Another Orioles Rookie Is Going Berserk. Can He Stay Berserk?

Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles’ talented young hitter, a former top-five pick, was just named AL Player of the Week. No, not that one. Or that one. Or the other one. Colton Cowser, the no. 5 overall pick in 2021 out of Sam Houston State, went 10-for-23 with four home runs during the six games in question, and in the process became the first Oriole to drive in 10 runs in a single series at Fenway Park.

That’s a pretty solid week at the office, if you ask me. The Orioles have been playing series at Fenway Park for more than 70 years, and in that time nobody had ever driven in 10 runs in one series — a three-game series, no less!

Not to fall into not one but two small-sample traps, but Cowser’s hot start to 2024 could not be in starker contrast to his first major league action, at the end of last season:

Colton Cowser, Then and Now
Season G PA HR BB% K% AVG OBP SLG WAR wRC+
2023 26 77 0 16.9% 28.6% .115 .286 .148 -0.4 40
2024 15 42 4 7.1% 31.0% .395 .429 .868 1.1 265
Through 4/15

Clearly, nobody really thinks Cowser is going to keep slugging .800 for the rest of the season. Any player can put up any stat line over two weeks. Just to give another example of a regression candidate from the same outfield, I’d expect Cowser’s numbers to decline as significantly as I’d expect Austin Hays’ numbers to go up.

But since I’m talking about Hays, Cowser’s emergence puts the Orioles in an interesting spot. Baltimore has either current or potential superstars at catcher and the two middle infield positions; Cedric Mullins is pretty well entrenched in center field. But at first base, DH, and the corner outfield positions — i.e., where Cowser is likely to play — the Orioles are good, but not great.

I’d put it this way: Hays, Anthony Santander, Ryan O’Hearn, and Ryan Mountcastle all posted a wRC+ of 110 or better in at least 300 PA last year. They’re all good enough to keep Cowser out of the lineup if he slips, and they’re well-entrenched. Hays and Santander are the two longest-tenured Orioles, both having debuted with the team in 2017, and Mountcastle — another homegrown player — has been the starter at first base since 2021. But entering 2024, those four players had appeared in at least part of 23 individual seasons in the major leagues, and have not a single 3-WAR season to show for it.

And it’s not just Cowser demanding to toss his hat in the ring for one of these jobs; Heston Kjerstad finally made it to the majors last year and as of this writing has a .361/.438/.770 slash line in Triple-A. His Norfolk teammate, Kyle Stowers, is slugging .667. Eventually, the Orioles are going to have to find a spot for Coby Mayo. And if that spot is third base, that means finding a new home for Jordan Westburg.

Suffice it to say, the Orioles are facing down the beginnings of a logjam. Santander is a free agent after this season, Mountcastle after 2025, but as much as this group of players cries out for consolidation through a trade, it’d be pretty heartless to ship off Santander and/or Mountcastle now. Even for Mike Elias’ Orioles.

So far, Brandon Hyde is doing his best to juggle his five corner guys. Through Baltimore’s first 16 games, Mountcastle and Santander have made 15 appearances, all starts. Hays and Cowser have both gotten into 15 games and O’Hearn 13, through a combination of starts across various positions and pinch-hitting appearances.

So what can Cowser do to force his way through permanently?

Swing-and-miss has always been a problem for Cowser. Last year, he posted a 30.0% whiff rate in Triple-A, which was 253rd out of 348 batters who swung at 400 or more pitches at that level. But when he made contact, it was hard contact. Cowser posted a 47.5% hard-hit rate, 33rd among 463 batters who put at least 100 balls in play. He also walked 16.0% of the time, and while his overall numbers were inflated by a .390 BABIP, you can get away with swinging and missing a lot — even striking out a lot — if you can draw a walk and hit the ball hard when you do make contact.

Compared to last year, Cowser is actually striking out more and walking less at the major league level. The biggest difference so far is his BABIP — .500 this year, through Monday, versus .175 in 2023. And indeed, a couple of Cowser’s hits have been cheapos. My favorite is this ball he hit off the end of his bat, straight into the ground, only to watch it roll perfectly parallel to the third base line, under Maikel Garcia’s glove, and all the way out to left field for a double:

That said, if I were a ballplayer and a genie gave me the choice between the ability to hit 50 homers a year and the ability to do this on command, I’d probably pick door no. 2. The seeing-eye base hit against the shift (ish, nowadays) is such an invigorating play to watch.

But unless Cowser has suddenly been possessed by the spirit of English snooker legend Ronnie O’Sullivan, he’s going to want to take on a more orthodox approach. And indeed, even his inflated BABIP doesn’t take into account four home runs in his first 42 plate appearances, which is in the same ballpark as Sammy Sosa’s 1998 season in terms of HR/PA:

Plate Discipline Numbers
Season Chase% Z-Swing% In-Zone Whiff% In-Zone wOBA In-Zone xwOBA In-Zone Barrel/BBE%
2023 Triple-A 23.9 60.1 19.7 .393 .376 9.0
2023 MLB 20.9 61.8 23.4 .146 .208 3.7
2024 16.7 64.9 26.2 .624 .472 20.0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Through 4/15

So whether you want to call it luck, or just seeing the ball well, Cowser is white-hot at the moment. If he’s still seeing the ball this well in six months’ time — which is unlikely — Cowser should feel comfortable picking out an outfit for his appearance on MLB Network as he’s named the AL MVP.

In more realistic terms, the thing I’m most interested in going forward is whether his extremely low chase rate manifests as selectivity or passivity. A chase rate under 20% is already pretty special; in more than 2,000 qualified hitter seasons since 2010, only about one in 10 features a chase rate that low. Knock that number down under 17%, where Cowser is as of this writing, and you’re talking about one in 100. A lot of the seasons with chase rates in that range came from guys named Soto and Votto. (And also the odd Daric Barton, for those of you who might enjoy remembering some guys.)

Can Cowser keep his eye sharp as pitchers adjust to him hitting like a cross between Jimmie Foxx and Frank Thomas? And if so, is that because he’s good at identifying hittable pitches, or just because he’s not swinging at anything. And if that is the case, how long until pitchers just start feeding him strikes — knowing his in-zone contact rate hasn’t been that great either — and that strikeout rate climbs even further?

Unseating an established starter isn’t easy, but winning AL Player of the Week is a good way to get your foot in the door. Now Cowser has to prove he deserves to stay in the lineup long-term.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

9 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ivan_Grushenkomember
1 month ago

ZiPS projects a .336 BABIP for Cowser, miles ahead of any other Oriole. Maybe he really is Ronnie O’Sullivan.

Philmember
1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I really did not expect any mention of Ronnie O’Sullivan (or any other snooker player for that matter!) on fangraphs today. Saturday is the start of the World Snooker Championships, and I’ll be at the Crucible theatre on Sheffield for the first session – I am pretty excited!

O’Sullivan ready is a brilliant snooker player – one of the things he can do, if he is feeling a bit bored, is start playing snooker left handed. So, I think Cowser should occasionally field with the glove on his right hand occasionally, or bat right handed, just to liven things up.