Dallas Baptist University has become one of college baseball’s premier non-Power 5 programs over the last decade plus, and their success has been built in large part on identifying overlooked pitching talent in their backyard. The Astros’ Rhett Kouba was one such arm, coming to DBU by way of North Central Texas College- as a JUCO freshman he was wild, but dialed things in as a sophomore, earning the attention of the Patriots. He opened his season in Dallas in a bullpen role, but impressed enough to earn a starting gig by the beginning of April, which he held onto for the remainder of the season. On the whole he recorded a 2.77 ERA, striking out 87 against 23 walks in 74 and 2⁄3 innings, and improved as the season wore on. This was particularly impressive given the jump in competition he faced moving from JUCO ball to the competitive Missouri Valley Conference, and earned him enough pro interest that he made the decision to sign and forgo his remaining year of eligibility.
Kouba would get his feet wet in the minors prior to the end of the season, throwing 18 and 1⁄3 innings across Complex and Low-A ball, striking out 20 against just 2 walks, showcasing his vastly improved strike throwing ability. He would return to Low-A to open 2022, but wouldn’t stay for long, as it was quickly clear that the level wasn’t challenging him, and he was promoted to Asheville after just 4 appearances. Kouba would remain with the Tourists for the rest of 2022, and while he was hit a bit harder, he continued to fill up the zone and miss bats, usually with his breaking stuff, striking out 65 against 22 walks in 55 and 2⁄3 innings while allowing 8 homers. He earned a bit of late season recognition from the prospecting media, with most of the praise focusing on his location and slider quality. The Astros kept him moving with a trip to the AFL after the season, where he uncharacteristically walked 10 in 18 and 1⁄3 innings, but continued to rack up strikeouts with 21.
The strong 2022 earned Kouba a spot on Corpus Christi’s opening day roster, where he quickly took the reins as the staff ace. After a couple of so-so outings to open the year, Kouba reeled off three straight lights out appearances in which he totaled 16 IP, 20 Ks and just 1 BB. While he did allow a pair of homers during that stretch, he was so stingy otherwise that those represented his only earned runs. Already a strong strike thrower, Kouba’s command has looked further improved this season, which has helped him manage hard contact despite a so-so fastball that sits in the low-90s. His slider has continued to be the strongest tool in his kit, with tilting, diving action, putting fastball hunters at risk of swinging well over the top of a breaker. He’ll also mix in the occasional changeup, and while it shows solid movement it is used sparingly as the breaking ball is effective against lefties with its significant vertical movement, so it will likely continue to play a small role in his gameplan.
Kouba’s quick rise has been welcome in a Houston farm system that has struggled a bit on the pitching side in 2023, and has also afforded him the opportunity to start deeper into his climb up the ladder since he won’t be Rule 5 eligible until next season. The jump to Triple-A will be illuminating, as the big concern about his profile is the fastball quality (it doesn’t have bat missing movement or velocity), and the PCL’s offense-friendly environment will magnify a hittable heater. A move to the bullpen, where he can pitch off of the slider more and perhaps pick up some extra velocity to allow the fastball to play better, could make sense for Kouba at some point, but his early performance and the flexibility allowed by his Rule 5 status should earn him plenty of additional leash in the rotation in the short term.