When MLB Pipeline published their first pass at a Top 100 2021 Draft prospect list, there were plenty of familiar names atop the list: the powerful Vanderbilt rotation duo of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, power-hitting college catcher Adrian Del Castillo, slick-fielding prep shortstop Jordan Lawlar. Sneaking into the top half of the first round, however, was a relatively new face on the scene: Sam Houston State outfielder Colton Cowser.
It’s hard to find a first-round draft talent that’s a surprise, but Cowser is, through a combination of factors, about as close to that as you’ll get. It starts, as many stories do, deep in the heart of Texas, where Cowser was somewhat overshadowed at Cypress Ranch High School, part of a network of Houston-area schools that consistently produce draft picks; Corbin Martin is an alum, as are 2019 draftees J.J. Goss and Matthew Thompson. Cowser’s teammate Ty Madden—currently projected by MLB to go #10 out of UT—vacuumed up most of the scouting attention in their draft year. Madden was eventually drafted, although late (34th round), by the Royals; Cowser was not. Both teammates went on to their Texas colleges, Madden honoring a commitment to play for the Longhorns in the Big 12, and Cowser heading to Sam Houston State and the significantly less prestigious Southland conference, to one of the few schools who recruited him.
It’s unclear as to why scouts weren’t enthusiastic about Cowser, but we can hazard a few guesses. It’s hard to stand out in an area as stacked with talent as Houston; not only did Cowser face being overshadowed by his own teammates, but he also had 12th overall pick Jordan Groshans (Blue Jays) to contend with, along with Adam Kloffenstein (third round, also the Blue Jays), Simeon Woods-Richardson (second round, Mets), and Braydon Fisher (fourth round, Dodgers), all in his area—to say nothing of the hotbed of Dallas, just three hours up I-45. Texas baseball prospects have it kind of rough when it comes to standing out, truly. Cowser wasn’t on the high-level showcase circuit like Groshans; nor did he have a clear carrying tool, like the loud power of Groshans. It was simply too easy for Cowser to be overlooked.
That all changed once he got to Sam Houston State. Determined to prove the doubters wrong, Cowser attacked the Southland conference with a vengeance. As a freshman he slashed .361/.450/.602, striking out just 13% of the time while walking almost as often as he struck out, and racking up 24 extra-base hits to go with his seven dingers. He parlayed his strong season into an invitation to play for Team USA, the first player from Sam Houston ever named to Team USA and the first in a decade from the Southland Conference, where he was named Hitter of the Year. With a foot in the door towards receiving some national acclaim at last, Cowser took advantage of the opportunity, earning MVP honors for the Friendship Series against Cuba and showing off his elite bat-to-ball skills to a wider audience.
Let’s start with the swing. This is an objectively beautiful swing.
Sam Houston State's Colton Cowser took a pretty hack to open yesterday's CNT game. pic.twitter.com/rzVOyy6LAE— Josh Norris (@jnorris427) June 29, 2019
Look at this swing. Look at its balance. Look at its purity. This swing is a white Belgian linen handkerchief, pressed crisp and folded neatly. There are no sproingy-doingy moving parts here, just a seamless transition from load to fire, blasted along through the hitting zone by Cowser’s ultra-quick hands. This is not a swing that comes up empty very often—if Cowser chooses to swing, which he does not always, preferring to work himself into favorable counts—but a swing optimized to make contact, which Cowser does, peppering hits all over the field.
Nitpickers will say this swing is geared for line drives and not over-the-fence power, and that Cowser’s lack of demonstrated power is the reason he wasn’t a highly sought-after recruit. Nitpickers are invited to shove this fine white linen handkerchief in their pie-holes. Cowser is 6’3” and his body, like his game, seems to be a little slower to develop; he’s added weight between high school and college, from the 180s to hang just shy of 200, but there’s more good weight to be added on a kid who physically seems to be all legs and arms. Cowser has said he felt like he was tapping into his strength more prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, and it will be interesting to see how he comes back in 2021, if there’s a college baseball season.
In the field, the word to describe Cowser’s defense is “rangy.”
These aren’t the kind of splashy outfielder plays that are necessitated by late breaks or poor route running; each time, Cowser is in the ready position when the pitch is made. He then immediately reads the ball off the bat, and starts his route. He keeps his eyes on the ball and uses some excellent (if not elite) closing speed in tracking it down, and if he comes up short, he’s able to go turbo mode, putting on an extra burst of speed and mashing down the “HEROICS” button on his video game controller. Like this:
Mid 6— Sam Houston State Baseball (@BearkatsBSB) May 18, 2019
SHSU 3 | NSU 1
WHAT A CATCH!!
Cowser lays out in foul ground with an amazing catch and puts an end to the sixth!! #EatEmUpKats @NCAACWS #SCTop10
There’s another one here if you are tolerant of weird angles and handheld cameras. The knock on Cowser defensively—and the reason some scouts hesitate to project him in center despite his range—is his arm is merely average, maybe fringe-average. But arms can get better through both strength training and mechanical refinement, especially on 6’3” kids with long levers. Personally, I pride a player’s ability to make good split-second decisions and run clean, fearless routes when the ball is hit over their head to possessing a howitzer for an arm; having watched Cowser in both center and left, I think I actually prefer him in center, where he feels he can take charge and fly around a little more.
I have resisted making a Jarred Kelenic comp for this long but okay, here’s the inevitable Jarred Kelenic comp, also the owner of a beautiful left-handed swing geared to make contact all over the zone, although JK checks in at a couple of inches shorter than CC. Both of them faced similar questions about their power as preps, which feels like the curse of the pure-hitting player who chooses to show his skill in roping doubles to the gap rather than selling out for power. Kelenic, at least, has answered the charge of his power question by posting a 20-20 season in his first full year of pro ball and posting pictures to his instagram account where his muscles seem to beg for UN recognition. Cowser isn’t the talent Kelenic is—which isn’t a knock on him, just an appreciation of the elite talent that is Jarred Kelenic—but the good thing about a player who can flat-out hit is it makes the floor relatively safe, something we’ve seen in action as Kelenic has worked his way up into the high minors (who is Alex Jackson or Dustin Ackley, I don’t know those names). Like Kelenic, Cowser understands the strike zone and seeks pitches he can punish, while settling for those that will merely grant him the ability to stand on first base.
The two prospects share another, deeper connection: both have a boulder-sized chip on their shoulders. Kelenic may have gone #6 overall in 2018, but even just before draft day he was predicted to fall outside the Top 10 by most major outlets, a perceived slight that has motivated Kelenic—along with Brodie van’s Willingness to part with the Mets’ blue-chip prospect. Cowser has even more of a claim to the shoulder-chip quarry, having been largely ignored as a high school prospect despite batting cleanup for a powerhouse Texas high school team. Compounding this Flintstonian rockpile: both players have had to suffer through 2020’s shutdown where they weren’t able to resoundingly silence the doubters on the field, either.
Every year, I beg on these electronic pages for the Mariners to draft a pure-hitting prep, and every year, my cries go unanswered. Cowser represents an opportunity to snag a prep-type bat with a college pedigree, if he remains where he currently is projected, just outside the Top 10. The underrated superstar is a mold the Mariners are familiar with thanks to Jarred Kelenic, and one they could, and should, easily repeat with Colton Cowser.
If you’re interested in seeing hering more from Colton Cowser, our own Joe Doyle interviewed him for Prospects Live: