AL East champions' latest 'great dude' has arrived with Colton Cowser off to .400 start

BALTIMORE – To virtually no one’s surprise, a frontrunner for American League Rookie of the Year is once again emerging from Camden Yards.

Yet in a testament to the Baltimore Orioles’ startling player-development assembly line, it is not Jackson Holliday.

No, the consensus No. 1 prospect in Major League Baseball is struggling in his first trip around the big leagues, with just one hit in his first 25 at-bats. Instead, it is Colton Cowser who is following in the footsteps of reigning AL rookie winner Gunnar Henderson in more than one way.

Cowser, the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft, has banged his way into an everyday role, with an early line  - .400, a .429 on-base percentage, a 1.229 OPS – that has all the caveats of mid-April attached, yet comes with underlying statistics that portend another superstar budding in Baltimore.

“What does he profile as?” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde wondered on Wednesday. “Someone who can do a little bit of everything – give you a good at-bat every time, have a chance to go deep, to take a walk, to run the bases well and play three spots in the outfield.”

In short?

“That’s a really good major league player.”

He lacks the fanfare that preceded Henderson, Holliday and All-Star catcher Adley Rutschman’s arrival in the big leagues. Yet it’s best you know about Cowser now, lest those early numbers normalize and another star emerges as the Orioles aim to defend their AL East title:

Colton Cowser runs the bases in a game against the Twins at Camden Yards.
Colton Cowser runs the bases in a game against the Twins at Camden Yards.

Try, try again

Prospect lists are fun, and often instructive, and it’s an honor to be included in any credible outfit’s top 100 list. Yet such platitudes are no help when you’re standing in the box, facing major league pitching for the first time.

Cowser has no shortage of examples to follow in his home clubhouse.

It begins with Henderson, who debuted at 21 in August 2022, homered in his first game and after a nifty 34-game debut was handed a starting job for 2023.

And promptly batted .189 with 29 strikeouts in the season’s first month.

“It’s definitely tough in the beginning, especially when you’re not doing so well because you want to help the team win,” says Henderson. “You’re going through it every day and trying to embrace the ups and downs. But it feels like you’re in that down for a while, especially in the beginning.

“But having that support group around you and being able to be aware of what you need rather than continuing to get down on yourself is the biggest thing.”

For Henderson, that support group was helmed by Rutschman, and he finished with 28 homers and an .814 OPS.

Now, it is Henderson who reminds youngsters like Cowser and infielder Jordan Westburg that this big league thing isn’t always easy.

Cowser learned that last season, when he was one of a handful of blue chip prospects to graduate from their Class AAA club in Norfolk (Virginia) to Baltimore. A division title was in sight and playoff roster spots in the offing when Cowser made his major league debut on July 5, notching his first major league hit in Yankee Stadium.

And then, nothing.

In 77 big league plate appearances, Cowser did not hit a home run and contributed just two doubles, startling numbers for a guy who produced 55 and 57 extra-base hits at the minor league level the past two seasons. He batted .115 with 27 strikeouts – a 28.5% K percentage – before he was optioned back to Class AAA for good on Aug. 11.

The elite plate discipline that produced a .460 OBP at Sam Houston State and .420 in the minors was almost a drawback at the highest level. Major league pitchers bury you when you let them dig a two-strike hole, a lesson best learned on sheepish walks back to the dugout.

“You have to understand that, accept that,” says Cowser. “I feel every level I started at, I got off to a slow start. Continue to trust that and put in the work and trust the process.”

So he consulted nearly constantly with Orioles hitting coaches in the off-season, and a simple plan emerged: Attack.

“He’s definitely more aggressive this year than last year. He realized he was 0-2 every count when he first got here last year, and then he started being overly aggressive and then had a tough time kind of finding that balance.

“I think he did a really good job this offseason talking with our hitting guys, simplifying his approach, and understanding what he can and can’t handle, when to be aggressive.”

