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Intriguing developments are happening with Royals minor league pitching

It’s a good start

Jonathan Bowlan #62 of the Kansas City Royals poses for a photo on media day at Surprise Stadium on February 22, 2023 in Surprise, Arizona.
Jonathan Bowlan #62 of the Kansas City Royals poses for a photo on media day at Surprise Stadium on February 22, 2023 in Surprise, Arizona.
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

The best outcome for a pitcher is a strikeout. The worst outcome for a pitcher—other than a home run—is a walk. A strikeout avoids the possibility that a ball in play becomes a hit. A walk, on the other hand, removes the possibility that a ball put in play becomes an out. Both are (nearly) assured results in opposite directions: a sure out, or a sure baserunner.

As a result, it is a pretty good idea for pitchers to get a lot of strikeouts and avoid walks. The best stat to measure this aspect of their performance is K-BB%, which simply subtracts a pitcher’s walk rate from their strikeout rate. The higher the number, the better. Simple enough.

Unfortunately, the Royals have been very, very bad at this for a long time. Last year, the Royals were the only team in baseball with a single-digit K-BB%, and it was the 19th worst performance by a team in the entire previous decade. In fact, since the Royals won the World Series, they’ve been the third-worst team in the league at K-BB%. No wonder they’ve lost a lot of games in that time frame; their pitchers have been some of the worst in the league at producing desirable pitching outcomes.

And while the Royals’ record reflects their thin level of talent across the organization and especially at and near the big league level, there’s been some notable improvement when it comes to strikeout and walk rates. Kansas City trotted out most of the same pitching staff as last year, but a quick look at Fangraphs shows that they have jumped all the way from 30th in K-BB% to 18th.

It is even more pronounced in the farm system, where a collection of prominent minor league pitchers are showing improvements in strikeout rate, walk rate, or both, resulting in big improvements to their K-BB%.

Royals Raiding the Zone

Name Age 2023 K-BB% 2022 K-BB% Improvement
Name Age 2023 K-BB% 2022 K-BB% Improvement
Christian Chamberlain 23 37.3% 4.0% 33.3%
Luinder Avila 21 36.4% 9.6% 26.8%
Dante Biasi 25 33.3% 8.6% 24.7%
Jonathan Bowlan 26 28.2% 7.1% 21.1%
Noah Murdock 24 20.0% 3.3% 16.7%
Frank Mozzicato 19 28.6% 12.4% 16.2%
Anthony Veneziano 25 26.7% 11.1% 15.6%
Andrew Hoffmann 23 18.9% 5.4% 13.5%
Will Klein 23 13.5% 1.7% 11.8%
Chandler Champlain 23 17.9% 7.1% 10.8%
Drew Parrish 25 12.2% 2.1% 10.1%
Wander Arias 23 21.4% 11.4% 10.0%
Alec Marsh 24 19.2% 9.3% 9.9%
Austin Cox 26 13.6% 8.5% 5.1%
Shane Panzini 21 12.3% 9.9% 2.4%
Ben Kudrna 20 11.6% 9.3% 2.3%

Before you go away thinking “man, this is definitive evidence that the Royals’ pitching development is fixed,” you should pump the breaks. We’re a month into the season, and small sample sizes are still a thing. Furthermore, multiple key Royals pitching prospects are injured—including Angel Zerpa and Asa Lacy—which limits the effectiveness of this list. And, of course, there are notable players who have not improved, including Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, and Jonathan Heasley, a group that is arguably more important than any collection of minor leaguers.

Still—I can’t help but be intrigued. See, it’s not super common for players to see their K-BB% increase by greater than 10% between seasons. It never happened in full season minor league ball for Kowar, or Singer, or Daniel Lynch or Scott Barlow or Danny Duffy or Kelvin Herrera. It never happened for Sandy Alcantra or Dylan Cease. But here we are, and the Royals have a bunch of guys who are better, and in some cases way better, out of nowhere.

We would be remiss without discussing a few additional points of positive data while we’re at it. Kris Bubic is one, because even though he injured his elbow, he looked like a completely different pitcher. Noah Cameron, a 23-year-old lefty, has dominated batters since day one. His K-BB figure of 35.8% would have been second best among anybody in the above list—except he was just as good last year, with a rate of 35.9%. And David Sandlin, a 22-year-old starting pitcher fresh out of the 2022 draft, hit the ground running this year in his first full-season minor league stint with a K-BB figure of 35.1%.

If you choose to be pessimistic or wary about the Royals and the pitchers on the farm, that’s a completely reasonable stance. The Royals have been so bad at producing pitching talent for so long that the onus on them is to prove that their pitching development is better. One month of data is not enough to overturn years of evidence that suggests we should be wary.

And yet, the extent of improvement across the Royals organization when it comes to striking batters out and avoiding walks is so striking and different from their past reputation in such a specific way that it is worth keeping track of as the season goes on. The real test will happen later this year: will these young minor league players continue to do well in the upper minors? And will the Royals draft better pitchers in the first place? We’ll have to wait and see.