From the Minor League Ball mailbag
I, and many others possibly, would love to see what you have to say about Angels prospect Kaleb Cowart. I cannot think of any other recent cases where a prospect struggled at a level, severely struggled in this case for quite some time, but still advanced and turned into a good pro. I know some prospects have completely skipped levels, moving from Low A to AA for example.
But this is different. He has not gotten close to solving AA and his struggles in AA seem like something that he needs to solve. But could he really turn into what we thought we were getting as if he never even struggled in AA for over 2 years? Would love to hear if you have noticed anything new in his approach or are we just seeing a kid who has found his confidence again?---Ryan B.
The Cowart case is certainly unusual. Drafted in the first round in 2010 from high school in Georgia, he played reasonably well at the lower levels but saw his hitting collapse after moving up to Double-A in 2013, where he hit just .221/.279/.301 for Arkansas. 2014 wasn't much better: .223/.295/.324.
There was talk of Cowart becoming a pitcher but the Angels gave him one more shot as a hitter this spring, sending him down to High-A Inland Empire in an attempt to rebuild his confidence in the friendly California League. The results there weren't too hot: .242/.326/.387 in 51 games.
However, when a spot opened up at Triple-A Salt Lake in June Cowart got the call. Suddenly he's hitting again: .336/.406/.521 through 41 contests with an 18/39 BB/K in 140 at-bats for the Bees.
You're right, Ryan: Cowart never figured out Double-A and in fact he wasn't exactly thriving back in the Cal League this spring. So how do we explain the production burst in Triple-A? Some points to consider:
***Salt Lake is a strong hitter's park in a strong hitter's league. That certainly is helpful.
***However, his home/road splits are close to even, plus the Cal League is just as good for hitting as the PCL and the pitching isn't as experienced down there. It seems very strange that he's doing better in Triple-A than he did in A-ball, but he is, and the friendly home park simply can't be the only factor.
***He's hit great in both June (.322/.406/.542) and July (.346/.407/.506) and has shown no signs of slowing down yet.
***His BABIP for Salt Lake is incredibly high at .434, some 160 points higher than 2013 and 2014. There's got to be some good luck there.
***Scouting reports have shifted. Multiple PCL observers indicate that he's showing better strike zone judgment than 2013 or 2014. Additionally, Mike DiGiovanna in the most recent issue of Baseball America writes that Cowart altered his swing mechanics this spring, going back to the more upright stance he used in high school and the lower minors.
***Texas League observers last year noted that Cowart seemed to play "tight" and tried too hard when things weren't going well, which was most of the time. He is reportedly more relaxed this year.
***Cowart is still just 23 years old and while a sudden improvement after struggling for two years isn't hugely typical, it isn't impossible or unprecedented either.
My best guess is that Cowart's production burst is based on a combination of a better approach, some mechanical changes, and good luck in the hitter-friendly PCL. Of course it is very difficult to untangle the exact balance of factors, how much is luck and how much is genuine improvement.
The changes (both technical and psychological) do seem to be real but the hard part will be maintaining those changes. It is very easy for a hitter to fall back into bad habits or to fail to adjust once the pitchers adjust to his current modifications, or to start pressing and tinker too much when the inevitable BABIP slump comes.
Bottom line: Cowart has restored his prospect status enough to prevent a conversion to mound work, but let's see how things look after another five weeks of baseball before pronouncing him completely cured of his troubles. The Salt Lake run is promising, but we need more data.