To be clear, most people are wrong about Jackson Kowar.
They try to fit him into a well-worn narrative about pitcher development that contradicts every bit of information we have on him. As is the narrative for so many young pitchers, the conventional wisdom on Kowar holds that an underdeveloped breaking ball is all that stands between him and a major league debut.
Wrong. Ignorant and wrong.
As I made clear in a previous post for RFR, Kowar’s curveball is fine … good even. It’s not a Verlander-like hammer, but it has enough break and velocity to fool hitters. Plus, he commands it very well.
And of course, his 70-grade changeup (80-grade maybe) isn’t the problem either. It’s the kind of pitch people should write poetry about. It’s the kind of pitch you want your child to marry. It’s the kind of pitch that makes you want to smoke a cigarette.
His problem is, and has always been, his fastball. Sure, it sits around 94-96 MPH, but it also gets hit … a lot.
Kowar’s entire repertoire—the marvelous changeup, the sneaky-good curveball, and the subpar fastball—is on display in the first at bat in the video below, which displays the full range of his promise and potential downside. I’m going to take you through every pitch and explain why Kowar needs to improve his fastball if he wants to push past his floor as a back-end starter.
Curveball – bottom of the zone – 0-1 looking
Kowar does this a lot. He loves to start hitters with a curveball at the bottom of the zone, and he often gets looking strikes from it. Notice the tight break on this thing. It starts at the hitters shoulders, and he’s looking at it the whole time. The catcher actually catches it below the zone, but because of its steep break, it’s a strike through the bottom third.
Fastball – outside away (arm side) – 1-1
Here’s Kowar’s fastball, and it illustrates one of his issues with it—command. He wanted this on the outside edge, and he misses by three or four inches off the plate. His fastball command is inconsistent. He’ll have stretches where he looks dialed in with it, and then he’ll lose it for a while. That’s not particularly surprising for a pitcher with his long frame. If you look closely (and in slow motion), you can see the hitter gives up on the pitch very early; that’ll be important in a couple pitches.
(Devastating) Changeup – outside down (in the dirt) – 1-2 swinging
This pitch belongs in the Louvre. The catcher is setup on the outer third. Kowar starts it on the inner third about navel high. The pitch ends up in the dirt on the outer third with the hitter flailing over the top of it. Kowar rarely throws this pitch inside the strike zone because … how could he? It has so much tumble and fade; it must be near impossible to keep it inside the zone.
Fastball – outside high – 2-2
The hitter manages to hold off Kowar’s high fastball, and this pitch illustrates the biggest problem Kowar has. His fastball is very easy to see. I didn’t realize it until I listened to the Royals Farm Report podcast recently and Travis Ice, a guest and scout, mentioned Kowar’s poor extension numbers. Basically, Kowar lets go of the ball a lot further away from the plate than someone as tall as him should.
For all of 2019, I was trying to figure out why Kowar’s 94-96 MPH fastball gets hit so frequently. Ice had the answer. His fastball is easy to see. It doesn’t look like 94-96 to hitters; it looks more like 91-93. That’s much more hittable, but also easier to recognize and take.
If anything keeps Kowar from his potential, it will be the fastballs shown in this sequence.
(Delicious) Changeup – outside down – strikeout swinging
Another phenomenal changeup from Kowar. The hitter has no chance.
Really, the changeup represents Kowar’s promise. Many pitchers struggle to find a major league-level out pitch, any sort of dominant offering that can get consistent swings and misses. Kowar has that. In fact, I believe his curveball is good enough to miss bats on its best days, too. These are the pitches that give Kowar a chance to be a solid number 2 or 3 starter.
But his fastball is struggling to get beyond 50-grade at this point. He needs to improve the command and do something to offset his extension problem, or he runs the risk of a Jacob Junis-like profile, a killer secondary pitch and a fastball that gets clobbered.
I’m not sure it would be worth it to adjust his mechanics significantly at this point; I don’t know enough about the adjustments needed to say for sure. I worry that tinkering too much may do more harm than good. It may be a better idea to simply call fewer fastballs or lean more on a two-seamer. Perhaps if he refines his command, he can mitigate some of the downside of his poor extension without any major adjustments.
Kowar will probably start at Omaha this year, which should be a good test for him. The Pacific Coast League is full of fringy major leaguers, guys who know how to hit mediocre fastballs. We’ll get a chance to see if his fastball has improved enough to open the gates to the big leagues.
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