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Minor League Minute: John McMillon and the Royals' pitching improvements

The Royals flamethrower has a 17.7 SO/9 this season

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Royals signed John McMillon as an undrafted free agent following the shortened 2020 MLB Draft. Due to the pandemic, the draft was just five rounds. For the Royals, it looked like a steal. McMillon was formerly drafted as a high schooler in the 21st round of the 2016 draft by the Rays. He didn’t sign and instead attended Texas Tech where he would be drafted by the Tigers following his sophomore season. If not for the shortened draft, he would have certainly been drafted — possibly in the first ten rounds.

McMillon spent some time on the injured list in his first season — a 2021 campaign that saw him pitch at Rookie-ball and Low-A Columbia. Last season, he split time between Columbia and the Development List, ultimately tossing 31.0 innings with a 6.10 ERA. This season, the results have been far better for the flamethrowing righty. He started his season at Low-A Columbia once again, throwing 10.2 innings with a 3.38 ERA. Over those innings, he posted a dominant 17.7 SO/9 with a career-low 5.1 walks per nine.

I spoke with John via phone interview on Monday to ask him about his early season so far and find out what sort of changes the Royals have made in the minor leagues that may be benefiting him so far.

Q: “I wanted to ask you about life in the minors. This season you started the season in Columbia, and you quickly earned a promotion up to Quad Cities. How’s that adjustment been for you and do you notice any difference in competition so far?”

“It was a pretty smooth transition,” McMillon said. “As far as logistics of everything and getting my stuff moved from one place to the next. Competition-wise, so far I haven’t really noticed much of a difference.”

There hasn’t been much of a difference in the stat column, that’s for sure. Since earning a promotion to High-A Quad Cities back on May 9, he’s pitched just three innings but already struck out seven batters. He’s hitting triple digits regularly and owns a 3.00 ERA for Quad Cities thus far. The “stuff” is outstanding for McMillon, and as he’s improved his command, the makings of a true late-inning reliever are there.

Q: “It’s pretty early, but who, if anyone, has been the life of the clubhouse there in Iowa? Does anybody stand out?”

“There’s a lot of characters that are in a boiling pot in there,” McMillon said. “There’s some goofballs but it’s a bunch of good guys, we all have a good time together. A lot of us know each other from just playing baseball throughout the years so it’s a good locker room.”

In Quad Cities, he joins an impressive crop of pitching talent that includes standouts like Noah Cameron and Luinder Avila. However, there are also others having outstanding seasons under the radar thus far. Anderson Paulino has an 0.64 ERA over his first 11 appearances this season. Chandler Champlain — acquired in the Andrew Benintendi trade — has also enjoyed a strong start to his season. In all, the Quad Cities pitching staff ranks first in the Midwest League with 357 strikeouts this season. McMillon should be right at home with his new peers.

“It’s been a great season thus far for you. You’ve struck out 18.4 batters per nine — your highest mark since your senior year at Texas Tech. At the same time, your walks are down to the lowest mark of your career. What’s been the driving force for you? Can you describe the “secret sauce” for your improvement?”

“I don't really believe in a secret, it’s just a combination of having a good plan together,” McMillon said. “Knowing how we’re going to pitch hitters and how we’re going to attack hitters and just executing that. There’s no real secret or anything.”

Attacking hitters has been a trend among the Royals' minor leagues this season. Quad Cities owns a 2.41 SO/BB mark as a team. At Low-A, the Columbia Fireflies currently rank first in the Carolina League with 365 strikeouts this season. They’ve also walked the second fewest batters — good for a 2.87 SO/BB. At Double-A? You guessed it. The Naturals lead the Texas League in strikeouts with 346.

I asked McMillon if he feels like there’s been any shift this season in approach.

“Do you feel like there’s been any sort of shift this season in that approach? The pitching success in the lower minors has been a big headline for the Royals this season.”

McMillon spoke on the changes this season compared to years passed. “We have had some philosophy change I would say, within the pitching department. There have been some things change the last couple years,” he said. McMillon, who entered the Royals system in 2021 along with Frank Mozzicato and Ben Kudrna, is a testament to how those changes are improving results for developing arms. “One of those [changes] being the access to information that we’re given,” he continued.

“So now, with the analytics and Trackman data that the Royals are getting for us, they’re putting the information in spaces that it’s available to us.” They’re not just giving the information, but they’re applying it on the mound. “[The Royals] are telling us what those numbers mean and how to relay that into a pitching plan.”

I wanted to know how those numbers applied to McMillon specifically.

“Based on that data, do you think there’s any one thing that stands out that’s been more of a focus this year for you than it was over the last couple of seasons?”

For McMillon, it’s been about simplifying the process on the mound. “There’s been a focus this year about simplifying approach and not wasting any pitches.” After we’ve seen numerous pitchers debut and run up high pitch counts in Kansas City, that’s a more-than-welcome development among the Pitching Development team. McMillon elaborated a bit more on that point. “Just making sure that every pitch we’re throwing is competitive. A competitive pitch isn’t even necessarily a perfect pitch that you execute. It’s just close enough that you might get a swing.”

Throwing those competitive pitches has created more strikeouts in the minors. It’s also helped to limit hits. Northwest Arkansas ranks second in the Texas League with a .232 opponent batting average. Quad Cities is third in the Midwest League with a .215 mark, and Columbia is dominating with a league-leading .201 mark. The results are working throughout the system. For McMillon, he heads to Wisconsin tomorrow to kick off a 6-game road trip. His goals for the rest of this season involve “taking care of [his] body and applying that approach.” So far, so good.

Before I let him go, I had to get some insight into what matters most.

“Let’s say you’re entering the game to lock it down in the ninth. You’ve made it to the major leagues. What’s your choice for a kick-ass intro song? Diaz has Timmy Trumpet, Mariano had Enter Sandman. What’s your pick?”

“Right now —I’ve had a few different songs. Right now, it would be Greta Van Fleet, Highway Tune.” John McMillon — known fan of the Zeppelin sound.