The knock on the door took Bowie Baysox manager Kyle Moore by surprise.
There stood Billy Cook, a player Moore had heaped praise upon each morning during spring training, when he seemed poised for a strong start.
But now Cook was carrying a .098 batting average and .318 OPS through the first four weeks of Bowie’s season. Only a handful of players in the minors entered May faring worse. At a loss for how to move forward, Cook had called former teammate Darell Hernaiz, hoping for advice.
Hernaiz, now in Oakland’s system after being traded in the winter for Cole Irvin, did not try to fix anything himself. He simply told Cook to drop everything and go to Moore’s office as soon as possible.
“What am I doing?” Cook asked his manager straight away.
“Shut the door,” Moore told him.
Nothing changes in a day, especially in baseball, but that meeting and a separate one with Bowie hitting coach Sherman Johnson helped make Cook’s breakout this season as close to an overnight success story as can exist in this sport. He struck out three times on a Tuesday afternoon to continue his miserable start, talked to Moore and Johnson about where he was going wrong, then homered in his first at-bat Wednesday night.
Since then, the 24-year-old Cook, an outfielder who can also play first, second and third, has been among the most productive prospects on the Orioles’ farm — with a post-meeting OPS of .925, 12 home runs and some of the organization’s most attractive batted-ball data — adding another promising young hitter to an organization full of them.
“I think he’s a huge asset for our organization — a total sleeper — and I think that he’s going to play in the big leagues for a long time,” Moore said. “When you compare him to other players who have totally killed it at this level, and when I compare him to who I’ve seen go ahead and play in the big leagues, he’s right there with all of them. I have no doubt, this guy can play all three [outfield] positions in the big leagues defensively. No doubt. I have no doubt he can steal bases in the big leagues. I have no doubt he can hit for power in the big leagues. All of those things, he’s proved this year. I didn’t know if he could do that at the beginning of the year, but now I do.”
It wasn’t for lack of talent. Johnson called Cook “tooled up” — a hefty phrase in an organization that has consistently stockpiled top-of-the-draft talent. Cook gained draft buzz as a junior at Pepperdine before the season was shut down in 2020, and, having returned to school as a senior, fell to the Orioles’ pick in the 10th round in 2021.
He felt a steep learning curve in 2022, having come from a small school and not facing consistent high-end pitching in college, but felt better at the plate late in the season and went home to work on better handling hoppy fastballs up in the zone.
“After a full season of that, I said, ‘I feel like this is something I can hammer if I can hit it,’” Cook said. He accomplished that by altering his stance, removing the big leg kick that would at times cause a disconnect between his upper half and lower half. He widened out his stance, with a small leg kick and quiet hands, allowing him to let the ball get deeper and let his physical gifts take hold.
That approach helped him to, in Moore’s estimation, one of the best springs he’s ever seen. When player development staff gathered in the morning and Moore gave a report of the previous day’s game, Cook figured prominently in seemingly every one.
When the season opened, he had a bad first week, tweaked things in his approach and ... spiraled. His .321 OPS in April was second lowest among qualifiers in all of Double-A.
“I started searching for a couple things to maybe tweak and change, and that led to more changes, and getting totally away from what my focus was in spring training,” Cook said.
A month of that was enough to bring him to Johnson and Moore for advice. He sat down with Johnson after Bowie’s May 2 matinee, with the takeaway that he should simply return to his spring training approach. The sit-down with Moore focused on trying to simplify his mind.
“Billy had forgotten a lot of the things about fundamental hitting foundations, and sometimes that can happen with a player who’s really smart,” Moore said. “All good hitters see the ball right off the pitchers’ hands. He wasn’t even doing that. He was worried about so many things that he wasn’t even seeing the ball until it got over halfway to the plate, and when you get into that spot … you’re not even athletic anymore.”
Cook’s recollection of the takeaways from those meetings was succinct: “It was basically calling myself an idiot for going away from what I did in spring training,” he said.
That reset proved beneficial. Despite his slow start, Cook’s OPS is right around .800 for the season, and his high-end exit velocities are grouped with peers atop the Orioles prospect list such as Coby Mayo and Joey Ortiz. He also has one of the lowest ground-ball rates in the organization and drives the ball to all fields, an attractive set of traits for any player.
Like many other Orioles prospects, he’s benefiting from the challenging pregame work, which Cook says helps train his eyes for what he sees in the game. Johnson said his swing decisions are improving, and like many hitters who have succeeded at the level, he’s learning how pitchers are trying to attack him and formulating his plan accordingly.
It all stems from those early-May meetings — which coincided with a well-timed visit from his family as well. It’s “good juju for baseball” to have family in town, Cook said.
“I think having them here, and then kind of having that like aha moment with our hitting coach and manager, it was a good combo,” he said. “Next day, first at-bat, home run and haven’t looked back. That’s it.”