A Mixed Bag for Jackson Kowar

There was an awful lot of good for a start with six runs allowed and an awful lot of bad for a start with 17 whiffs in six innings.

It’s not often that a 1980s sitcom can tell the story of a start by a big league pitcher in 2021, but Jackson Kowar’s start can be described with the beginning of a very popular theme song.

🎶 You take the good
You take the bad
You take them both
And there you have
The facts of life 🎶

The fact of life from yesterday is that the good ended up not being enough to outweigh the bad. Okay, so maybe the end of that verse doesn’t describe it all that well, but the beginning is pretty perfect for both Kowar’s night last night and really a lot of young pitching as they get their feet wet in the big leagues. It’s not often that a start featuring six runs, two home runs and four walks in six innings provides some good moments, but there definitely was a lot to like from him in his second start back from AAA.

You Take the Good

There are a few things that can be taken away from this start, and I’m not sure what the most important thing is, so I’ll just go through some of the positives.

Whiffs Galore

Kowar threw 54 fastballs, 26 sliders and 25 changeups. I haven’t spent a ton of time talking about Kowar’s new slider that he started throwing in AAA after he was sent back down. From what I’d heard, the results were a little bit mixed, but it’s a fairly new pitch and those take a little time to develop. I thought it was very good, though, last night. Out of those 26 pitches, he got 11 swings and six whiffs on it. He had five more called strikes and only three pitches were fouled off. He made a mistake on it to Austin Hays, but this is the good section.

That’s a beautiful pitch. He struggled a bit with command of it early, but I think found it eventually. His changeup was also quite impactful once he found the command of that pitch. The 14 swings he got on it resulted in seven whiffs and one called strike. Five were put in play, but outside of the home run he allowed to DJ Stewart in the first on what was actually a decent enough pitch, he got a ton of weak contact on it.

That pitch just kept coming in on Mullins and really fooled him. And he struck out three batters in the third with three changeups. They were all quite good.

There was a lot of talk on the broadcast about how he didn’t have his changeup and while he got hit on it a little early, I thought his locations were generally fantastic. I see one major mistake and maybe a couple that could have been an inch or two closer to the edge of the zone.

Good Pitches Hit

Sometimes a hitter deserves credit for hitting a good pitch. In the first inning, after he created some trouble (that I’ll get to in a second), I thought he threw a great changeup to Anthony Santander and Santander just went and got it to drive in the first run.

That’s a changeup running away from a lefty and he went down, got it and grounded it through a hole in the shift. He got exactly the result he wanted. Santander tried to pull a pitch he shouldn’t have and hit it on the ground. It just happened to find a hole. Then a really good slider to Hays resulted in a chopper to shortstop that was basically hit perfectly. The run scored and there was no chance at a double play.

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That’s just some tough luck. Of course, the luck wouldn’t have been so tough without walking two hitters right off the bat, but it’s at least fair to recognize good pitches that didn’t work out.

Powering Through It

One of the biggest things a pitcher can learn is how to pitch through issues. The Royals offense isn’t good enough consistently enough to come back, but they missed quite a few opportunities to get back into the game. So after Kowar gave up four in the first inning, he very easily could folded and been done and forced the bullpen into throwing five or six innings. The bullpen is in decent shape, but they wouldn’t have been if Kowar hadn’t been able to get through six innings.

After he gave up the home run to Hays in the third to push the Orioles lead to 6-1, he struck out the next three batters. Then he got the Orioles 1-2-3 in the fourth. He got the first two in the fifth before hitting Hays, but a great catch by Michael A. Taylor got him out of the fifth before he got through the sixth with just his first walk since the first inning. And in that sixth inning, he was still hitting 96 MPH with his fastball on his 103rd pitch.

The final line was ugly. Six runs on five hits with three walks in six innings isn’t what you want to see. But the seven strikeouts and bouncing back from a terrible first is very encouraging. In the words of Whit Merrifield, it’s not all peaches and roses with young pitchers, and in these September starts, it’s important to glean as much good as possible.

You Take the Bad

While it’s important to see the good, any start where you give up six runs in six innings has plenty of bad attached to it.

The Royals have a big problem with walking hitters. There aren’t many teams who walk more than the Royals, and Kowar struggled with that in his first time in the big leagues. He walked five in his first five innings before being sent back down. In this start, he walked the first two batters, and maybe more frustratingly did so on full counts to drive up his pitch count. These first two batters, Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle, were probably the reason the broadcast was so against his changeup early as he walked both of them on changeups.

Overall, you can see how he was all over the place.

Control has a chance to be a problem with him for at least the near future, but he was just having some trouble with putting the ball where he wanted to.

And, of course, bad control isn’t always just pitches outside the zone. His third inning issue started with a changeup that was left just a touch higher than middle-middle. Santander went the other way on it because I think he timed it poorly, but it was still a bad pitch.

It was nothing compared to the home run he allowed, though.

I also hated the pitch selection, for what it’s worth. Three straight sliders was a bad idea. I have no idea why they’d want to throw that pitch to Hays consecutively, especially when he put a good swing on the first one but was out in front of it. They slowed his bat down and then just kept it slow. A high fastball would have been a perfect pitch after two straight sliders. Then a changeup could have been the end of that.

