Kaleb Cowart is a thing again. Crazy, right? Our former first-rounder-turned-upper minors-flameout, the bane of Eddie Bane, is now a major leaguer! 5th Starter provided some early intel with his excellent daily farm reports, detailing Cowart’s offensive resurgence in the PCL and expanding defensive flexibility around the infield (Shortstop? Really?). But who among us really predicted the Double-A-flameout leaping to the majors this year? Go Cowart!
I won’t bury the lead here: Cowart is good again simply because he’s hitting the ball harder and farther than at any time since 2012. The improvement derives from tweaks in approach and swing mechanics (including the reintegration of a leg kick that we questioned here). Nevertheless, before getting to the gist of what’s changed in his batted ball profile, let’s run through the plate discipline information to see what, if any, significant changes have occurred there.
Cowart’s Double A career was a disaster. Like, a Rev-teeing-off-on-Hamilton level disaster. Yet the problem didn’t really show up in the classic Moneyball numbers, like K% / BB%. Through those two dismal years, Cowart fanned 22% of the time, and walked 8% of the time. So, he struck out less than three times for every free pass, which is just about average for the league. That's no great shakes, but for a guy just able to purchase his own Natty Ice in the upper minors, they were solid, indicating that he never entirely gave away control of the zone or suffered from massive holes in his swing. He even improved somewhat after 2013, when he ranked in the 80th percentile in pitches swung and just the 33rd percentile in contact rate, becoming entirely average in those categories in 2014. Plenty of power-hitting peers have put together quality major league careers with worse plate discipline indicators.
The real problem was that Cowart wasn’t much of a power hitter, despite the scouting reports touting the loud raw tool. From the left side—the side that counts—Cowart hit the ball on the ground 53% of the time on contact while managing a putrid .090 isolated power mark with the Travelers. Things didn’t begin so differently in in 2015, when, demoted to High A, Cowart again posted a well-above-average 55% groundball rate. Those are the rates of a slap-hitting leadoff type, not the slugger that folks hoped Cowart would evolve into.
Then, in search of a decent left-handed bat to plug into the mediocre first half offense, the Halos called up Kyle Kubitza and opened up a spot for Cowart with the Bees. He had already begun hitting better--.320/.422/.467 in the 20 games before finally making it to Salt Lake--but at the time it appeared just a reshuffling of organizational pawns.
Then the bizarre happened: Kaleb Cowart mashed. His strikeout rate increased and is trending towards worrisome—more on that below—but he killed the ball on contact, and walked a bit more besides.
For you visual folks out there, here’s a comparison of Kaleb’s Texas League spray charts compared to his PCL work. I only included his left-handed hitting charts, because like everyone else, he’s a different hitter when you turn him around. And really, given the probable strengths of Halos’ present and future rosters, who cares about what he does against lefties.
First, here's what he did in AA, courtesy of www.MLBfarm.com (a wonderful, wonderful site!)
And the AAA spray chart:
See what's happening there?
Honestly, I didn’t. When I see these charts in other articles, I glaze over, but maybe the visually gifted among you can see the full glory of Cowart's evolution. For the rest of us, here are the important numbers.
Cowart’s balls in play profile changed dramatically in the PCL. His groundball rate plunged by 10%. His linedrive and flyball rates each kicked up by 7%. He basically stopped popping out. Overall, the number of balls launched in the air, both up-the-middle and to his pull-side (you know, the ones that do damage), increased by 18%. So, since June 12th, Cowart has hit balls where successful mashers typically mash. That’s real, substantive change. While that kind of shift in batted ball profile happens with some frequency for most minor league hitters in the ebb and flow of pro ball, it’s a new thing for Cowart, who’s been remarkably consistent in his suckitude over the past two years.
