SHANNON DRAYER

Could Seattle Mariners’ next bullpen ‘find’ be Jackson Kowar?

Feb 29, 2024, 4:21 PM

Seattle Mariners Jackson Kowar...

Jackson Kowar of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the Texas Rangers in 2022. (Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)

(Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)

The competition for the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen spots is on.

On Wednesday, we took a look at Carlos Vargas (story in the link below), who impressed in his first spring outing. On Thursday, it was Jackson Kowar who along with Collin Snider drew praise from manager Scott Servais after their outings the day before.

Drayer: Where things stand with Seattle Mariners’ bullpen

Kowar, 27, came to the Mariners as part of the trade that sent Jarred Kelenic and others to the Braves. The Braves had picked him up earlier in the offseason from the Royals, who had took him with their second pick in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft. Their first pick? Kowar’s University of Florida teammate and roommate, Brady Singer.

Had it not been for a coaching shuffle at Clemson, his roommate would have been a very popular Mariner.

“We were close to being roommates in college,” he said of catcher Cal Raleigh. “Going into our senior year in high school, we were both signed with Clemson. The coach ended up getting let go and we went our separate ways. My first college home run I gave up was to Cal Raleigh. He took me way back in Jacksonville our freshman year. It’s good to have him on our side.”

“Our side,” has been a welcome change for Kowar, who threw 74 innings over parts of three big league seasons with the Royals, striking out 75 batters but walking 55. Originally a starter, he transitioned to the ‘pen in 2022 and did not feel completely comfortable as a reliever until last season. Like a number of others competing for bullpen spots, Kowar posses a high-velocity fastball but has had command issue. He was curious to see how a new organization would go about working with him.

“It’s a little different. You think maybe you come over here, they want change a bunch of stuff, and that really hasn’t been the case,” he said. “I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised where it’s more just, ‘Hey, let’s do what you do well and make that your focus’ – and obviously throw a lot of strikes.”

The adjustment for Seattle Mariners’ Kowar

A change with Kowar’s fastball has helped with his command. As a starter, he had worked hard to shape his fastball, which he was able to sink and run. As a full-time reliever last year, he learned that was perhaps not the best use of the pitch.

“I tried so hard to work on kind of like a little sinker and maybe a little carry, and it kind of got out of what the pitch really was and that’s velocity,” he said. “So for me, if I get a little extra run, especially going arm side, that’s perfectly fine. If I get a little more carry going up, that’s perfectly fine. I’m less worried about the shape and much more worried about let’s just throw it hard and let’s throw for strikes. In the past, I just kind of got stuck in the weeds and worried about the fastball profile and it got me a little off track with what the real strength of that pitch is, which is velocity.”

The environment he finds himself in with the Mariners has also aided in breaking down some of the barriers to throwing strikes.

“Watching Bryce (Miller) and George (Kirby) throw last year, I’m like, these young kids are fearless,” he said. “How much they fill it up. Something especially when I first debuted (that) I struggled with the most was giving hitters credit, and those guys are so aggressive in the zone and they trust their stuff. It’s really refreshing to see, and I think it sets the tone for the rest of the group. And coming out of the bullpen, watching a 24 year old fill it up, it’s hard to not have confidence. It’s cool to see. So I think those guys are awesome with just how fearless they are and how aggressive they are. I think it’s really cool to see.”

It was in large part Kowar’s changeup that got him drafted in the first round. It’s a pitch he enjoys throwing, but he has embraced the opportunity to work on other things. On Wednesday, he went fastball/slider exclusively to good results.

“I actually like his third pitch,” Servais said of Kowar. “It’s not a wipeout breaking ball but I think it’s a pitch he can command. I think he can get it over the plate early in counts, I think it can help him get back in counts against certain hitters. I think it’s a real third pitch and he’s going to see improvement in that pitch as the spring goes on.”

Making changes easy

If Kowar is to make the club out of spring training, it is a pitch he is going to want to continue throwing. Could he be the Mariners’ next “find” in the bullpen? In spending the short amount of time he has with director of pitching strategy Trent Blank and the Mariners pitching group, Kowar understands how Seattle has had the ability to build the pitching staff that many rank among the best in baseball. They make it easy to make changes.

“Trent is so smart but he also has a really nice way of putting info in a palatable way, which I think is not that common,” he said. “There’s so many smart people in baseball, I think the skill is in basically translating the data into something that is digestible for the pitching staff which is something I think is probably the strength of this crew. And then also, they are still ballplayers. They are not robots, they are very personal about what they see. Things we talk about have been more personal honestly than analytics and data points. They have treated me like a human and that can sometimes get lost in the baseball world, and that is a strength here. You can tell by the relationships that the young guys and even the young guys have with them.”

More on the Seattle Mariners

Why Dipoto likes Seattle Mariners’ situation at third base
Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez details where his focus is for 2024
Seattle Mariners Notebook: Prospect debut, latest on Julio
Mitch Garver: What makes each of Mariners’ five starters stand out
Cal Raleigh: Seattle Mariners bats ‘want to start pulling our end of the bargain’

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