One of the big questions facing every MLB organization after the chaotic 2020 season, including the canceled minor league season, was this: How many surprises would they find? Neither the 2019 nor 2020 draft classes had gotten a full season of action prior to 2021.
At the top of that 2019 class was #1 overall pick Adley Rutschman, who needs no further hype. #2 pick Gunnar Henderson also made a name for himself in 2021. And after them, maybe making a trio of worthwhile prospects at the top of the first Mike Elias Orioles draft class, is outfielder Kyle Stowers. The former Stanford outfielder’s selling point in a nutshell: He led all O’s minor leaguers with 27 home runs this season, blasting his way through High-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie to close out at Triple-A Norfolk.
Stowers, 23, was the first of three players the O’s drafted from Stanford’s team in the 2019 draft, along with sixth round pick Maverick Handley and eleventh round pick Andrew Daschbach. Elias and company really liked something about that team. Stowers, chosen with the competitive balance pick at the end of the second round, was clearly the one they liked the best.
Heading into the 2021 season, Stowers may not have been one of the prospects you thought a lot about. After being drafted in 2019, he was assigned to then-short-season Aberdeen and posted this batting line over 55 games: .216/.289/.377. These are not gaudy numbers for a college player who should be a bit more advanced in his approach and more developed as a ballplayer when he hits the pro ranks.
If Stowers wasn’t on your radar, you were hardly alone. Entering the 2021 season, he was only ranked among the top 20 Orioles prospects on Fangraphs, with every other publication putting him below that or not ranking him at all. As a fan, all you can really go on is who out of prospects you’ve never or seldom seen play baseball gets buzz from these lists, and Stowers simply wasn’t getting that buzz eight or nine months ago.
At Fangraphs, the lone list to put Stowers high up, he ranked as the #12 prospect in the system:
Stowers swings so hard that he looks like he’s going to corkscrew himself into the ground ... The Bellingerian cut makes Stowers’ whiffs seem worse than they are, and also makes his dingers very aesthetically pleasing.
You can do worse as a baseball player in 2021 than having whiffs that look bad while generating significant numbers of aesthetically pleasing dingers.
After 2021, that’s still Stowers in a nutshell. Along with 27 home runs in 124 games, he struck out 171 times. That’s a strikeout rate of 32.3%. At the MLB level this year, there were only four players who qualified for the batting title who struck out more often than that. Even in the modern game where more strikeouts are the price for hard contact, Stowers’s strikeout rate stands out. One bit of good news is that three of those four players were worth at least 3 WAR.
Stowers also brings a high walk rate to the table, making him really kind of a Three True Outcomes (home runs, walks, strikeouts) kind of player. He drew 73 walks in 530 plate appearances in 2021, with a walk rate of at least 12% at each level he played in 2021 and a 13.7% rate overall.
With 73 walks, Stowers would have led the Orioles at the MLB level by a decent margin. The actual Orioles walk leader for batters was Cedric Mullins with 59. More than 50% of his plate appearances ended in a K, BB, or HR. The walks help offset the concern about the strikeouts.
The MLB Pipeline Orioles prospect ranking caught up with Stowers’s 2021 performance enough to have him as the #11 prospect in the system at season’s end:
Stowers is an average runner with a decent arm who projects best as a bat-first corner outfielder. The likeliest landing spot is left field, especially if he can develop the type of all-fields approach he’ll need to hold his own against left-handed pitching.
The norm is for batters to struggle against same-handed pitchers. Stowers, as a lefty, will need to show he can hit lefties if he wants to be more than a platoon player. My philosophy on platoon splits is that it’s better to suck against lefties than against righties because there aren’t as many lefties out there. A guy who can only take aim at Eutaw Street against righty pitchers will still get some chances.
Of interest, though, is that Stowers did not get wrecked by lefties as he ascended the minors this season. His 138 plate appearances against LHP this year still constitutes a small sample size, but it’s an encouraging one, as Stowers hit .292/.384/.567 against southpaws. It’s too little to proclaim the problem solved, but a marker that Stowers is overcoming the platoon disadvantage a bit is a plus.
The Orioles were conservative with their prospects initial assignments this season and aggressive in moving them up from there. Stowers second trip to Aberdeen lasted 36 games; after a .900 OPS he was moved up to Double-A Bowie. In 66 games for Bowie, Stowers OPSed .938, earning him a second promotion. He finished with a .773 OPS in 22 games for Triple-A Norfolk. We can figure he’ll be back at Norfolk to start next season.
If Stowers has 15 home runs at the end of May, I think he won’t wait much longer for an Orioles debut beyond that. If things are going that well for Stowers, he’ll surely have an inside track at being part of the O’s outfield of a better future.
The original plan for Stowers was that he would get a little extra work in at the Arizona Fall League, currently ongoing. However, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reported on Sunday that Stowers suffered a “minor lower back injury” and has left the AFL team after having played only three games out there. Kubatko said this was “a precautionary move to make certain that Stowers is ready for spring training.” Let’s hope that’s what it turns out to be.
Previous 2021 Orioles prospect reviews: Ryan McKenna, Alexander Wells, Brnovich/Peek/Pinto, Diaz/Bannon, Tyler Nevin, Vavra/Ortiz/Servideo, Zac Lowther, DL Hall/Rom, Hernandez/Basallo, Jahmai Jones, Hudson Haskin, Bradish/Smith, Hernaiz/Mayo, Cowser/Norby, Adam Hall
Tomorrow: Mike Baumann