Colton Cowser considered last year and his first full season in pro baseball a learning year. It took until this spring in Norfolk, though, for him to full understand who he needs to be as a hitter.

Back home in Texas working with his longtime hitting coach Sid Holland, he spent half the offseason trying to overanalyze every swing he took, only to change course and go into maintenance mode to simply hone the swing that got him this far.

And as he struggled to begin the year at Norfolk, it was the same thing — a focus on mechanics where there was no need for one.

The hitter he’s been since — one of the Orioles’ best in the minors and now one of the top prospects in all of minor league baseball — relies on a simple approach. With four cues — shoulders square, hands under control, middle-of-the-field focus and being tall — he’s made himself the next man up on the Orioles’ prospect conveyor belt, and done so by remaining the hitter and human he’s been all along.

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“A lot of it has to do with knowing yourself, especially in this game,” Cowser said.

The fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft and the Orioles’ No. 2 prospect behind Jackson Holliday, Cowser downplays his swing thoughts as general and simple. (He also took a few beats to remember the fourth one.) But he’s been among the best hitters in all the minors after recommitting to them.

While he’s missed some time with a quadriceps injury, Cowser has a .978 OPS with eight home runs. He’s hit 43.4% of balls over 95 mph, with a 95th percentile exit velocity of 108.1 mph, and has cut down his strikeouts a bit. Even though he has a higher swinging strike rate, Cowser struck out 26.7% of the time in 2022 and cut that to 23.8% this year.

He credits much of how he’s improved with the building blocks from 2022, when he started at Low-A Aberdeen, dominated Double-A Bowie, then had a rough introduction to Norfolk before hitting well at the end of the season.

He learned plenty about himself, from how to manage sleep and diet with games every night to how to best prepare in the cage with a wide array of drills and approaches available to young hitters. He learned that the challenging drills they offer are meant to create failure and thus growth opportunities, so “being loose and having good balance comes in handy,” he said.

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But having experienced some challenges in Triple-A, he went home in the fall thinking he had lots of work to do.

“I wasn’t, like, making myself miserable or anything, but at the beginning of the offseason I was micromanaging swings, that’s all I have to say,” Cowser said. “And then, halfway through the offseason, I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to stop doing that,’ and continue to hit and tweak things here and there, but nothing drastic.”

He had a strong spring in major league camp, but found himself “worried about things that I don’t necessarily need to worry about” when Norfolk’s season started. When he went back to watch what went well in Bowie, he kept seeing the same traits in his swing, so he decided to codify them.

“He’s got a couple things he really wants to focus on and he knows if he gets away from that or too into the weeds, he can start to overdiagnose and overanalyze misses and things like that. So, for him, it’s keeping it as simple as it possibly can, like blinders, narrowing that focus to the couple critical pieces that he needs to be in a good position,” Norfolk hitting coach Brink Ambler said. “That’s most of what it was, making sure he’s in a position to show what he can do. There’s not really anything he can’t do from a swing perspective, which is pretty cool. Just making sure he’s in a good position in the box, feeling the way he wants to be, being comfortable seeing the ball and just being Colton.”

This simple approach to hitting is part of being himself, too. Fellow 2021 draftee Connor Norby said Jordan Westburg, a meticulous routine-follower who made his MLB debut last night, was jokingly referred to as Cowser’s dad around the clubhouse for how he tried to push him to try new drills or different approaches to his game.

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“I said something earlier in the year: when Cowser is going good, he barely hits [before a game],” Norby said. “And when he’s going bad, he hits even less before a game. I wish I was like him in a sense, with his ability to be able to clear every at-bat, every pitch, every game, just get it out of his head, no matter what happened in his at-bats. I wish I had that ability. It works for him, and I think he understands it works for him.”

Ambler, a coach at Low-A Delmarva in 2021 after Cowser was drafted, said “as much fun as he likes to have, he’s really matured a lot as a player and as a person.” He still has the natural ability that got him drafted when he did, but now has a better understanding of having a plan at the plate to put himself in the best position possible to succeed.

“People say, ‘I don’t really know how you can have the mindset you do and just go out there and play well.’ I kind of just like to think that I have a switch I can turn on,” Cowser said. “But it’s not necessarily a switch. I just feel like if you get really hard on yourself, when you do get into the game, you’re not going to have any success. You have to be able to kind of joke with yourself and laugh at yourself every once in a while.”

Part of how he’s done that this year is with the CowzCam, an Instagram account he started in the spring after being inspired by Formula 1 driver Lando Norris’ photography from his worldwide travels. Cowser bought a Fujifilm X100V — a high-end digital camera with the look of a classic film point-and-shoot — and got a lesson from the Orioles’ team media staff.

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“They go to cooler places, obviously, but I was thinking in spring training that I want to get a camera,” Cowser said. “When I got hurt I started to slack a little bit, but we’re starting to pick it back up. But everywhere we go, I want to post once a week the things I’m doing, walking around the city. I like to mix in a picture of the field where we’re at.”

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It’s one of many quirks that make Cowser’s teammates smile at the mention of him.

“He’s a different cat — that’s the best way to put it,” Norby said.

“Honestly, he’s so good that for most of his life he’s been able to roll out there and play without having to think about anything or do anything extra special, just roll out there and ‘I’ll be the best.’ I think it’s been really cool to watch him learn how to be a professional in that sense of, like, ‘OK, I need to have an idea of what is important to me. I need to have an idea of what my plan is going to be at the plate and how to use the whole field and how to be able to combat multiple pitch shapes, speeds, types, different angles.’ It’s all things that he was always able to do, it’s just the growth that he’s shown personally has helped him to unlock it out there on the field.”