This Royals rookie set a club record

June 18th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers’ Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

KANSAS CITY -- When  first got the call to the big leagues in May, Triple-A pitching coach Dane Johnson had one piece of advice for the lefty: Don’t change what you’re doing.

Cox entered 2023 with a new mindset on attacking hitters and a better understanding of when and where to use his fastball. It led to success in Triple-A to start this season, including a rise in strikeouts, and an opportunity in the Kansas City bullpen on May 4.

Johnson didn’t want Cox changing his approach because of the emotions that came with pitching on a Major League mound. And so far, so good.

Cox has pitched 7 2/3 scoreless innings, with three walks and seven strikeouts, across four big league appearances this season, and he hasn’t allowed a hit to any of the 25 batters he’s faced. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the longest streak of batters faced by a Royal without allowing a hit to begin a Major League career, surpassing the previous mark held by D.J. Carrasco, who faced 23 batters before allowing a hit in 2003.

“I think I learned what I can and what I can’t do at a higher level,” Cox said before his debut. “That was one of the adjustments as far as where my fastball plays, where it doesn’t play.

“... That’s kind of the biggest thing, just pitching with confidence. I felt like the plan we put in place, I had a lot of trust in. That was where I felt like things ticked up.”

The confidence didn’t wane when Cox joined Kansas City despite a new role in relief. After the Royals drafted Cox in the fifth round of the 2018 MLB Draft out of Mercer University, they developed the 6-foot-4 lefty as a starter because of his four-pitch mix. He posted a 3.67 ERA across 89 appearances (80 starts) in the Minor Leagues.

But the club mentioned in Spring Training this year that his opportunity might come as a reliever to start his big league career. He got some experience throwing out of the ‘pen during Cactus League games.

“There was one time when I threw too many pitches warming up, like 30 pitches, and they mentioned to me, ‘Hey, if your role is in the bullpen, you need to be able to get hot quicker, or if we sit you down, you won’t be able to go back out there if you’ve thrown that many pitches,’” Cox said. “So that was something that really helped me. It was nice to get my feet under me in Spring Training.”

In Kansas City, Cox’s role has been long relief, two to three innings per appearance, in low-leverage spots. But his latest outing might have earned him more opportunities. Cox threw two scoreless innings against the Angels on Friday night, including the ninth inning facing Shohei Ohtani, who struck out looking at Cox’s fastball, and Mike Trout, who grounded out to second baseman Matt Duffy. 

Despite the Royals being down 3-0 at that point, manager Matt Quatraro wanted to see how Cox performed in that environment against those hitters.

“It’s incredible for him and his development, his growth,” Quatraro said. “One thing that can go overlooked is he’s pitching out of the bullpen in the big leagues for the first time, so you add adrenaline, you add a little bit more fatigue, and he’s still able to throw strikes consistently.”

Cox is one of the young players the Royals want to evaluate in the Majors this season, and that includes different roles. If he continues to attack the zone like he and Johnson discussed in Triple-A, there might be an avenue for Cox to start.

“Certainly wouldn’t be any reason to not think about that,” Quatraro said. “Opportunity needs to be there. But he’s somebody that the organization feels good about and he’s [done] nothing but back that up.”