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Raiding the zone: Minor League edition

Are the minor league affiliates raiding too?

MiLB: APR 10 Omaha Storm Chasers at New Orleans Zephyrs Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To be clear, there are two reasons why I am writing about this:

  1. I want to see a change in pitching philosophy top to bottom in the organization
  2. I don’t want to write about the major league team right now, it’s too depressing

With the shift to Matt Quatraro and the gang, the biggest expectation was that pitchers would be handled differently by doing things like having catchers would set up in the zone and emphasizing first pitch strikes up to and including paying players for giving up homers on first pitch strikes. This philosophy of filling up the strike zone sounds fantastic to me. Watching pitchers like Danny Duffy nibble their pitch counts up and never fulfill their potential has been infuriating for a very long time. With the preamble done, let’s see if the early returns are looking promising.

Columbia Fireflies

2022 K/9 - 9.27 BB/9 - 4.46

2023 K/9 - 12.24 BB/9 - 4.03

It is very early in the, only 13 games, but we already see the strike outs jumping way up. With any one team here keep in mind that changes in talent can be volatile in the minors year to year, so I am hoping to see consistency in the changes as we move up to higher levels. There are some particular bright spots in the group here. Frank Mozzicato has 26 strikeouts in 15 innings thus far and a 0.87 WHIP. That is some dominant stuff from the young lefty. Even more impressive is Steven Zobac who has been truly ridiculous. A fourth-round pick last season out of UC Berkeley, he has only thrown five innings and faced 16 batters. One got a hit, one put the ball in play but was out, and the other 14 all struck out! Another 2022 pick, David Sandlin, is off to a solid start too. We will avoid talking about Ben Kudrna, who is not as fun to talk about at the moment.

Quad Cities River Bandits

2022 K/9 - 9.3 BB/9 - 4.14

2023 K/9 - 12.02 BB/9 - 4.03

Again, the strike out rate has gone way up, and the walk rate has gone down, though very modestly. Mason Barnett, a surprising third-round pick last year, has gotten off to a very good start and will hopefully bring his walk rate from his third start forward as he walked only one.

Northwest Arkansas Naturals

2022 K/9 - 9.13 BB/9 - 5.28

2023 K/9 - 12.11 BB/9 - 4.06

The team has had a vast improvement over last season in both walks and strike outs. Alec Marsh is probably the most exciting guy here. A lot of prospect hounds were excited about Marsh after 2021 before a disastrous 2022 derailed his progression. Through three starts he has struck out 15 and walked 4 in 14 innings, which is a huge improvement over last season, especially in his walk rate. Anthony Veneziano is looking good too with a 16-to-1 strike out to walk rate. Andrew Hoffmann would be third one I am watching, he has been solid so far. The two names you might recognize that have been a bit disappointing are Beck Way and Jonathan Bowlan.

Omaha Storm Chasers

2022 K/9 - 8.5 BB/9 - 3.99

2023 K/9 - 8.63 BB/9 - 4.26

This is the one level where it is hard to find a lot of positives. They have looked a lot like last year on the K and BB rates. Without Omaha this would have been an easy everything looks better than last year sort of article, but alas the Royals cannot cooperate. I am encouraged by Jonathan Heasley’s last start where he went 7 innings and struck out 7 with no walks. Hopefully he can find something. The big league team needs a starter, and Omaha is not really giving them a lot of options.

Overall, I am pleased with what I learned sifting through the minor league pitchers. There seems to be progress being made at an aggregate level. In some ways, you would expect the lower minors to be affected more by a new philosophy as the pitchers are younger and less set in their routines as a pro pitcher. Strike outs are up, which is the most noticeable difference, and they are way up except in Omaha. Walks are down, but not as starkly, so I don’t trust them yet. After decades of failing to develop starting pitching, it is time for the Royals to right the ship, and the early returns are pointing in a positive direction. I will be checking back in on these guys periodically throughout the season.