH and possesses some good hard-dropping vertical movement. It can be hard for a free swinger like Bichette to lay off, especially when Kowar is pumping his four-seamer in the 95-97 MPH range.
Let’s take a look at such a four-seamer from Kowar against Cleveland’s Franmil Reyes in July, which actually produced a strikeout, even though it was located poorly.
Even though they are different at-bats, one can see the potential Kowar sports when he’s able to combo the four-seamer and changeup together effectively.
In fact, let’s compare Kowar’s four-seam and changeup heatmaps when he generated swinging strikes against batters in 2022. The location of those respective pitches on swinging strikes is EXACTLY what you would want to see from a pitcher with an arsenal like Kowar’s.
(Scroll left to see the changeup; right to see the four-seamer).
If he wants to stay in the rotation long-term, Kowar does need to develop his slider, which he only threw 10.6 percent of the time last season. Here’s a look at how his pitch breakdown has gone over his first two years, and notice how the slider usage regressed a bit from 2021 to 2022.
Singer proved last season how much of a step forward a starting pitcher can take at the MLB level when they utilize a third pitch more frequently (and effectively).
On the other hand, it makes sense why he utilized his slider so infrequently, as the pitch gave up a batting average of .571 and only generated a whiff rate of 20 percent. Those were the worst marks in those respective categories of any of the three pitches that he threw a season ago.
Unless something major happens, it feels likely that Kowar will be a bullpen piece in Kansas City next season, at least initially.
Can a New Pitching Coach Tap Into His Potential?
Honestly, it’s hard to see how much of Kowar’s struggles are mental and how much is due to his mechanics.
From a fan and outside perspective, there doesn’t seem to be anything alarming with Kowar mechanically, though it does seem like he has made some adjustments over this past season to help streamline his delivery a bit (he primarily pitched out of the stretch last year).
Thus, it seems like if the new pitching coach wants to have an impact on Kowar, it will start with building his confidence after a rough season and a half at both the Major AND Minor league levels.
Kowar appears to be in the same boat as former 2020 first-round pick Asa Lacy, who still demonstrated exceptional stuff last year, but struggled with command in what appeared to be a case of the “yips” (i.e. inability to do the most routine thing; i.e. find the strike zone in this case).
That should be the number one priority for the new pitching coach: sitting down with him, understanding who Kowar really is, why he’s struggled, and what the Royals staff can do to help him be that stud pitcher that he showcased in his first couple of years in the Minor Leagues. Kowar needs to be a bigger priority for the new pitching coach (and his respective team) than Lacy, at least in the short term, as Kowar will be on his final Minor League option this upcoming season, according to Roster Resource.
Because it is possible that Kowar could surprise in 2023, especially since the expectations are so low.
Steamer projections are still optimistic about his outlook, even in the midst of two bad seasons of MLB data. Here is what they are projecting from Kowar for this upcoming season:
I think a lot of Royals fans would be happy with a 4.37 ERA, 4.34 FIP, 2.05 K/BB ratio, 1.08 HR/9, and 0.2 fWAR in 55 IP while serving as a hybrid swingman of sorts.
These projected numbers are what the new pitching coach, Quatraro, and JJ Picollo should be aiming for in 2023 from Kowar…
With the hope that he builds enough confidence in 2023 from this kind of performance to parlay that into a true breakout in 2024, whether it’s in the rotation or bullpen full-time.
Photo Credit: Kyle Rivas/Getty Images