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From woodworking to hitting, Orioles No. 5 MLB draft pick Colton Cowser brings special hands and ‘enthusiasm to grind’

Dale Cowser heard the early-morning whirr of power tools and knew it could only be one thing.

His teenage son Colton was in the garage in a cloud of sawdust and restless energy.

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“Whatever you’re doing,” Dale Cowser told him, “keep your 10 fingers and clean up your mess when you finish.”

His admonitions went beyond basic parenting. His son’s extraordinary hands needed protecting.

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Their ability to manipulate a bat and get the barrel on any pitch is the draw that makes Cowser the potentially elite hitter the Orioles hope their No. 5 overall draft pick will be, and the foundation for a trajectory Houston-area hitting coach Sid Holland predicted early.

“Sid, when he was about 9 years old, told me Colton has a chance to be special,” Dale Cowser said. “He does things other kids don’t do at that age. Sid has always said it’s because of his hands. His hands are always so good. He knows exactly where the barrel is and his hands are so strong, he can find the barrel and the barrel finds balls.”

Long before those hands found a saw and made Cowser the family’s “Bob the Builder,” Holland sought the chance to work with them in a batting cage.

On his son Korey’s travel ball team, he saw a lanky kid with bat-to-ball skills who didn’t swing and miss often.

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“When he barreled some balls up, it seemed to fly a little farther and sound a little different than everybody else’s,” Holland said.

He’d just come from coaching pro ball, and knew what potential looked like. They worked together from then on, and he remembers a home run at age 10 that made him think Cowser had “it,” and was going to continue to get better.

Cowser, fortunately, had the drive to work and improve. He competed relentlessly, threw himself around the field with abandon and got so consumed by the moment that, at times, it overwhelmed him.

“This kid would always throw up,” Holland joked. “He’d throw up everywhere we’d go, every time there was a big event.”

He threw up on the outfield warning track in right field after a big throw. He hit a big double in a youth championship game and threw up at second base. When Holland finally let Cowser pitch, he came back to the dugout trash can between outs.

“That’s his — not nerves — but the adrenaline pumping,” Ty Cowser, Colton’s brother, said.

That went away around high school, Holland said, when Cowser had a realization: “You know what? I’m pretty good.”

Sam Houston's Colton Cowser runs the bases during a game April 6, 2019, in Huntsville, Texas. Houston-area hitting coach Sid Holland saw potential in Cowser when the future Orioles draft pick was just 9 years old.
Sam Houston's Colton Cowser runs the bases during a game April 6, 2019, in Huntsville, Texas. Houston-area hitting coach Sid Holland saw potential in Cowser when the future Orioles draft pick was just 9 years old. (Aaron M. Sprecher/AP)

‘Not really a pro guy’

Cowser was more than just those hands by then, but not much. He had long legs and enormous feet. And he could still barrel baseballs.

He hit himself into the lineup of Cypress Ranch’s reigning state champion varsity team for the playoffs as a sophomore and held his own, but wasn’t on any kind of big-time recruiting or scouting radar. He went to a hitting camp that summer at his father’s alma mater, Sam Houston, when big schools weren’t yet coming to call.

Jay Sirianni, now the Bearkats head coach, said the staff “knew it wasn’t quite there yet” but latched onto the bat-to-ball skills. Cowser committed before his junior season, then proceeded to be one of the best hitters in the Houston area.

Corey Cephus, who took over at Cypress Ranch for that junior season, said it “seems like he can hit a double to left-center any time he wants.”

“He has that ability, that great hand-eye coordination where he is going to put the barrel on the ball the majority of the time,” Cephus said.

When evaluating for the next level, Sirianni said that provided plenty to dream on.

“It may look like the bat is swinging him,” Sirianni said. “That’s not the case. … When the strength’s not there, it just doesn’t carry as far as everybody wants to see it go. You have to look at it and project.”

Baseball’s scouting industry is built on such projections, but even being an All-State hitter as a senior didn’t forecast much for Cowser. Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was running the draft for the hometown Astros at the time, and said Cowser was “not really a pro guy.”

Cephus spent that year trying to convince scouts otherwise.

“You’re either going to be pay him a little bit now, or a lot more later on, because he’s just going to continue,” he told them.

‘He just started raking’

That soon became apparent at Sam Houston, where Cowser hit a grand slam in his first game and earned Southland Conference Hitter of the Year and freshman All-America honors.

“He just started raking,” Elias said. “I mean, this guy rakes, and it was a name that you heard right away as a freshman that was going to be an elite player in the country.”

