It hasn’t been an easy year for new pitching coach Brian Sweeney and his team so far in 2023. After a solid, though unspectacular first couple of weeks of the season, things have gone south quickly for the Royals’ pitching staff.
Not only did Kris Bubic go down with an injury that required Tommy John, but the Royals have also seen massive struggles on the mound from Brady Singer, Jordan Lyles, Brad Keller, Zack Greinke, and Ryan Yarbrough in the rotation.
As a result, the Royals’ pitching staff ranks 27th not only in ERA but K-BB% as well, according to Fangraphs.
Unfortunately, the starting pitching, and pitching depth in general, hasn’t performed much better in Omaha.
According to Baseball Reference, the Storm Chasers have the third-worst ERA as a staff in the International League with a 5.84 mark, as of Tuesday. The only clubs they’ve been better than this season have been the Louisville Bats (17-21) and Charlotte Knights (19-20), affiliates of the Reds and White Sox, respectively. Ironically, both somehow have better records than the Storm Chasers (15-22).
Going into this season, Royals GM JJ Picollo and manager Matt Quatraro emphasized that they were going to utilize as many arms as possible on the 40-man roster and view the pitching staff in Omaha as an extension of theirs in Kansas City. Picollo has kind of delivered on that promise, as they have brought up many arms from Omaha recently in the past couple of weeks, especially in the wake of Yarbrough’s facial injury against the Athletics.
After a gutty performance by Max Castillo, his second 2+-inning outing on two days rest, the Royals opted to option Castillo back to Omaha for a fresh arm.
The arm selected happened to be Jackson Kowar, who hasn’t gotten off to the best start with the Storm Chasers this season.
Kowar is posting a 7.84 ERA in 13 appearances and 20.2 innings pitched this season in what is his third stint in Triple-A since 2021. Once a heralded prospect in the Royals system, many Royals fans are questioning why the Royals opted to go with Kowar, who’s been struggling with his command and control the past two seasons in Omaha.
Granted, Kowar checks a lot of boxes in terms of what the Royals need right now in their bullpen until Yarbrough and Daniel Lynch return off the IL (Lynch is projected to make one more start in Omaha before making his 2023 Royals season debut). Plus, the Royals have just recently optioned Austin Cox and Jon Heasley, and both pitchers may not have fulfilled the 15-day in the Minors rule, which explains why they weren’t selected over Kowar in this case.
Nonetheless, Kowar is going to see some time in Kansas City, even if it may just be as a placeholder until Lynch’s eventual call-up which could come as soon as the end of the week, two weeks at the latest.
That being said, can Kowar give the Royals bullpen anything, and not just in the stint, but for the remainder of the season?
And can anyone from Omaha help boost this Royals’ pitching staff in 2023? Or is it simply just going to be a revolving door of mediocrity in the coming months until some major trades happen by the July Trade Deadline?
The Positives and Negatives of Kowar’s 2023 in Omaha
Right now, it’s easy to look at Kowar’s high ERA from this season in Omaha and over his Major League career (10.76 in 46 career MLB IP) and think “This guy sucks” and proceed to try to make a snarky “dunk” comment about him and his outlook on Twitter.
I get it. Guys whose names rhyme with Loren and Lany have to do something to promote their podcast.
However, of the three pitchers we have seen from Omaha (Cox, Castillo, and Heasley), Kowar is the one I remain the most hopeful about this season for a variety of different reasons.
First off, compared to Cox, Castillo, and Heasley, Kowar has actually produced the best-called strike and whiff numbers of the quartet, which can be seen in the plate discipline numbers over the past two years, via Fangraphs.
At the Major League level, Kowar has generated the fewest first-strike calls of this particular group. On the other hand, he has produced the best marks in O-Swing percentage, contact rate, and called-strike rate, in addition to the overall CSW rate. This is despite not having direct exposure with Sweeney and the other Royals pitching coaches this season, beyond Spring Training of course.
And Kowar showed some potential in limited action this Spring, which can be seen in this March 18th outing against the Rockies:
Kowar is being plagued in Omaha by an 18.4 percent BB% and 5.8 K-BB% as well, which is the sixth-worst mark of Storm Chaser pitchers who have pitched with the club this season, according to Fangraphs. On the flip side, his K-BB percentage was better than Castillo’s in Omaha (-0.9 percent), and Castillo still earned a promotion to Kansas City.
In his brief MLB stint so far this year, Castillo is producing a K-BB% of 4.9 percent in 9.1 innings of work for the Royals. That is still not good, but it is still much better than what he demonstrated in Omaha. Additionally, his 2.89 ERA was worlds better than the 6.66 mark he produced with the Storm Chasers in 24.1 innings pitched.
Therefore, it’s not out of the question to think that Kowar could outperform his Omaha numbers, especially with a more robust coaching staff around him in Kansas City (and over a limited amount of time as well).
