Jay Sirianni, the head baseball coach at Sam Houston State University, lists many of the usual plaudits when asked about the Baltimore Orioles making his star outfielder, Colton Cowser, the fifth overall pick of the 2021 MLB Draft on Sunday.

Cowser checks every box, the coach said: polished hitter, exceptional speed, excellent work ethic, and the quiet confidence not to be overwhelmed by the soaring expectations that come with the millions of dollars he’s about to make. Cowser was projected as a top-fifteen pick, so him going fifth overall isn’t a complete shock. But few, if any, draft experts expected him to be selected in the top five. Instead, Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas shortstop Jordan Lawlar was widely projected to be the first Texan taken. He went sixth overall, to the Arizona Diamondbacks, one spot behind Cowser.

Economics—what MLB people call “signability,” or how likely teams believe a prospect is to agree to a deal before the August 1 deadline—probably played a role in Cowser’s selection, but as Orioles general manager Mike Elias said, “Cowser’s a guy we were very, very high on.” The exec added: “Whatever we end up signing him for, we’ll sign him for. And obviously from the club’s side, you want to preserve as much capital for the rest of the draft as possible, but you take the guy you want to take, and that’s what we did here.”

Sirianni’s telephone was ringing nonstop Monday morning, but when we finally connected, I asked what he’ll remember about Cowser, who played at Cypress Ranch High School in the Houston suburbs. “This kid just never had a bad day,” the coach said. “That comes from his parents and the way he was raised. He stuck his head in my office every day to just say hello. He’d say something sarcastic or funny, or tell me something one of his goofy roommates had done or something happening in one of his classes.

“Occasionally—and this tells you what kind of person he is—he’d say, ‘Hey, so-and-so isn’t having a good day. Maybe you can speak to him.’ His awareness of his teammates, his awareness of his roommates, and just kind of how we’re all doing will always mean a lot to me.”

Sirianni would sometimes find Cowser in the recruiting coordinator’s office looking over lists of potential future Bearkats. “He’d say, ‘Hey, I like this guy,’” Sirianni said, “or, ‘This one is going to be a player.’ He was invested in every part of the program.” Sam Houston was Cowser’s only Division I scholarship offer out of Cy Ranch, a limitation that turned out to be a huge boost for his career, because it meant Cowser would in the starting lineup from day one.

 “I really think [going to Sam Houston] helped me turn into the ballplayer I was and am,” Cowser told the Athletic. “But I don’t think I would’ve really had that opportunity if I were to hold out and maybe wait for a bigger school to come along and lose that opportunity to go to Sam. It was a great decision.”

He batted .361 as a freshman and was named Southland Conference Hitter of the Year. Cowser leaped onto MLB radars in mid-2019, when he was named to Team USA.  “You could see what he was going to be,” said Corey Cephus, Cowser’s coach at Cy Ranch. “I remember telling scouts his senior year, ‘You gonna pay him a little bit now, or you’re gonna pay him a lot in a few years.’ They chose to do the latter.

“He stole thirty bases his senior year, so that’s always been part of his game. He could hit doubles in his sleep. Now he’s turning on the ball and hitting them out to right field. He just continually improved. That’s one thing we love about him, as a coach. He wants to get better, and those are the kids you love coaching.”

Colton Cowser MLB draft pick
Colton Cowser at a draft party on July 11, 2021.Courtesy of Sam Houston Athletics

Cowser’s steady improvement is one of his qualities that stands out most. Once he made Team USA, he climbed steadily up 2021 draft boards, taking a final leap this season when he added power—ten home runs over one thirteen-game stretch—to his offensive skillset. “I think everybody that saw him, even in high school, thought the power was gonna come at some point,” Sirianni said. “I think it goes back to his pitch selection and understanding what he hits hard and that kind of thing. Offensively, he’s way above his age. He has a feel for the strike zone. He understands how to make contact on tough pitches and not to chase the bad ones. Defensively, I wouldn’t say he’s the fastest guy in the draft or anything like that. But he gets really good jumps in the outfield.”

The coach was particularly impressed with the way Cowser managed the growing attention that came with star performances and his skyrocketing MLB Draft stock. “He just went about his business around here and tried to be one of the guys,” Sirianni said. “You’d never know he was a prospect if you saw him in our clubhouse. He was one of the guys. . . . He could laugh at himself. You know, after a bad at bat or something, he’d come in the dugout and go, ‘That wasn’t very good.’ He just never made it bigger than it was, and that’s a good quality to have. He loves being on the field. He loves being around his teammates. He likes the work.”

If his game lacks flash, it has most of the qualities Major League franchises covet in 2021. He’s patient at the plate and grinds out long at bats, obsesses over ways to improve, and prides himself on his defense and baserunning as much as his offense. Michael Brantley of the Astros and Christian Yelich of the Brewers—MLB stars noted for their low-key, workmanlike approach—are two of his favorite players. “I truly believe he doesn’t like the attention,” Sirianni said. “He actually kind of gets embarrassed by it. I think he’ll tune out that other stuff. He’s been under a microscope since he was with Team USA.”

Cowser batted .354 in 125 career games at Sam Houston, including .374 this season (with an eye-popping .490 on-base average). After hitting eight home runs in 70 games in his first two seasons, the 21-year-old led the Southland Conference with sixteen in 55 games this season as a junior. Cowser watched the draft from a bar near his Cypress home with his former high school teammate, Texas Longhorns right-hander Ty Madden, whom Detroit selected with the thirty-second pick.

“It’s a dream come true,” Cowser said Sunday in a call with reporters. “I’ve dreamed about this, and my family’s invested a lot into me. You know they’ve sacrificed all the time. Just to be able to spend it with friends and family means the world to me.”

MLB’s suggested signing bonus for the fifth pick is $6.18 million. The Orioles may have negotiated a lower figure with Cowser before the draft to allow them to spend more on later draft picks. But Elias, a former Astros executive who moved on to lead Baltimore through a full-blown franchise reconstruction, emphasized that the Orioles believe they’re getting a special player. “Colton has been and is one of the best pure hitters in the country since setting foot on campus at Sam Houston,” Elias said during a Sunday press conference. “He’s an elite contact hitter, he uses the whole field, and . . . he runs and throws and plays center field—and plays it well—and he’s just really able to do it all.”

Elias said his earliest memories of Cowser came from high school reports labeling the left-handed hitter as “young and skinny and not really a pro guy.” But the one thing Cowser could do was hit, and as he added weight and muscle to his six-foot-three frame, MLB teams began to see a potential impact player.

“He just started raking,” Elias said. “I mean, this guy rakes, and it was a name that you heard right away as a freshman that was going to be an elite player in the country. And he’s done that. And, you know, he’s gotten to this point with a lot of hard work, and he’s got a lot of projection ahead of him still. This isn’t a totally finished product.”