Not only has his batted ball profile shifted to more balls hit in the air up the middle and to his pull side, but those balls have done more damage. In the Texas League, Kaleb Cowart launched airborne baseballs to centerfield 17% of the time on contact, and batted only .315/.438 on those balls. In the PCL, he whacked linedrives and flyballs to center with 29% of his contact, hitting .563/.938. In AA, he pulled the ball in the air just 11% of the time, hitting .443/.836; in the PCL, that it's increased to 17% and .842/1.737 respectively. The shift came at the expense of weak "roll over" contact to the left side of the infield or pop-ups, which that weighed him down in the Texas League. Even on the groundballs that he still pulled, he’s now hitting .323. Undoubtedly, much of this success is a PCL gift. Luck be a lady, and all that. I mean, who’s going to sustain a .422 BABIP? Nevertheless, the profound shift in the ball's direction and elevation off of his bat bodes well for Cowart’s future success.
So what's to make of this? Efren Navarro is posting a .338/.390/.468 slash with the Bees in 2015, he boasts a solid approach, and hits linedrives at a crazy rate; but his only really notable minor league work with the stick took place in the PCL, like Cowart, and it hasn’t really translated to MLB success. Does two-plus months of mashing in thin air, against an increasingly thin slate of PCL arms, translate directly into big MLB numbers?
Probably not. He’s still not showing isolated power marks in the PCL that we typically associate with future MLB mashers (C.J. Cron currently owns a .344 iso in AAA; last year, back in 2013, Kole Calhoun put up a .263 iso). His Triple A k-rate is consistent with what I feared back in 2012, when I compared his rookie ball whiffs to some disappointing comps. Strikeout issues in the rookie leagues typically reemerge as strikeout issues in the majors, which means that Cowart’s floor in the MLB remains pretty low. He could be well below replacement level.
Yet the salient point here is that, for the first time in two and a half years, he’s hitting like a guy with an MLB ceiling.
Cowart literally never hit anything out to center in the Texas League (the HR that you can see in the spray chart above is inside the park), but he's done it twice already in the PCL. And I don't know about you, but nothing about the above shot looks cheap.
With how gifted he is athletically and defensively, Cowart doesn’t have to post an .800 OPS to be valuable to the major league club. He’s already a plus defender at the hot corner—better than any internal option other than maybe Sherman Johnson—and has dabbled in shortstop and outfield over the past year. He may yet see time at the keystone. He has some speed in the basepaths. Looming large behind that present value remains the largely untapped raw power potential that scouts have projected since the beginning. All of which makes for a pretty nifty ball player, even if his RC+ never pushes much about league average. He'll have to keep the K-monster in check while continuing to lift the ball like he did in the PCL, but if he can do those things he'll have a big league career. And maybe, just maybe a good one.
***Ok, on a personal note. Like many of you, I struggle to integrate my fascination/obsession with baseball into everyday life. Over the last three years, time that I devote to the hobby increasingly feels like it comes at the expense of time with my own kids and/or time on my day job, pursuits that feature the feeling that one could always do more, provide more, etc. They are open-ended. I'm always looking for a way to make this time-consuming hobby harmonize with my primary pursuits.
At any rate, I'm trying to integrate baseball writing more into my non-baseball life. Below are two 'Donors Choose' projects that I've put together for the urban high school that I've worked in these past five years. The first is for a storage and charging cart for chromebooks, which I'm hoping to have available for my incoming students right off the bat in a couple of weeks (I used a onetime contract settlement windfall that I received last year to purchase 20 refurbished laptops. I just need a secure place to put them). The second is for the SPED department, which usually gets shafted out of a sufficient number of calculators that they need to get our most at-risk students through Algebra. I know that we all have our pet projects, but I would love it if you could help me out with these
***Also, both projects below come with a matching grant that extends only for the next day and a half. So, if you gave $20, you would in fact be helping me purchase $40 in materials! Just enter the code "SPARK" on the payment page (the field is front and center). Links below:
Thanks for at least considering! And welcome to the majors, Caleb! I mean, Kaleb!