Another reason for optimism is that Kowar’s FIP fares a lot better than his ERA. Kowar’s FIP is 3.96 this season in Omaha, which is actually the second-best mark for any Storm Chasers pitcher who’s pitched 10 or more innings, as seen in the table below:
The 3.88 point difference between his ERA and FIP (E-F) is the highest difference for any Storm Chasers pitcher this year with 10 or more innings of work, as of May 16th. His xFIP of 4.77 is a little bit higher than his FIP, but it’s a heck of a lot more respectable than his ERA. Additionally, his xFIP is still better than Heasley’s (5.30) and Castillo’s (6.57).
A big reason for that positive FIP difference is that Kowar can still strike batters out, as evidenced by his 10.89 K/9 and 24.3 percent K rate. Kowar has always demonstrated excellent pitch quality, it’s just been the control and command that have been the issue, both at the Major and Minor League level.
Here’s a look at Kowar’s PLV pitch quality with the Royals from a season ago:
His overall 4.88 PLV is slightly below average overall, but his slider was an above-average offering on a PLV pitch quality end at 5.11, and his changeup wasn’t far off either at 4.90.
Now let’s take a look at Castillo and Heasley’s PLV pitch quality charts from a season ago:
Notice that both Heasley and Castillo produced lower overall PLV marks than Kowar in 2022. Castillo did have more above-average offerings than Kowar (sinker and curveball), but his primary pitch (four-seamer) at 4.65 fared much worse than both Heasley’s primary pitch (four-seamer; 4.73) and Kowar’s changeup (4.90).
Another positive development in Kowar’s favor may be the work he has done with his slider this season, which was his best (though least-thrown) pitch on a PLV-end last year.
Here’s what Kowar said about his slider to MLB.com Royals beat writer Anne Rogers on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after his call-up:
Even if the slider continues to be a third offering, it can help amplify the effectiveness of his changeup which has always rated highly in his time in the Minors. Kowar doesn’t need the slider to be a primary pitch. Rather, he just needs to utilize it enough and for it to be good enough to keep batters off balance.
Because when he’s locating the change and four-seamer effectively, the slider can be an excellent hammer pitch, as was the case during a solid performance in late April against Nashville.
The Royals are not expecting Kowar to be an inning-eating starting anytime sooner. He’s been developed as a reliever so far this year in Omaha and expect that to continue in this first call-up of 2023.
However, if he can produce a solid stretch at the MLB level for a week or so, he can go back to the Minors with much-needed confidence, which can help him build up stamina and effectiveness for a more long-term call-up later in the season.
What About the Other Arms in Omaha?
The fact of the matter is that the pitching situation in Omaha is probably as dire as the one in Kansas City, and that’s not good for a fanbase looking for any kind of optimism in 2023.
Castillo and Cox both had solid debuts with the Royals this season, and it’s likely that they will see some more innings later in the season, especially after some major roster changes that are expected to happen by June and/or July (i.e. trades and/or players DFA’d). Royals fans should probably be more optimistic about Cox than Castillo, as Cox at least showcased a decent CSW rate (27.8 percent) in his limited stint with the Royals.
As for Heasley, it’s hard to be too optimistic, especially after another outing tonight in Omaha where he has absolutely gotten demolished.
Against the Toledo Mud Hens, he has allowed six runs on seven hits in four innings of work, and Mud Hens hitters absolutely teed off on his four-seamer, as seen in the Savant player breakdown data below (pay attention to those exit velocity numbers on the four-seamer):
After that trio, it becomes more slim pickings from that Omaha group.
Evan Sisk and Andres Nunez have been groundball machines, but they have struggled with command (1.55 and 1.44 K/BB ratios respectively). Michael Mayers, Marcelo Martinez, and Brooks Kriske (who I was optimistic about in Spring Training) have been home run machines. Lastly, Collin Snider and Ryan Weiss, who both looked good in Spring Training, have not been able to put much of anything together so far in Omaha.
The only one who could contribute and hold his own is Nick Wittgren, who is posting a 1.45 ERA in 18.2 innings of work. That being said, do the Royals really want to trust a 32-year-old reliever not on the 40-man roster, especially on a rebuilding club that is building for 2024 and 2025?
That is probably a reason why Wittgren hasn’t gotten a promotion yet, even though he’s been hands down the Storm Chasers’ best reliever so far this season.
There’s just not a lot of hope to be found on this current Royals or Storm Chasers pitching staff. Granted, there are more positive stories going on in Northwest Arkansas as Alec Marsh is off to a great start, and Jonathan Bowlan is producing good K/BB ratios after a down season in 2022 returning from Tommy John.
Also, as Preston Farr of Royals Review noted, the Royals have three affiliates whose pitching staffs lead the league in strikeouts which is a much-needed jolt of optimism during this rough Royals season.
There is hope coming for this Royals pitching staff in the long term, even if some Royals fans do not want to believe it right now. It could come as soon as 2024, especially if the pitchers in Northwest Arkansas continue to gain confidence and make gains with their pitches and command overall.
But for now, Royals fans have to brace themselves…
Because after Lynch and Kowar, there isn’t a whole lot of help coming from the current roster in Omaha for now.
Photo Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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