While the sample is small, the results are enticing.

In 20 at-bats after an 0-1 count this year, Cowser is batting .450 (9 for 20) with three doubles; he was 3 for 32 (.094) with one double and two walks in 35 plate appearances last season.

Cowser’s Statcast metrics are early-season absurd, as he ranks in at least the 93rd percentile in a half-dozen categories, most notably hard-hit and barrel percentages (93% and 95%, respectively).

Attack, indeed.

“I definitely think there’s a balance,” says Cowser. “I think sometimes, still, depending on the game, I’ll think I can hit every pitch. I’ll see it early, and be like, ‘Oh, I think I can go with that,’ and it turns out I won’t hit it.

“Just continue to be aggressive in the zone. It’s OK if I’m slugging the ball, OK to be aggressive. These things kind of go hand in hand.”

Colton Cowser and Gunnar Henderson during a game against the Twins.
Colton Cowser and Gunnar Henderson during a game against the Twins.

Second wave of Dudes

To the uninitiated, the Orioles clubhouse can be a confusing haze of youth, with all these Gunnars and Jacksons and Coltons coalescing, with draft years and birth certificates only complicating the matter.

To wit: Rutschman, the 2022 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up, and Henderson represent the 2019 draft wave, selected two entire years ahead of Cowser.

Yet it’s now Cowser who’s the rookie, at 24, while Henderson’s still just a 22-year-old chap, his Rookie of the Year trophy already collecting dust.

Westburg and slugger Heston Kjerstad – currently destroying Class AAA pitching (seven homers, 1.122 OPS) at Norfolk are 25-year-old 2020 draftees. The third wave will led by power-hitting infielders Coby Mayo (22, 2020 high school draftee) and Connor Norby (23, 2021 draftee), both also in AAA.

“It’s a testament to the guys the Orioles brought in – great dudes outside of great baseball players,” says Henderson. “It’s been really fun to spend time with each and every one of them, because they’re just great dudes and you enjoy being around them and that’s what makes our clubhouse great.

“A clubhouse full of great dudes and you can have genuine conversations with them and being able to do that every day allows you to have fun at the ballpark.”

Oh, it’s plenty fun.

The Orioles lead the major leagues with 30 home runs and, in a nod to their youthful mien, have upgraded their "homer hose" to a "hydration station." The two concepts merged seamlessly when veteran outfielder Cedric Mullins hit a two-run, walk-off home run to beat Minnesota on Wednesday, and then chugged from the hydration station as he stepped on home plate.

Yet no one's produced more waterworks than Cowser, whose 10 extra-base hits lead the team.

His recent AL Player of the Week honor commemorated a stretch in which he homered in four consecutive games and ripped four doubles in a 10-for-23 rampage. The carnage included a 10-RBI series at Fenway Park and a couple stolen bases, for kicks.

“He’s still a really young hitter and he’s going to have his ups and downs,” says Hyde, “but these last eight or nine days have been unbelievable.”

The comfort level hasn’t hurt, says Cowser, who has only competed alongside many of his fellow baby birds in instructional league or a smattering of spring games.

“I didn’t necessarily play with those guys in the minor leagues,” says Cowser, “but I’m really close with them, and it’s awesome,” he says. “It causes a really nice comfortable aspect in the clubhouse and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year.”

Bovine basher

It’s tough to miss Cowser’s plate appearances at Camden Yards. The assembled throngs will begin mooing as he leaves the on-deck circle, a cheap yet nifty pun on his last name.

The goofiness is appropriate: Cowser gets a little looser than many of his more straitlaced peers, though he only acknowledges that he’s just trying to keep things light, ever the rookie waiting for his feet to plant firmly on the ground for good.

That day seems to be getting closer, with every hard-hit ball and every bovine serenade from the crowd.

“He’s a big personality,” says Henderson. “And he’ll let you know every day.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colton Cowser, the Orioles' latest 'great dude,' off to a .400 start