The Royals famously went pitching-heavy at the top of the 2018 Draft, taking college arms with their five picks that June. Brady Singer (18th overall pick) and Kris Bubic (40th) both reached the Majors for the first time last year. Daniel Lynch (34th) debuted in The Show last month.
Time to add a fourth name to that list.
Right-hander Jackson Kowar – MLB Pipeline’s No. 97 overall prospect and the 33rd overall pick in that 2018 Draft – is scheduled to make his Major League debut Monday night for Kansas City on the road against the Angels.
The 24-year-old right-hander earned the jump to the Majors by simply being one of the most dominant arms at Triple-A through the first month of the Minor League season. Kowar leads qualified Triple-A pitchers with a 0.85 ERA, 1.94 FIP and .165 batting average against through six starts (31 2/3 innings) for Omaha. With 41 K’s, he struck out 33.9 percent of the batters he faced for the fifth-best punchout rate at the Minors’ top level.
Kowar hasn’t allowed more than one earned run in any of his six outings and has yet to give up a homer in 2021. He last pitched Wednesday, when he struck out five and allowed one hit over five scoreless innings against Iowa.
The former University of Florida star’s ascension goes beyond the numbers, of course. Kowar has shown a well-rounded arsenal during his time in the Minors. He can touch the high-90s and will typically sit a little below that with his fastballs during starts, and the Royals have come away impressed with how the velocity and command of the heater have progressed, starting at last year’s alternate site and continuing into this year’s play at Triple-A East.
His changeup, however, easily receives the best scouting grades and is considered a plus-plus pitch. The mid-80s offering can be devastating because of the deception off the fastball and its impressive fade. It’s a big reason why left-handers only batted .087 with 20 strikeouts and no extra-base hits in 51 plate appearances off Kowar during his time with the Storm Chasers. Compare that to right-handed hitters, who have a .222/.300/.270 line with three doubles over 70 plate appearances against the same-side arm.
The separator – and a big reason why Kowar is arriving with Kansas City at this stage – is his curveball. Since his days in Gainesville, the 6-foot-5 right-hander’s breaker has been a distant third pitch to his fastball and change, but it was always going to be the one that would decide whether and where he could feature in a Major League rotation. The Royals believe the development of the curve, which includes improving its spin and break, has kicked Kowar to a new level, both literally and figuratively.
“When you start mixing in feel for and consistency with the curveball, and now he’s throwing 97 and he’s got a wipeout changeup, that gets really hard on hitters,” assistant general manager of player personnel J.J. Picollo told MLB.com’s Anne Rogers last week. “And that’s what he’s done. It’s been a nice run he’s been on, and he’s certainly making strides and making us believe that he’s inching closer to the Major Leagues.”
Inching closer has now turned into an official arrival.
It’s worth noting that the Royals have varying levels of success with bringing up their top pitching prospects in the last two years. Singer continues to be a full-fledged member of the rotation since his arrival very early in 2020. Bubic has worked his way back into the starting group with promising results after being optioned back to the Minors in April. Lynch – MLB Pipeline’s No. 23 overall prospect – gave up 14 earned runs across three starts (eight innings) in the Majors before he was returned to Omaha on May 14. (Jonathan Bowlan, the fifth pitcher in that 2018 group, recently underwent Tommy John surgery before he could reach the top level.)
Their successes and bumps in the road don’t completely tell us about who Kowar will be in his look at The Show on Monday and beyond, though. In his case, this is an opportunity for one of the Minors’ most dominant pitchers of 2021 – with the arsenal to back it up – to add his own chapter to the book on the Royals’ Class of 2018.