BOWIE - Last Thursday night, the Double-A Bowie Baysox, chasing a playoff spot, were hosting Erie. Bowie had lost the first two games of that series, blowing a ninth-inning lead in the series opener, and on this night, they held a 6-3 lead. But by the eighth inning, the game was tied 6-6.
But Bowie would not let this game get away.
Lefty-hitting right fielder Kyle Stowers, the O’s minor league home run leader, blasted one out to center for a two-run shot and an 8-6 lead. Three outs later, the Baysox had a big win on Stowers’ second homer of the game and second in three innings that night.
“He hit that ball (that was) down and away, a tough pitch to elevate No. 1,” Bowie manager Buck Britton said of homer No. 20 this year for Stowers. “But not only did he elevate it, he hit it 425 feet in the eighth inning when a guy was probably trying to pitch around him. One, to elevate that pitch was impressive, but two, to hit it as hard and far as he did, I mean, he’s got big boy power,”
The No. 71 overall pick in the 2019 draft out of Stanford, Stowers was the club’s third pick in that draft after catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson. Stowers started this year at high Single-A Aberdeen. He produced a .900 OPS and seven homers in 36 games. But as he moved up to Double-A, his potent bat kept producing. In 61 games with the Baysox, he’s batting .281/.376/.534/.910 with 14 doubles, 14 homers and 36 RBIs.
Among Orioles minor leaguers, his 21 homers lead the organization. And he has been posting some of the best exit velocities seen this season on the O’s farm.
“When this guy barrels the baseball, it is loud,” said Britton. “Every time he touches the baseball, I feel like it comes off his bat at 100 mph. When he hits it, he hits like a big boy. It is big boy pop.
“The next step is to try and get him to make contact a little more consistently. I think there is a lot of swing-and-miss in there. A lot of it is chasing out of the strike zone. So the focus for him, just like it is for everybody, is trying to teach that swing decision. He’s getting better, for sure. But when you get to this level, guys do command the ball a little better, so it’s enticing to go after pitches just out of the strike zone.”
The 23-year-old Stowers very much is a believer in the larger overall process of becoming a better hitter. He enjoys the data and technology that has come to the O’s farm and working with Bowie hitting coach Ryan Fuller. The process of getting a good pitch to hit and improving in that regard, is ongoing.
“In a game where there is not many things you can control, the pitches you swing at is something you can,” Stowers said during a recent interview at Prince George’s Stadium. “We get graded on not what the umpire is calling, but what we are swinging at based on what the strike zone actually is. Some umpires may have a little tighter zone or bigger zone, but it doesn’t change the objective measure we go by. From there, it is trying to produce hard contact and trust that the more times you put good balls in play, all the stats will go as you like to see them.”
Added Britton: “We are taking the approach (of) we’re going to focus on swinging at pitches over the middle of the plate. Everybody chases. But instead of having the thought of, ‘I’m not going to strikeout,’ if a guy has that mindset, now you might not get the aggressive swing that he takes and you might be losing exit velocity and what his strengths are offensively. So we really want to hone in on hammering pitches over the middle and not put him in a mindset of ‘Hey, let’s not strikeout.’ “
That also means most O’s hitters on the farm are not necessarily looking to shorten up on their swing with two strikes and just be happy to put the ball in play.
“We have been preaching this entire season that we are going to be on time and get our A swing off, no matter what,” said Britton. “That 0-2 pitch might be the best pitch you see in the at-bat. The 2-2 pitch might be better than the two strikes you had seen before. We want to make sure that, when we get a pitch over the middle of the plate, we’re on time and getting our A swing off. Especially with a guy that has his ability and if he shrinks that zone and starts swinging at pitches over the middle of the plate more frequently and not chase, I mean, look out.”
Britton couldn’t remember if Rutschman or Stowers had hit the hardest ball he had seen this year. He remembered one had the other by a percentage point on balls that mashed were in the 112 mph range.
“It’s loud,” he said of Stowers. “It comes off his bat harder than just about anyone in the organization (and) consistently. I could be wrong, but I think his average exit velo is at the top of the organization.”
And, Britton added, Stowers’ defense has been decent playing mostly in right field with a handful of starts in left.
“He moves OK for a big man,” Britton said. “I still think there is an opportunity to get him a little quicker, especially that first step. But he’s really long and lanky, so his strides cover a lot of ground. But I think that initial first step, if we can clean that up a little bit, it’s going to increase his ability to go and get balls in the outfield.”
For Stowers, the homers, exit velocities and strong OPS are all nice, but he said he is most proud this year that he has been able to post up for his teams every day.
“I think how many games I’ve played,” he said is his best 2021 acheivement. “That I’ve been healthy. Very thankful for that. After a year off to be able to be in the lineup every day and not have any issues that have kept me out.”
Stowers remembers back a few summers, to 2018, when he emerged as a top talent in the summer Cape Cod League, playing for Falmouth after his sophomore season at Stanford. He hit .326 with six homers and was ranked as the league’s No. 14 prospect.
It was a summer that provided him a lot of confidence, showed him he could play with other top college talent and elevated his draft stock as well.
“It was kind of a time in my baseball career where I just didn’t feel like I was - I felt like I could be a great player,” he said. “That was probably the highest belief I had in myself during that stretch. It established a level of confidence that I carry with me to today, even when times aren’t going well. Feeling like my potential is high, my best days are ahead of me and I still have so much room to grow. That summer was a good reminder to me that I could play at a high level.”
Fuller, the Bowie hitting coach, said Stowers has been a player that worked to get better and did.
“Incredibly proud of where he was in 2020 to where he is now,” said Fuller. “Mentally, very, very resilient. Very process oriented. Going forward, obviously the contact at times is low and strikeouts are high. But he is doing such a better job of game planning for that pitcher. What zones they will try to attack? What is my game plan against it?
“I think for all these guys the challenge for them is to find what works. Do you have to look at count usage, do you have to look at zone profiles? Some guys can take all of that. He is one of the guys that likes to look at all the information. And he’s doing a great job of condensing it to a game plan when he steps in the box. He is convicted to the plan.
“I have no question that he is going to make the adjustments to cut down on his strikeouts and make harder, consistent contact. He is a guy you don’t want to bet against.”
It’s been a year for Stowers where he has really put himself on the prospect map and is showing the O’s his improvement in several aspects of his game, including the power. His 21 homers are two more than Rutschman atop the O’s farm leaderboard. And Stowers ranks second among O’s full-season players in RBIs, slugging and OPS.
But the quest to hit the ball more consistently - and even better and maybe farther - never ends.
“As a baseball player, I always have that naïve belief that my next at-bat is going to be the one where I figure it all out. And if it’s not, it’s the next one or the next one,” said Stowers.