Kaleb Cowart will always remember his Triple-A pitching debut, the night when the Salt Lake Bees struck out a franchise-record 19 batters.
Never mind that he didn’t actually add to that total. Instead, he allowed three runs in his one inning on the mound May 20. And then his Pacific Coast League pitching record became much worse Sunday, when Tacoma torched him for six hits and five runs in two-thirds of an inning.
Cowart's experiment with pitching in his 10th year of pro baseball, after he spent parts of the previous four seasons playing third base for the Los Angeles Angels, is part of the Angels' effort to maximize their roster. Call it the Ohtani Effect. The Angels slowly are defying specialization between pitchers and hitters, thanks to Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese star who joined them last season.
He’s an extraordinary talent, with his power at the plate and 98 mph fastball on the mound. “I mean, he’s a special dude,” said Bees manager Lou Marson, a former major league catcher. “I don’t think a lot of guys can hit 20 homers and throw 98 with a nasty split, or whatever he has in his arsenal. But in the years to come, I’m sure there will be more guys like him. Anaheim, for sure, values it.”
That’s why the Angels reclaimed Cowart after he belonged to two other teams during the offseason and have trained him as a part-time pitcher, initially this season at Double-A Mobile. First baseman Jared Walsh has pitched in six games for the Bees and Angels this spring, outfielder Bo Way has filled both roles at Salt Lake and Mobile and 18-year-old William English may function as a two-way player in the system, possibly in Orem this summer.
“Before Ohtani came over here, it just wasn't a thing. You had to pick one or the other,” said Cowart, a first-round draft pick of the Angels out of high school in Georgia in 2010, when about half of major league teams targeted him as a pitcher. He wanted to play every day and hit, although his batting average (.177 in 162 games for the Angels) is what's kept him from getting steady work in Anaheim.
Known throughout baseball for his great attitude, Cowart welcomed the latest twist in his career as he approaches his 27th birthday next week. “It’s a great opportunity,” he said last week, between mound appearances, “and any way that gets me back to the big leagues, I’m all for it.”
Hitting and pitching statistics in 2019 for three players in the Los Angeles Angels' system, functioning as pitchers and position players:
Jared Walsh, first baseman – Hitting: .302 average in 25 games for Salt Lake; .333 in six games for the Angels. Pitching – 3.60 ERA in five games (five innings) for Salt Lake; 9.00 ERA in one game (one inning) for the Angels.
Kaleb Cowart, third baseman – Hitting: .179 in 11 games for Mobile; .238 in seven games for Salt Lake. Pitching: 6.23 ERA in four games (four innings) for Mobile; 43.20 ERA in two games (1.2 innings) for Salt Lake.
Bo Way, outfielder – Hitting: .283 in 29 games for Mobile; .250 in nine games for Salt Lake. Pitching: 4.91 ERA in four games (3.2 innings) for Mobile; 6.75 ERA in two games (1.1 innings) for Salt Lake.
His four pitching stints at Mobile went fairly well, but his two appearances with the Bees have been disastrous. Cowart allowed two doubles and a home run Sunday, taking the loss in Tacoma’s 7-4 win.
The Angels are scripting Cowart’s relief work with the Bees almost like a starting pitcher’s schedule, once every five or six days. Other days, he’s in the lineup as a third baseman or designated hitter. Cowart can picture himself moving from third to the mound in the middle of a game, just to face a batter or two.
The left-handed Walsh made that move from first once last summer with the Bees, earning a save. In a stranger situation, Jacob Hannemann recently came in from center field for Iowa of the PCL in the first inning and recorded a strikeout. The former Lone Peak High School and BYU star had not pitched in a game since eighth grade, said his father, Howard.
Hannemann was summoned to the mound because Iowa starter Duane Underwood Jr. had reached a per-inning pitch limit. The Cubs wanted to keep Underwood in the game, so they put him in the outfield. The strategy worked. After Hannemann struck out New Orleans' Isaac Galloway with a 75-mph fastball to end the inning, Underwood returned to the mound and pitched into the sixth inning.
While hitting well enough (.302 with 10 homers in 37 games) to earn his first promotion to the Angels this month, Walsh earned a win and a save for the Bees. The former 39th-round pick got three hits in his big-league debut May 15 at Minnesota and took the the mound in Anaheim last week, although that was a case of manager Brad Ausmus’ wanting to save his bullpen in a blowout. Position players occasionally are used in that role; Walsh allowed one run in the ninth inning of Minnesota’s 16-7 win. Last Saturday, Walsh hit a walk-off single in a 3-2 win over Texas.
Walsh, who pitched and played first for the University of Georgia, pitched in eight games for three minor-league teams including the Bees last year and went into spring training with a simplified, multidimensional outlook. “If I overthink it, things get too complicated,” he told MLB.com. “Just hit and pitch and have fun.”
That's what Cowart is trying to do, amid his struggles on the mound at Smith's Ballpark, hoping that versatility will make him valuable. “He's always had a good arm from third, and the organization sees that, obviously,” Marson said. “Hopefully, it brings more value to him as a player.”
And helps the Bees pick up a few wins along the way.