Kowar makes strides in strong spring outing
Right-hander hopes offseason tweaks to delivery will yield success in 2022
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Royals right-hander Jackson Kowar would have preferred not to get to a 3-0 count against D-backs prospect Alek Thomas, ranked No. 18 overall by MLB Pipeline, in the second inning of Sunday's Cactus League outing at Surprise Stadium.
But the way that Kowar got out of it speaks to the strides the right-hander believes he made heading into 2022.
Kowar threw two more strikes to get back into the count against Thomas, then dropped in a changeup that froze the left-handed batter for a called strike three. Kowar, who threw two-plus innings and yielded one run on three hits to go with four strikeouts, struck out Geraldo Perdomo swinging to end the second inning.
“Maybe last year, it would have been a couple hits and things would have snowballed away from me there,” Kowar said. “Ideally, I wouldn’t get to 3-0 before I clean back up and get back in timing with my delivery, but I think that’s huge, and then being able to throw an offspeed pitch for a called strike there. Stuff like that, stuff I struggled with last year, was encouraging to see the first game out.”
Sunday was Kowar’s spring debut against a lineup that didn’t feature many of the Arizona regulars, but it did illuminate the emphasis Kowar put on his delivery this offseason, which he spent in the Tampa area with Brad Keller and Brady Singer. Kowar’s focus was simplifying his delivery and lengthening his stride, and it’s apparent watching him throw now that he made significant improvements.
Kowar's delivery is less rotational, his foot is landing farther down the mound, and even when he did get out of sync in the second inning, he was able to correct it in-game and finish the inning throwing strikes.
“I’ve always been fighting going east to west and getting down the mound, so my focus was just getting more linear with my delivery,” Kowar said. “Keeping my delivery in a spot where when I get juiced up in bigger situations, it remains a simple delivery and I don’t get out of it.”
There were times last season where Kowar felt his stride got too short, and his fastball didn’t have as much life to it because he wasn’t getting far enough down the hill before releasing the ball.
If Kowar doesn’t have fastball command, he won’t land his changeup for strikes, either, because hitters will lay off it knowing it will likely land for a ball -- or in the middle of the plate, which leads to monster damage.
Kowar has cues now that allow his stride to lengthen, including with his front half. During his bullpen on Friday, he drew a line in the dirt where he wanted his left foot to land, and he would check after most of his throws to make sure he got there.
“The farther I can see my left foot out there, the better my hand is out front, the better my planes are, the better my extension is, the better my command is,” Kowar said.
Kowar’s live session early last week was the first time Royals hitters and coaches have seen him and the changes he made, and the feedback was positive. He threw strikes, not only with his fastball, but also his changeup, something that he struggled to do during his time with the Royals last season. Hitters were fooled. Catcher Cam Gallagher noticed a significant difference with the strike-throwing. Manager Mike Matheny called it “the best he’s seen” from Kowar.
“That’s always a slippery slope where you can get too long in your stride, but that’s also going to help, and it did help, with his extension,” Matheny said. “Which then adds to the perceptive velocity. It looked like he was finishing pitches out front.”
The stride length also led to an improved slider, something hitters said looked different during Kowar's live session last week. He didn’t use it a ton on Sunday because of how many lefties he faced, but the ones he did throw felt and looked good.
“The better my hand is out front, the easier it is for me to get that slider out front,” Kowar said. “A little bit of both, but the pitch is a little bit newer. I have a much better feel for it. And when my delivery is synced up on time, the feel is that much better.”
All of these improvements come after Kowar’s debut season did not go the way he wanted. The 25-year-old made his debut in June and finished 2021 with an 11.27 ERA across 30 1/3 innings, with 29 strikeouts and 20 walks. It was hard to balance that with his success in Triple-A, where he had a 3.46 ERA with 115 strikeouts in 80 2/3 innings.
But Kowar doesn’t want to be a Triple-A pitcher, and his struggles at the big league level motivated him this offseason.
The start of spring allowed him the reset he’s been looking for since the final day of the 2021 season.
“The longer offseason was a little tough,” Kowar said. “There was a little salty taste in my mouth. And it was nice to have that salty edge. Kind of gave me a little kick in the butt for the offseason. I was really anxious to get back out here.”