Meet the Orioles' latest dynamic duo

Adley, Gunnar aren’t the only young stars in Baltimore’s lineup

April 28th, 2024

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Orioles have a reputation for developing young, quality big league hitters.

and have already blossomed into young stars -- and (MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 overall prospect) -- could certainly get there sometime soon. But the young talent doesn’t stop there -- not even close.

In addition to Holliday, the Orioles have three other position players in MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 prospects: C/1B (No. 16), 1B/3B (No. 27) and OF (No. 29). What’s made the Orioles future look even brighter, however, is the progression of two young players who already graduated off the Top 100 prospects list that are taking major strides at the big league level this season.

and both debuted in 2023 for the Orioles but had wildly different experiences. Westburg (No. 74 prospect entering the '23 season) roughly produced like a league-average player in a 68-game stint, posting a 97 wRC+ while playing multiple infield positions. Meanwhile, Cowser (No. 40 prospect) struggled mightily with a 40 wRC+ and no homers in 26 games.

Both players grew from their 2023 experiences and have taken those lessons to become two of the most valuable Orioles players so far in ‘24. The dynamic duo recently became the first Orioles players to win AL Player of the Week in consecutive weeks since did so in 1981.

The following numbers are entering Sunday's games.

Westburg: Mechanical tweaks and buying into the Orioles Way

In the case of Westburg, the 25-year-old is hitting .304/.360/.543 and is one of baseball’s top position players this season. Among 182 qualified players, Westburg ranks in the top 20 in FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (1.3) and wRC+ (162). Perhaps just as important, Westburg is earning every bit of his production according to several Statcast metrics.

Among hitters with at least 50 batted balls, Westburg is tied for the 14th-best average exit velocity (93.3 mph) and boasts the ninth-best hard-hit rate (58.2%). Some of the names ahead of Westburg in hard-hit percentage (batted balls with 95-plus mph exit velocity) include , , Henderson and .

Westburg -- drafted 30th overall by Baltimore in the 2020 MLB Draft -- referenced an Orioles' organizational philosophy that is hammered home when young players enter the organization. From the start, Orioles hitters are taught to make positive swing decisions and produce hard contact at optimal angles for maximum damage.

“As soon as you get drafted [by the Orioles], it’s about swing decisions, swinging at the right pitches, hitting the ball at good angles -- the 5-to-30-degree launch angles -- [which leads to] balls that are on a line and have a good chance to leave the yard,” Westburg told a group of reporters before a recent game.

Westburg was already a highly touted prospect and produced quite well as a rookie in 2023, but that didn’t mean there weren’t changes over the offseason. Westburg identified a mechanical change that essentially simplified his approach before he even made his swing.

“I don’t know what to call it but other than a bat wiggle, but there was a lot of movement with the barrel like when I wanted to make my forward move,” Westburg said about his mechanics in 2023. “Just making a conscious effort to keep that bat head still and make it one fluid motion to the baseball.”

Westburg was influenced by Henderson -- who is more than two years younger than him -- based on his posture before making his swing.

“Henderson was [a big influence]. Not going to lie. I talked with [Orioles co-hitting coach] Ryan Fuller this offseason. I’m trying to blend Jordan Westburg and Gunnar Henderson,” Westburg said. “Gunnar is up tall, super athletic and a little more tight with his hands. I was probably a little too loose at times and with that barrel wiggle, it just wasn’t timing itself up right. Just looking at Gunnar, it looks like he’s always ready to hit.”

Westburg referenced Henderson and veteran first baseman Ryan O’Hearn -- who has also taken a huge step forward since being acquired by the Orioles before the ‘23 season -- as guys with simplified, upright approaches that help cover big velocity at the top of the zone.

Westburg has noticeable swing and miss in his game -- his 35.6% whiff rate places him in the sixth percentile of hitters -- but he's offset that with an above-average 18.8% strikeout rate and an incredible .990 OPS with two strikes (tops among hitters with 40 plate appearances reaching two strikes). While he likely won't maintain that OPS with two strikes, Westburg had prided himself on his situational hitting dating back to college.

"It started in college at Mississippi State. The offensive philosophy was to be a tough out, focus on two-strike hitting and when there’s a chance to score a runner, score a runner whether that’s a groundout or a flyout. A sac bunt, anything," Westburg said. "I’ve tried to make that a part of my game since being drafted. I took a lot of pride in the year [2022], when I drove in 100 runs in the Minors. When I get those opportunities up here, I want to be laser-focused and have a plan and do whatever is needed.”

If Westburg can take more aggressive hacks early in the count for maximum damage and change his approach with two strikes, it makes him a multi-dimensional hitter who can adjust and a tough guy to game plan for.

Cowser: Being more aggressive while maintaining strong discipline

Like Westburg, Cowser debuted last season as a top O’s prospect. Unlike his teammate, though, Cowser struggled -- albeit in a small sample. What the Orioles are seeing this year is the version they always envisioned Cowser -- the No. 5 overall pick by the Orioles in the 2021 Draft -- could turn into.

Cowser -- AKA The Milk Man -- has hit the cover off the baseball in ‘24 with a 199 wRC+ and .672 SLG, which are top five marks among hitters with at least 70 plate appearances. Cowser might be playing a bit over his head -- he’s running a .405 BABIP and 32.9% strikeout rate -- but there are promising signs here.

Cowser also follows “The Orioles Way” in terms of swing decisions and optimal contact but there was a message coming into the season: you can be more aggressive.

“I feel like I’ve always had good swing decisions, but if I’m going to be honest -- this year for me -- I haven’t had the greatest swing decisions,” Cowser recently told, albeit just before he recorded the first three-walk game of his career last Wednesday. “But I think coming into this year, I was trying to be more aggressive. They told me I could sacrifice a little on the swing decisions to be a little more aggressive on some pitches.”

Opting to let it rip more often seems like a worthwhile choice for Cowser and the Orioles. The 24-year-old Cowser ranks in the 93rd percentile or better in expected wOBA (.401), expected SLG (.584) and barrel rate (18.6%). After not homering in 77 plate appearances in his debut season in '23, Cowser has homered six times in 76 plate appearances this year -- including four in the week he took home AL Player of the Week honors.

Even better, Cowser has been more aggressive on hittable pitches without sacrificing his plate discipline. Cowser is walking 10.5% of the time and running an 82nd percentile chase rate but he's swinging at more pitches in the heart of the zone. After swinging at only 65.2% of meatball pitches (think middle-middle pitches) in 2023, that number has jumped to 84.2% this year.

Whereas Westburg made some fairly significant mechanical changes heading into the season, Cowser's improvements were mostly due to a different approach and learning experiences from his debut in 2023.

“It wasn’t necessarily big changes, but there are always things to work on. I think I kind of had a normal offseason and took some big league experience," Cowser said about what changed coming into the season. "I think it was good to have some downtime to reflect upon it and understand what was going on when it came to mentality and confidence."

The Orioles already entered the season as one of the top teams with an incredibly bright future. With the development of both Westburg and Cowser, the long-term outlook only looks better.

While it'd be hard-pressed to expect Westburg and Cowser to continue their current production, it's clear that these are two quality big leaguers and possible stars who will make the Orioles one of the best teams in baseball moving forward.