I rarely agree with the broadcast, but I do think it would help if he would speed up his pace a bit with runners on base. I didn’t time it, but it was obvious how much things slowed down when someone got on. I appreciate actually being aware of runners, but that’s something that I think can really help him to get into a better rhythm.

You Take Them Both and There You Have Kowar Last Night

In all, there was more good than bad in the Kowar start, but it just goes to show how detrimental the bad can be. He made two mistakes in the zone in the third and the two walks in the first. When hitters are hitting his pitches too, those mistakes can result in a game like what we saw from Kowar.

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Offense Didn’t Help

For the second straight night, a lefty with little experience and even less in the way of results shut down the Royals lineup. Alexander Wells got some off balance swings and some hard-hit outs, but really the team just couldn’t get anything going. He got some help from Kelvin Gutierrez in the first and gave up his first run on a bloop single by Nicky Lopez.

In the fourth, he left a pitch up that Carlos Santana punished.

It’s nice to see Santana has sort of gotten going now. He’s hitting .273/.333/.591 in his last six games with three extra base hits. A big September would be nice if they try to move him in the winter. After the home run, Andrew Benintendi struck out swinging on a pitch in the spot he got two hits Monday (after hitting .077 there before Monday), but then Edward Olivares and Taylor singled and then Hunter Dozier walked. But Merrifield lined out to left and the bases were left loaded.

Move ahead to the seventh and a Merrified two-out double was wasted, but the eighth was another chance that was basically gifted to them. Salvador Perez led off with a single and after Adalberto Mondesi and Santana made solid contact but made outs, they got a walk from Benintendi (his third straight game with one). Then Olivares picked up an infield single to load the bases. Taylor almost left the bases loaded again, but Gutierrez actually kicked the ball to set up a bases loaded situation with two outs and the tying run at the plate.

And the Royals sent up Ryan O’Hearn. It went predictably.

That’s three changeups and three strikes. It was an especially non-competitive at bat. After starting off with a .324 average and .568 SLG in his first nine games and 37 plate appearances in his return from Omaha, O’Hearn has hit .205/.237/.328 with three home runs. He has a 3.1 percent walk rate and 27.5 percent strikeout rate. I know I probably harp on O’Hearn a little too much, but enough is enough with this experiment. And if you want a bigger sample, he’s now hitting .204/.277/.361 since the start of 2019 in 726 plate appearances. It’s time to be done.

So, in all, it was another frustrating game against the Orioles, who are quite frankly, terrible. But hey, at least there was a lot Kowar can take from his start.


Crown Jewels

Misplaced Anger

Hunter Dozier has had a terrible season. That much is obvious. It hurts me extra after I thought he was ready to have a huge year. That thumb injury caused problems early and he just never got on track outside of a few moments here and there where he had some nice runs. Now he’s hitting at the bottom of the order. But would you believe that since July 1, he has a wRC+ of 91? That’s better than Edward Olivares (90), Emmanuel Rivera (78), Merrifield (77), Santana (69), Benintendi (62) and O’Hearn (48). I get that the situation is different with Dozier. The contract extension was misguided. But as bad as his season has been, there are others worse over the last two plus months.

No, that doesn’t mean it’s time to lay off Dozier, but the Royals seem to be at least recognizing that he shouldn’t be getting as many at bats as he was. He’s hitting ninth now. But Santana (who, yes, may be getting rolling again) and Benintendi have hit in the middle of the order consistently outside of Benintendi hitting eighth the other day. Merrifield has hit at the top of the order every single day. If you want to be upset that Dozier got the contract, I get it, but he is hardly the worst problem on this team offensively.

2022 Pitching

This is going to be a topic for another day in the offseason probably, but something that I think a lot of people (myself included) have forgotten when thinking about next year’s staff is that there’ll probably be a need for more pitchers than we realize. No, we won’t be coming off a 60-game season, but if you look at some of the innings totals of Royals pitchers with 24 games to go, there are pitchers who will not be able to be counted on all season:

  • Brad Keller - 133.2 innings and maybe done for the year

  • Brady Singer - 120.2 innings and probably has four starts left, so he’ll get to a max of 145 or so

  • Daniel Lynch - 108 innings with four more starts puts him at around 135ish

  • Kris Bubic - 104.2 innings and four or so starts to go, so that gets him to a max of 130 or so

  • Jackson Kowar - 97.2 innings with four starts left, which gets him to 125 or so at best

  • Carlos Hernandez - 97 innings and four starts to go which gets him to a max of around 125

They’ll be able to make a jump, but the Royals will rightfully be careful with them. It’s why I wouldn’t be especially surprised if they bring in a veteran and work some of these guys out of the bullpen occasionally. I think Singer could make the jump to 180 innings without the Royals blinking too much, but otherwise, they’ll likely find some ways to get them some time to limit innings here and there. They do have a ton of starting pitching depth still in the minors who can come in and help out, so they’re in good shape, but I think we’re another year away from them being a lot less careful with these younger arms.