It was unfair to judge Colton Cowser on 77 plate appearances after his July debut last summer.

Fair or not, it’s a lot more fun to judge the 64 he enters Wednesday’s game with this season, based on the fact that Cowser is spraying line drives all over the field, has a team-high 12 extra-base hits, and is one of the breakout stars of the first month of this MLB season.

But if he wasn’t the player that struggled in his major league time last year, he might not be this level of locked-in going forward. What’s clear based on these few months is that the areas Cowser has improved in are the ones that lead to major league success.

More consistent hard contact

One of those, naturally, is hard contact. Cowser had a hard-hit rate of 33.7% in the minors in 2022, the year after the Orioles made him the fifth overall pick. Cowser climbed from High-A Aberdeen to Triple-A Norfolk that year. He got off to a relatively slow start at Aberdeen before finding a balance in his preparation and routine, and took off as the season progressed.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The strength he’s added since is evident. He was listed at 195 pounds his junior year at Sam Houston, and the Orioles now list him at 220 pounds. At Triple-A last year, his hard-hit rate was 47.5%, and it was a respectable 42.5% in the big leagues. But this year, it has ticked up to 48.7%. Cowser’s ability to hit the ball hard comes from both his knack for finding the barrel and his strength gains over time.

Cowser’s 90th percentile exit velocity, which removes outliers to best represent the top end of a hitter’s skillset, hovered around 103 mph through his time in the minors. In this admittedly small sample this year, he’s at 103.7 mph in that metric. So there’s not a meaningful jump, but it still represents a player who is consistently hitting the ball hard. However it’s sliced, Cowser is executing one of the core tenets of the Orioles’ hitting program: hitting the ball hard and in the air.

Better against spin

More extreme than Cowser’s left-right splits in the minors, especially in 2023, were his splits between fastballs and non-fastballs. According to Statcast data, Cowser had a .599 OPS against non-fastballs at Triple-A a season ago, and swinging through 44.6% of the breaking balls and off-speed pitches he offered at for the Tides.

His slugging percentage alone this year on non-fastballs — .567 — is nearly as high as his full-season OPS in the minors last year on those pitches. He’s still swinging through 50% of them, which feels high, but has a pair of doubles and a pair of home runs on non-fastballs already this season.

Coming off a year in which he had just one double on a non-fastball in the majors and added four doubles and four homers off non-fastballs in Norfolk, that’s the makings of serious improvement. Given Cowser doesn’t chase often, improved results on non-fastballs in the zone can be a clear separator for him. Rival evaluators who would see Cowser in the minors often wondered why other teams would ever bother throwing him a fastball, such was the damage he’d do on them.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

When he went down to the minors after his stint with the Orioles in 2023, part of the developmental plan was to be more aggressive on non-fastballs early in the count. Cowser’s offseason swing change focused on his hand placement and spacing was geared toward his doing a better job owning the fastball at the highest level, and if he’s able to do that, teams will be forced to challenge him with other offerings. As he’s shown so far, that might not be their best idea. There’s no obvious Plan B to get Cowser out at this point.

Aggressive early in count

Cowser is one of a few Orioles who have the ability to work a walk but are jumping on pitches they can drive earlier in counts this year, and it’s certainly helping his cause. He was aggressive on early-count pitches in the strike zone while in the majors in 2023, with 52 swings at 98 in-zone pitches within the first three pitches of an at-bat (53.1%), but without much success. Cowser had a .533 OPS in at-bats that lasted three pitches or less in 2023, and while he’s swinging at roughly the same rate on early-count pitches in the zone (56.2%), he’s doing far more damage, with a 1.919 OPS in 0-0, 0-1, 1-0, 1-1, 2-0, and 0-2 counts.

Shortly before he was sent down last year, Cowser told me he was focusing on knowing which pitches to be aggressive on and not getting behind in counts. He’s done that this year. Last season, 28.8% of the pitches he saw came in pitchers’ counts, and that’s down to 19.9% this year. He’s also doing more damage even when he is behind. He had a .080 average and a .120 slugging percentage when in pitchers’ counts last year, and is batting .556 with an .889 slugging percentage behind in the count this year.

Taken together, you get a hitter who is as hot at the plate as anyone in baseball right now. Improvement in any of these categories, sustained over the course of a season, is enough to guarantee that Cowser is a far more productive hitter in this major league stint than last year’s. Sustaining this magnitude of improvements, at least in results, will be asking a lot.

We should probably let him match last year’s 77 plate appearances first.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

More From The Banner