Royals Rundown: Young arms experience rough starts to major-league careers

Todd Fertig
Special to The Capital-Journal
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jackson Kowar, center, is taken off the mound during the first inning of Monday's game against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, Calif. Kowar lasted just two outs and surrendered four runs in his major league debut.

Three years ago last week, the Kansas City Royals were basking in the glow of an amateur draft that netted them four college pitchers within the first 40 picks. 

For a franchise just beginning to admit that an overhaul was necessary, a haul of four college players appeared to put the rebuild in high gear. By selecting collegians in their early 20s, as opposed to high school prospects, the future suddenly seemed much nearer than it had previously.  

Not that the Royals entertained fantasies that all four pitchers would pan out. The honest truth of baseball is that very few draft picks develop into good big leaguers, much less stars. But that didn’t stop the club from excitedly celebrating when Jackson Kowar was promoted last Monday for his first start.  

The reason for celebration? All four of the college pitchers taken in 2018 had now made a start in the big leagues.  

Unfortunately, the celebration was short-lived. Like with Daniel Lynch, who was promoted with much fanfare in early May, the Royals’ promotion of Kowar blew up in their faces.

It was, literally, the worst debut ever by a Royals starter. Kowar was able to induce just two outs. He surrendered three hits, including a homer, and two walks. Perhaps most alarming, he fired off three wild pitches, an indication that his emotions were out of control. After 39 pitches, he was lifted, mercifully. 

Both Kowar and manager Mike Matheny acknowledged that nerves were an issue. Kowar claimed he calmed down after the second batter.  

“There’s a lot going on in that first day out there,” Matheny said, acknowledging the distractions of travel to join the team and the hoopla of having friends and family rush to be in attendance. “I told him that his stuff looks good. That stuff’s going to be in this game for a long time. Just take this day as a stepping-stone, because he’s not going to have another one like that. He’s got too good of stuff. What he brings out there is really good.” 

But fans can’t help but connect the dots from Kowar’s first start to those made by Lynch, which were only slightly less disastrous.  

Lynch made three starts for the Royals, managing to get through just eight total innings. He was hit so hard, there was speculation he was tipping his pitches. He was battered for 18 hits, five walks, 14 earned runs. After getting rocked three times, Lynch was demoted.

Does two disasters equal a trend? One has to question if the team needs to do something different when promoting a rookie pitcher.

Bringing him out of the bullpen for his first appearance might lessen the nerves. Perhaps the pitcher should be allowed to spend a few days with the team before taking the field. Anything to help him acclimate. 

Matheny didn’t indicate that the process was the problem.  

“Every young player is going to go through some of those bumps,” the manager said. “They have just got to struggle their way through, finding out how they’re going to be in this league for a while.”  

The two other pitchers picked in 2018 – Brady Singer and Kris Bubic – still seem to be in that process of adjustment. Singer and Bubic were rushed to the big leagues in the bizarre pandemic season, forced to sink or swim. Singer had some rough patches, but was decent in his short rookie season, posting a 4-5 record and a 4.06 earned run average. Bubic’s ERA was a respectable 4.32, but he struggled to give the team five innings in most of his starts, and went just 1-6 in 10 opportunities.

Matheny believes that the Royals are giving the young pitchers the support they need to adjust to the big leagues.

“We have a great group of veterans here that invests into young players. So it’s a very good atmosphere for a young player to come up in,” Matheny said. 

Matheny noted that Singer, a college teammate of Kowar at the University of Florida, has been helpful in coping with the disappointing first start. 

“All of us like to be surrounded by people who care about us,” Matheny said. “(Spring Training allowed us) the ability to know Jackson, to have him working with some of the veteran pitchers so they get to know him on the field. He’s got people that are looking out for him and trying to help him.” 

Despite Matheny’s reassurance, there have been some questionable decisions made with the draft class of 2018. Forcing Singer and Bubic into starting roles so quickly seemed foolhardy. Bubic had never pitched above A-ball before making the jump. Singer had just one season of training in the minors. 

Like Bubic, Lynch had never pitched above A-ball, and wasn’t given a chance to pitch in the minors in 2021 before getting the call. Due to the pandemic, he hadn’t pitched in a game in nearly two years when he was thrust into the starting spot. 

Kowar would appear to have been the best prepared for his debut, having dominated Triple-A for a month at least. He came up with a 5-0 record and a near-perfect 0.85 ERA. But that didn’t help him when the bright lights came on. 

Add in one other 2018 draft pick who might have been thrown to the wolves too soon. Outfielder Kyle Isbel, the Royals’ third rounder with the 94th pick, so impressed the team in Spring Training that he was inserted into right field to start the 2021 campaign. That lasted only about three weeks before his troubles convinced the Royals to send him to Triple-A for more seasoning.  

There wasn’t much Kowar could say after his first start to lessen the disappointment. His comment sums up how the Royals must feel about the learning curve of all five of these 2018 draft picks: 

“Hopefully someday we’ll look back at this and it will be a good story.”