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Jackson Kowar to be promoted to KC, will start Monday

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Another pitcher from the 2018 draft class makes the big leagues

Jackson Kowar pitching May 4, 2021 (Minda Haas Kuhlmann photo)

Manager Mike Matheny announced that top pitching prospect Jackson Kowar will be promoted to Kansas City and will start Monday against the Los Angele Angels. Jakob Junis will be optioned to Triple-Omaha. The Royals will have to make a 40-man roster move to add Kowar.

Kowar had dominated at Omaha with a minuscule ERA of 0.85 with 41 strikeouts and 10 walks in 31 2/3 innings and a 5-0 record in six starts. He last started on Wednesday, June 2, throwing five scoreless innings, allowing just one hit, and going 70 pitches. He was named Triple-A East pitcher of the month for May.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kowar will become the fourth pitcher from their 2018 draft class to make a start for the Royals this season, making them just the fourth team to have four pitchers from one draft class make a start, joining the 1995 Mets (Bobby Jones, Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen, Jason Jacome), 1995 White Sox (Alex Fernandez, James Baldwin, Jason Bere, Rod Bolton), and 2018 Cardinals (Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver, Austin Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon).

Drafted from the University of Florida with teammate Brady Singer, Kowar closed out the team’s first-ever College World Series championship game. The right-hander’s college career wasn’t as celebrated as Singer’s, but it had plenty of highlights in itself. Kowar closed out the 2017 title game, a 4-1 win over conference rival LSU but that wasn’t his only CWS highlight. The following season the right-hander finished his college career with a career-high 13 strikeout performance against Texas to avoid elimination in the College World Series.

The Royals selected Kowar with the 33rd overall selection, paying him $2.15 million to join the organization. While the front office decided to rest his college teammate Singer, they decided to send out Kowar to Low-A Lexington. It was a slow start for the right-hander after a bit of time off after his college season, slowly ramping up for Lexington as they prepared for their playoffs. Kowar showed he could up his performance for a championship in the playoffs, much like he did for Florida. Making two starts of five innings each with just one run allowed to help Lexington win the South Atlantic League title. The following season Kowar put in a solid if unspectacular season, managing similar numbers at High-A and Double-A in his 26 starts. The right-hander upped his strikeout total at the higher level while putting up a 3.51 ERA for the Naturals after a 3.53 effort for Wilmington.

The 2020 season was lost for some, but Kowar, like many other teammates, spent time at the alternate site. While Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto, and Daniel Lynch earned heaping amounts of praise, not much was said about Kowar during the year as he tried to refine his stuff. That down year was about improving Kowar’s curveball, the distinct third pitch that had kept him behind draftmates Brady Singer and Kris Bubic. The hints of the curveball improving have shown itself at Triple-A for Omaha in 2021 and the results have come with it.

Measuring in at 6’5 200 lbs with a very quick arm, Kowar presents the classic starter body and profile. The jewel of his repertoire has always been a wicked changeup that his father, a former minor league pitcher, taught him. The changeup has elements of the Pedro Martinez change with its late life and arm slot, which should not be a surprise, considering Pedro was also his favorite player growing up. The pitch is 84 to 88 mph with late horizontal life at the higher velocity and sink at the lower speeds. The spin averages around 2400 rpm on the pitch and can resemble a left-handed slider at times with its late life, making it a monster pitch that he can use against hitters on both sides of the plate.

His fastball velocity this season has been 94-99 mph throughout his starts hitting, 99 mph late in multiple starts. He has increased the spin rate on the pitch, getting it into the neighborhood of 2350 rpm, which helps with its carry to the zone. In the past, it was more of a sinker to get groundball outs, but the increase in spin has helped him start to miss more bats at the higher levels. The curveball has been the distinct third pitch, and it remains that, but he’s started to get more confidence in the pitch this season. He struggled to find a feel for it in past seasons and lacked confidence using it mainly as a show me early pitch count offering to steal a strike. This season the pitch is tighter, he’s able to work it low in the zone and duck it out late to earn swing and miss. The pitch still isn’t better than an average offering, but it is better than in years past, and he’s started to use it as an out pitch while giving hitters a different look with the high 70s velocity. The control and command of the pitches are average with more control. One of the keys to the changeup is that he gains movement and command later in outings with it.

When the Royals drafted Kowar, I thought he was the highest upside of the group and still believe he has those qualities. I like some started to lack in my belief of the curveball coming forward, but what he’s shown this season is better movement and control of that pitch. The fastball is a 55/60 fastball with its velocity and increased spin rate, while the changeup is a 70 offering.

Baseball America ranks Kowar as the #77 prospect in all of baseball, writing at the beginning of the year he “has a plus fastball and double-plus changeup. Now, it’s about getting his curveball to its average ceiling.” Last week, Kevin Goldstein of Fangraphs noted a change with Kowar, writing his breaking ball “has gone from fringy-at-best to perfectly average in terms of spin and shape.”

Should he continue to improve on the curveball, then he’s got the makings of an upper-of-the-rotation starter with all the tools to become a top-notch starter in the major leagues. The difference between a #1 like Pedro, Strasburg, or others is often their killer instinct and demeanor or be the best. I don’t know if Kowar has that, but he does have the tools to become a leader of the Royals rotation on pure raw stuff.