Strikeouts on the rise in Royals’ farm system

Lefty Veneziano impressive at Double-A; Barnett, Mozzicato breaking off curves in A-ball

April 30th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- Something noticeable is happening in the Royals’ Minor League system. After a 2022 season that saw several steps backward with big prospect names, the script has been flipped to start ‘23.

Walks are down. Strikeouts are up. Several players at different levels rank in the top 100 across all Minor Leagues in ERA, WHIP, strikeout rate and walk rate. It’s a small sample size with only a month of games, but the signs are encouraging for senior pitching director Paul Gibson and his team in player development.

“I go back to last July when I was driving from [Double-A Northwest Arkansas] back to Kansas City,” Gibson said. “I was trying to figure out what was going on. In the fall, Mitch Stetter and I, along with Justin Friedman, started to put player plans together with the player and let them express to us where they felt like they were short.

With the Fountains available, we were able to get a lot of players to come earlier in the year, with their throwing programs starting earlier by design. … When [Spring Training] games started, they had already pitched intrasquads. They all got a really gradual buildup. It’s not everything, but I feel confident that played a big role in this.”

Triple-A: RHP
Eight appearances (one start), 14 1/3 innings, 10.05 ERA, 20.3 K%, 14.9 BB%

In Kowar’s case, the stats don’t tell the full story. He’s appeared out of the bullpen for the majority of his outings for the first time in his career, so he’s getting used to that role and throwing his slider more than he ever has before.

“That’s what you’ll see from him in that role, around a 40% slider, 30% changeup, 30% fastball,” Gibson said. “He has that little bit of extra fastball in the bullpen, which helps his changeup and slider.

“His confidence was obviously shaken pretty well over the last couple years, and I think at this point, he knows he’s got weapons. The true test comes when he strings together three, four, five outings down here and eventually gets his opportunity again, whether he can keep that mindset and carry it through.”

Double-A: LHP Anthony Veneziano
Four starts, 20 innings, 2.25 ERA, 31.7 K% (ranked 59th in MiLB), 3.7 BB% (15th)

After a breakout 2021 performance with High-A Quad Cities, Veneziano had a 5.72 ERA in Double-A last year and he struggled with several aspects of the game, from walks to hard-hit rate. The 25-year-old is back with Northwest Arkansas to start the year and looks to be back on track.

“A lot of it has to do with his dedication to his strength and throwing program in the offseason,” Gibson said. “He came in exceptionally prepared, and he’s got three pitches right now. His stuff wasn’t what it is now. He was pitching in the low-90s, his command was iffy. Now this year, he’s back in that 95-97 mph spot for his fastball, and he’s got good numbers on his horizontal and vertical movement.”

Others of note in Double-A are No. 16 prospect , who is on the Royals’ 40-man roster and has a 3.32 ERA in four starts this year. No. 14 prospect looks legit with an elite breaking ball.

(No. 11) is on the seven-day injured list with a mild groin issue, but Gibson doesn’t expect it to be a lengthy IL stay.

High-A: RHP Mason Barnett
Three starts, 16 innings, 1.13 ERA, 30.6 K% (69th in MiLB), 12.9 BB%

The walks are a bit high for the Royals’ No. 18 prospect and third-round Draft pick out of Auburn last year, but he’s limiting damage against him in his first professional year. He started in High-A rather than Single-A because of his maturity, and so far, it’s paying off.

“He’s sort of an old-school kind of competitor,” Gibson said. “He doesn’t say much, he’s got a gruff kind of personality. He’s able to understand and make adjustments. He’s got two really good breaking balls.

“In A-ball, when he’s got two breaking balls like he does and you throw strikes, you’re going to have success. He’s got a chance to move pretty quick if he continues.”

Single-A: LHP Frank Mozzicato
Four starts, 19 innings, 1.42 ERA, 44.2 K% (third in MiLB), 15.6 BB%

The Royals’ first-round pick (No. 7 overall) in the 2021 MLB Draft and their No. 7 prospect added considerable strength this offseason working out with Cressey Sports Performance, helping to address a major question about his future as a starter. He is known for his curveball, but the lefty made progress with his changeup last year and began to put the whole package together in the Royals’ instructional league last fall.

“You don’t see the physicality yet, but you can see the strength coming,” Gibson said. “The curveball is better than it’s ever been. And the confidence level is through the roof.

“[Last year], a lot of his walks came from fatigue later in his outings. Now he’s in the fifth inning and he looks like he did in the first inning.”