An unexpected spot with the US collegiate national team solidified that. The team typically boasts the nation’s top sophomores, but the freshman Cowser was added to the tryout pool as a replacement the day before camp began.

He played well in the scrimmages, but not well enough in his mind. He called home on cut day to ask his folks’ permission to buy some shirts at the gift shop before he came home. A few hours later, he called again tell them he made it.

“From the get-go, he earned it,” said Tony Skole, head coach at The Citadel and an assistant on that national team.

“There were some really high-end pitchers. Most of those guys on that team are millionaires right now. It didn’t phase him. He just seemed to square up and hit the ball hard on a consistent basis, all week long.”

On a team with 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson and Orioles top picks Heston Kjerstad and Jordan Westburg, it was Cowser who was the Most Valuable Player of their series in Cuba.

His star turn for the national team brought the spotlight to Huntsville, Texas, to see Cowser that fall. Scores of scouts sat on workouts, and saw a player who was losing his foundation and seeking pull power. He struggled in his sophomore spring before the pandemic canceled the season.

“His head was kind of all over the place because he knew that wasn’t him,” Ty Cowser said.

When the season shut down, however, he re-centered himself by his hands to create more than just line drives.

Cowser and his roommate, Gavin Johnson, moved back to Cypress and made a trip to the lumber yard to build a squat rack in the garage.

Cowser and Ty Madden, his best friend and a first-day pick by Cleveland on Sunday, built benches and a gun chest for Madden’s ranch. When their two families were together at a friend’s house before the town’s draft party at a local sports bar, someone commented on the beautiful cross on the wall. Cowser made that, too.

“He enjoys using his hands and designing,” Dale Cowser said. “He’s always been really creative in that sense.”

Without baseball last summer, he met with his advisor to aim to finish his degree in three years — an important accomplishment for the son of educators in Anna and Dale Cowser. His condensed class schedule meant he’d leave practices early at times.

“School was important to him, being a good teammate was important to him, and being a good baseball player was important to him,” Sirianni said.

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‘Enthusiasm to grind’

Cowser wasn’t all the way back to himself this past fall, but the Orioles were on him as a potential top pick in hopes that he would be.

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They sent Jim Richardson, an area scout who supervises the Midwest and Southeast, to three days of fall workouts to begin their intensive coverage and complement Houston area scout Thom Dreier.

His first impression was a common one.

“Even though the batting practice is not huge home runs, I thought it was impressive because he could go the other way with authority, he could pull it to right-center with authority, so you’re going, ‘You know what, the kid handles the bat. He’s got an idea for the barrel, and at some point, maybe these line drives start to get out of the ballpark,’” Richardson said. “It didn’t strike me right away as somebody who ends up at the end of the spring with 16 home runs.”

Cowser had just five extra-base hits in the first 16 games of the season, but the do-it-all outfielder was fitting the team’s point of emphasis to scouts to identify prospects “who show the ability to walk, to make contact, and to put quality at-bats together,” Richardson said.

The first game he saw Cowser play this spring, he had a pair of hits and walked three times.

The scouting matched the team’s data analysis, with Cowser’s average exit velocity “one of the best, if not the best, in the country,” Richardson said.

Baseball Cloud, which handles the Bearkats’ data, tweeted that Cowser had “outstanding” damage rate, which are batted balls with launch angles above 10 degrees and over 90 mph off the bat.

For both sides, a predraft workout last week at Camden Yards solidified how player and team fit. The Orioles made Cowser feel wanted, and in turn loved how he interacted with their minor league players and staff.

In a meeting with Richardson and some other draft personnel, the room lit up when Cowser explained how he likes to evaluate his swing decisions using pitch tracking data after each game — something that’s now standard across the Orioles farm system.

They liked how he had learned from tweaking his swing for power and came by the surge of home runs in 2021 naturally. His left-handed swing was back to driving everything up the middle and the other way, and the contact was impactful.

As the first round of the draft unfolded in a unique way Sunday, a player who had all the markings of an Orioles pick ultimately became one. Cowser is excited to join a player development program on the upswing and, considering how Sam Houston was rewarded for its faith in him, the Orioles hope that type of mindset continues.

His brother says the defining trait that Cowser brings to the Orioles is “his enthusiasm to grind” — and not with power tools.

“I truthfully don’t even think he knows how good he can be in terms of his projectability at the next level,” Ty Cowser said. “I don’t think he understands how good he can be in a lot of ways, but he’s going to work and he’s going to learn. He’s going to work.”

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