KANSAS CITY -- When the Royals returned home from a trip through Oakland and Seattle late last month, Jackson Kowar walked into the pitching office at Kauffman Stadium and was ready to get to work.
The 26-year-old had just walked six batters in 2 1/3 innings against the A’s and Mariners. Something had to change.
“We had been trying to band-aid some things I’ve been struggling with, but at that point, I had walked six guys in two outings,” Kowar said. “What do I have to lose at this point? I think that was the biggest catalyst for it all.”
Pitching coach Brian Sweeney and his team gave Kowar a four-point plan, and he implemented changes in his two appearances against the Pirates. In his past eight appearances since coming home from the West Coast, Kowar has allowed two runs in 9 1/3 innings with just two walks and 10 strikeouts.
That includes another scoreless outing Monday afternoon in the Royals’ 6-4 win over the Guardians at Kauffman Stadium. Kowar entered the game in the eighth, allowed one hit and struck out two with a wild pitch, and exited in line for the win after Kansas City scored four runs in the bottom of the eighth on just one hit -- Drew Waters’ go-ahead double.
“[Kowar has] been my best friend in the world since day one of college,” starter Brady Singer, who gave up four runs on eight hits and two walks in six innings, said. “For him to have confidence in the zone is making him a better pitcher.”
The No. 33 overall pick in 2018, Kowar moved full-time to the bullpen this year after a rough start to his Major League career, with a 10.76 ERA across 16 MLB appearances (eight starts) from 2021-22. But even this year, his fastball wasn’t playing and his command was shaky.
The Royals’ plan included a slight move on the rubber to enhance Kowar's fastball and slider. Originally, he was against moving because he didn’t want to hurt the fade on his changeup, which is his best pitch.
“But we needed to give help to the other pitches,” Kowar said. “I was hard-headed about it at first. But I’ve tried it my way for a while now, and it hasn’t worked out great.”
The move helps Kowar land his slider more in the zone, which led to the next point of the plan: he needed to throw his slider more frequently. Then, he lowered his arm slot and worked on his delivery to hide the ball better.
“He rotates so fast, he throws so hard that his upper body goes toward first base,” Sweeney said. “We want to keep that, but how do we be more compact so he doesn’t lose command? We gave him drills for holding his front side a little longer.”
Both points have the goal of making Kowar's 97-99 mph fastball more deceptive.
“And swings on the fastball have been much worse lately,” Kowar said.
In the eighth inning Monday, Kowar used his slider to get ahead of Gabriel Arias 1-2 before getting him to whiff on an elevated 97.6 mph fastball.
The changes Kowar has made are impressive during the season, even without the success he’s had because of them. Typically, a pitcher will wait until the offseason to make big mechanical changes.
“But the offseason might be too late,” Sweeney said. “We can’t wait. We’ve got to build weapons for these guys so they can get outs at the Major League level and find out what we have here for the future.”
Kowar is out of options in 2024, and he knew he had to change something now rather than later.
James McArthur was in a similar situation when the Royals acquired him May 8 from the Phillies, but changes to his arsenal, including adding a nasty slider, have led to greater success recently.
The righty picked up his first big league win Friday and first big league save Monday -- punctuated by using his slider to get Myles Straw to strike out swinging for the second out in the top of the ninth.
“It’s been a good week, I guess,” McArthur said with a grin.
There is no doubt the Royals need to add to their bullpen this offseason, but what Kowar and McArthur have shown in a very small sample size is that the unit might not have to be completely reconfigured.
Of course, that all hinges on a lot of "what ifs," but if anything, the process is encouraging.
“There will be pieces who emerge. It’s a matter of who’s going to step forward and do it,” general manager J.J. Picollo said over the weekend. “We can talk all we want, but somebody’s got to do it.”