Royals' 2021 Draft pick already impressing

July 5th, 2022

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.

HOUSTON -- On the day of Ben Kudrna’s first professional start for the Royals’ organization, he woke up early to get all the nervous jitters out of the way before heading to the ballpark. As he ate breakfast and tried to calm his pounding heart, he called his mom to check in, but she didn’t answer.  

Kudrna knew his parents were going to host a big watch party for friends and family in Kansas City that day. So he checked Life360, a location-sharing app, to see what his mom was up to that morning.

Turns out, she was just a few miles from him, in Columbia, S.C.

“I ruined that surprise a little bit,” Kudrna said. “There was actually a rain delay that night, so I went out to the dugout to find my mom and dad. I acted surprised. They said, ‘You really think we wouldn’t be here for your first start?’ And I had to tell them about the Life360 thing.”

That was May 21, when Kudrna -- the Royals’ second-round pick in the 2021 Draft out of Blue Valley Southwest High School, just outside of Kansas City -- made his debut for Single-A Columbia and allowed one run in 3 2/3 innings with one walk and five strikeouts. 

“Once you get on the mound and throw that first pitch, all the nerves go away,” Kudrna, 19, said. “You sit back and do your thing. Postgame emotions, obviously super excited. It was a great debut, got to see my parents afterward and got to go out to eat with Frank and Shane and all the guys. It was really special.”

The Royals are being deliberately slow with the progression of their top three high school starting pitchers they drafted last year -- Kudrna, Frank Mozzicato (first round) and Shane Panzini (fourth round) -- but all three were sent to Columbia in mid-May and are in the rotation with about a 60-pitch limit for each start, depending on stress innings and other factors. 

“When Frank was sent out first, we were super happy for him, and we all joked, ‘Oh come on, they have to send all three of us. We’re the trio,’” Kudrna said. “Then I was soon after and Shane was right behind, and we were all excited for each other, because we know how bad each of us wants to get out there and finally start our professional careers.” 

Each has flashed their potential over these first two months of pitching for an affiliate, and Kudrna, ranked as the Royals’ No. 7 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has been dominant so far, posting a 2.33 ERA in 27 innings across eight starts, with 29 strikeouts. From a stat line perspective, there has been one rough start, when he allowed four runs in one inning to Charleston on June 21. I spoke with Kudrna two days after that, and he mentioned how glad he was that it was his turn to pitch twice that week (Tuesday and Sunday with the six-game series) so he could get back on the mound quickly.  

That Sunday, against the same team, he threw four scoreless innings with two hits. 

“The most impressive thing for me is his mound composure, it’s been exceptional,” Royals pitching coordinator Paul Gibson said. “Even when he’s had some innings where things have piled up on him, you don’t see the stress getting to him. He’s very locked in on what he’s doing. And good, bad, indifferent outing, the next day, he’s enjoying himself.”

The other impressive thing about Kudrna’s start to his career has been the development of his changeup. Kudrna rocketed up Draft boards last year with his 95-97 mph heater and his strong, durable 6-foot-3 frame. He threw a slider in high school and showed a potential for a changeup, but the Royals knew they were getting what Gibson calls a “blank slate” when they signed him away from his LSU commitment last summer. 

In other words, it’s the perfect situation to teach a changeup. 

“With young guys that are sort of a blank slate, they’re the easiest ones to teach it to, because you find a comfortable grip, you get in the mindset of throwing a fastball with a changeup grip, and it’s a lot easier,” Gibson said. “As players get older and experiment with more pitches, they have a tendency to want to work the ball with their hand, manipulate the ball a little bit more, so once they go down that road, it’s harder to find a grip and find a comfort zone.” 

Comfortability is how Kudrna describes his changeup, as he found a grip during instructional league last fall that played off the two-seam fastball he threw in high school. With the movement, extension and how it plays off his high-velocity fastball, Kudrna’s changeup has become a true weapon for him this year. 

“It happened really quick, too,” Kudrna said. “It’s probably become one of my favorite pitches to throw. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it, throwing in all types of counts, and I think just throwing it more has led to that. We talked a lot about getting extension on it and throwing it like a fastball, and a lot of the drills I did in Arizona for the changeup at 90 feet definitely helped a lot as well. It’s one of those repetition pitches.”

What will come next is the development of Kudrna’s slider, which is serviceable in Single-A and has shown better action to it but can be loose at times. That pitch will be a fall project for Kudrna, because for now, he’s focused on building his arm strength, working on the changeup and getting a feel for a starting routine alongside Mozzicato and Panzini. 

“We’re super close and always learning from each other,” Kudrna said. “Wherever we are, it’s always going to be that way. I think the biggest thing we’ve all learned is the hitters are a lot better here than in Arizona. The way you approach things is different. But I think sticking to my game is key, pitching to your strengths. I’ve stayed pretty true to that. We’re having a lot of fun just pitching and learning.”