In 2010, the Angels spent their first-round draft pick on a talented Georgia-high school product by the name of Kaleb Cowart. A switch-hitting third baseman, Cowart performed as expected in the lower levels of the minor leagues, but his production fell off dramatically after a promotion to Double-A in 2013.
After two rough years at that level, Cowart was demoted back down to High-A Inland Empire, which is when he altered his swing and improved his results. And when a vacancy at the hot corner opened in Triple-A Salt Lake, the Angels called upon Cowart.
He proceeded to post the best numbers of his professional career in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, resulting in his first major league call-up in the second half of 2015. But he was overmatched by big-league pitching, posting a miserable .174/.255/.283 line in 52 plate appearances.
In 2016, he again produced in Triple-A, but when he earned another call to the majors, he was even worse than the year prior; he hit just .176 with a .446 OPS and failed to draw a single walk in 87 plate appearances.
But with the Angels searching for production from the second base position, Cowart was given a chance at a new position this year, and he’s made the most of the opportunity.
Through 18 games and 56 plate appearances in the majors in 2017, Cowart is hitting .300/.364/.480 (127 wRC+, where 100 is league average) while maintaining his usual solid defense and baserunning. Of course, this could be nothing more than a hot streak, and his numbers could very easily revert back to where they were a year ago.
But not only has Cowart never had a stretch like this in his short time in the big leagues, he’s made real changes this year; the most immediately noticeable of which is with his swing.
In his setup at the plate, Cowart has “shifted his weight more toward the middle” of his batting stance as opposed to the back of it. And as Angels broadcaster Mark Gubicza has pointed out, the lower, more relaxed placement of his hands has shortened his swing, giving his bat a quicker path to the ball.
And in terms of approach, Cowart has improved considerably. First of all, his plate discipline is the best it’s been. Last year, he chased about 43% of pitches that were out of the strike zone, and this year, that number is down to about 30%, which has contributed to him drawing a walk about 7.1% of the time.
The league-average walk rate this year is 8.5%, so this isn’t a particularly noteworthy feat. However, it is a significant change for Cowart, as it is nearly double the 3.6% walk rate he carried during his first two seasons in the majors.
And he’s not just swinging at bad pitches less often, he’s swinging at pitches in the strike zone slightly less often (72.5% Z-Swing% this year vs. 74.7% last year), too, meaning he’s being more selective. Rather than just swinging at anything in the zone, he’s waiting for the single pitch he can do the most damage to. (For what it’s worth, this is also something Andrelton Simmons cited as a key to his improvement in the batter’s box)
As shown above, Cowart is attacking pitches in the upper third of the zone while being less aggressive on those in the bottom third of the zone. Last year, he swung at about 77% of the high strikes he saw, which was about as often as he swung at pitches low in the zone. But this year, he has opted to swing at 87% of the high strikes and just under 70% of the low ones.
The reason this is significant is because he has had the most success against pitches in the upper part of the strike zone throughout this career. Since he debuted, Cowart is hitting .300 and slugging .533 on pitches up in the strike zone compared to a .250 batting average and a .357 slugging percentage on pitches low in the zone.
In addition, Cowart is swinging and missing less often; his swinging strike rate in 2015 was over 17%, and it is now under 12%. Furthermore, his strikeout rate, which was a bloated 36.5% two years ago, is at a career-low 23.2%.
And all of these improvements have unsurprisingly led to the 25-year-old making better contact overall. Cowart’s hard-hit rate was a measly 20% during his first two years in the big leagues, but it’s now up to about 37% (league average is 32.1%). And whereas just over half of the balls he put in play in his first two seasons were on the ground, only about 43.2% have been this year, which is about average.
Cowart’s scorching numbers through his first week or so in the majors in 2017 were bound to regress due to his out-of-this-world batted ball luck, and they’ve already started to, as he has just five hits in 29 at-bats this month to go with an unlucky .211 batting average on balls in play.
Despite that, though, the changes he has made at the plate this year suggest that he is capable of much more than what he displayed in his first 139 big-league plate appearances. And with his value in the field and on the bases already proven, sustained offensive production would make Cowart, who once looked like a first-round bust, an immensely valuable player to the Angels moving forward, as he is a potential long-term solution at second or third base.