If there’s been one major trend that has eluded the Royals’ young starters this season as they establish themselves in the Majors, one that has led to big innings and early hooks, it’s command of their fastball.
“Fastball command is everything up here,” Jackson Kowar said.
Kowar struggled with it once again in the Royals’ 8-3 loss to the Indians on Monday afternoon at Progressive Field, with the right-hander allowing five runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings. It was Kansas City’s final road game of the 2021 season, with this makeup of last Wednesday’s rainout.
“When he was down with both the fastball and changeup, you saw the swing and miss,” manager Mike Matheny said. “But [he struggled with] fastball command. Same story.”
It hasn’t been an easy road across two stints in the Majors this season for Kowar (0-5), who has yet to earn his first MLB win through seven starts. The Royals have lost six of Kowar’s starts, including the past two.
Kansas City jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning, but Kowar gave it back with two runs in the bottom of the frame. His offense battled back against right-hander Cal Quantrill in the third to tie it, but Kowar allowed a leadoff homer in the bottom of the third to Amed Rosario, who finished 4-for-5 and a triple shy of the cycle.
“I’m getting a little tired of having to come here and say that, and take us out of games,” Kowar said. “There’s only so many times where I grinded or battled. Today, that’s not a battle day. That’s a day where your offense is clicking early and you got to go out there and win your team a game. It’s not a game where you’re battling through and eating innings.
“I got to go out there and do my job. I did not do that today.”
Kowar earned the Royals’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award with a 3.46 ERA for Triple-A Omaha. But that success hasn’t translated over to the Majors yet. Against Cleveland, Kowar issued one walk and he had only one clean inning — the fourth, facing the bottom of the Tribe’s lineup. In that inning, he was able to locate the fastball where he wanted it — especially down and away to Austin Hedges, who grounded out — and drop in a few changeups and sliders.
The rookie’s lack of fastball command comes from a lack of consistency in his delivery — especially with his glove side — which is something Kowar has worked on since being selected No. 33 overall in the 2018 Draft. He flashed filthy stuff on Monday and has throughout time with Kansas City, including his signature changeup that got five whiffs and four called strikes.
But when Kowar can’t keep the fastball or changeup down in the zone, hitters tend to jump on it. He threw three fastballs to start the bottom of the first inning, and the Indians had already knocked two doubles and drove in a run.
“That’s the big leagues,” said catcher Salvador Perez, who drove in two runs to raise his MLB-leading RBI total to 117. “You’re going to face the best hitters in the world. You got to keep the ball down, try not to miss a lot of pitches back to the middle of the plate.
“All these guys, that’s how we’re going to win here, when they learn. [Brady] Singer, Kowar, [Daniel] Lynch… I know he’s young. But [it’s not enough] to be happy to be in the big leagues. Staying in the big leagues, that’s the hard part.”
Kowar likely has one more start before the regular season ends on Sunday. He wants to make the most of it, and he noted that he feels more comfortable with the big league staff and with their plan going into each start.
The 24-year-old is as much a part of the Royals’ future as the rest of their rotation, and he knows exactly what he has to work on between starts.
“This guy’s got such good stuff,” Matheny said. “It’s going to play. He’s going to be able to translate, going to be able to take that good stuff in his work and even the inning or two we see, like we did in the fourth today… It’s fastball command. That’s the name of the game.”