LAKEWOOD, N.J. – Hindsight has been unkind to the first three picks of the 2016 draft class that the Phillies so fervently celebrated a half decade ago.
Mickey Moniak, the first overall pick, has made it to the major leagues but more out of necessity than on merit. Cole Stobbe, the team’s third-round pick, has a .222 batting average and .299 on-base percentage in 740 minor-league at-bats and has become the longest of shots to ever play in the big leagues.
Sandwiched between those two picks was Kevin Gowdy, and his story has been the most unfortunate of all.
In some ways, Gowdy was the main draft focus for the Phillies even though Moniak has garnered more attention because of where he was selected. Unlike when the Washington Nationals selected Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper first overall, the 2016 draft class was without a true super talent. So the Phillies decided they’d spread their $13.4 million bonus pool among their top picks to get some high school kids who appeared bound for college to sign with them.
Moniak’s $6.1 signing bonus was nearly $3 million less than his slot value, and it allowed the Phillies to pay Gowdy $3.5 million, which was the 11th-highest bonus in the draft that year even though he was the 42nd overall pick. That money enticed Gowdy away from UCLA, the same school that had recruited Moniak.
Not much that has happened since then has been good for the 23-year-old righthander from Santa Barbara, Calif.
“There has been a lot of waiting,” Gowdy said Wednesday night after pitching in just his 29th game since being drafted.
After appearing in four games in the Gulf Coast League at 18, Gowdy was sidelined by a variety of injuries in 2017 before learning that he needed Tommy John surgery in mid-August. That meant his 2018 season was over, too.
Injury is always the greatest risk when selecting a pitcher, but at least a high school arm can recover at a younger age. Gowdy, to his credit, maintained a positive attitude, posting this mature message on Instagram after undergoing surgery: Thankful for all the struggles because they make the successes that much sweeter. I couldn’t have a better support system behind me and the Road to Recovery starts now! #TJ.
The road, as it turned out, had more potholes waiting for Gowdy.
When he finally returned from surgery in 2019, things did not go as planned. Pitching at low-A Lakewood, he appeared in 24 games and went 0-6 with a 4.68 ERA. He struggled mightily with his command and allowed 83 hits and 51 walks in 77 innings.
“I had some struggles that year for sure,” Gowdy said. “It was definitely about getting my feet back under me and kind of just getting the feel for the mound again. I was super ready to rock and roll in 2020.”
Instead, his world, like everyone else’s on the planet, was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. For Gowdy, that meant a third lost season in four years.
“Obviously, missing the time with the Tommy John and COVID hurt, but now that I’m back and fully ready to go, I’m just entirely in compete mode,” he said. “It was just an unbelievable feeling being back out there [Wednesday]. Obviously, it has been super long since we all played and had been in a real game setting. I definitely had the adrenaline going tonight. Everybody was super pumped to be back out there.”
Gowdy’s first outing since late August 2019 was a mixed bag.
The adrenaline rush worked to his advantage in the top of the first inning at FirstEnergy Park as he retired the New York Yankees’ Hudson Valley affiliate in order without allowing a ball into play. Oswald Peraza, the Yankees’ No. 6 prospect according to Baseball America, fouled out to open the game, and Gowdy used his mid-90s fastball to strike out Ezequiel Duran, the Yankees’ No. 11-ranked prospect. He finished the inning with a second strikeout.
The second inning started like this: leadoff double, wild pitch, walk, hit batter, walk, and a two-run single to right field. Just like that it was 3-0. Gowdy escaped without further damage with the help of a line-drive double play and his own nice play on a slow roller back to the mound.
In his defense, the top of the second was played in a downpour, and it appeared to affect Gowdy’s grip on the baseball.
“A little bit, yeah,” he said. “I would say it was more my footing. The mound was getting pretty slippery and a little bit muddy. I kind of had to make an adjustment for the third inning. But going through the third I battled really well, and I kind of came back a little bit and was a little bit sharper.”
Gowdy actually struck out the first two batters he faced in the third but recorded only one out because the second hitter of the inning advanced to first base on a passed ball. The next two Hudson Valley hitters reached on infield singles, and Gowdy left with the bases loaded. But he also left pleased because he felt as though the new pitch he added during the offseason was working.
“When I was coming back from the Tommy John surgery, I could never find the feel for my changeup. So I moved to a splitter,” he said. “I felt like I had some really good success with that in the third inning, and I’m really confident about it. I think it’s going to be huge having that third pitch.”
The switch from the changeup to a splitter came during a January workout in Sacramento with former Washington Nationals reliever Ryan Mattheus.
“He had a really good splitter, and one day I was throwing a bullpen, and he pretty much straight-up told me, ‘That changeup you’re throwing isn’t going to get it done.’ So I tried the splitter out. The first few felt a little weird, but I started to get more and more comfortable with it, and it’s a pretty good pitch now.”
The Phillies, of course, are hoping that Gowdy’s new pitch and his return to the mound are successful. They thought they were getting a steal when they took him in the second round of the 2016 draft. Expectations have been tamped down since then, but young pitchers always have the ability to surprise in both good and bad ways.