The KC Royals struggles with developing pitching prospects are well documented and accepted. Even other franchises' scouts recognize the issue, saying the Royals have “stud pitchers”, but fail to develop them into major leaguers. It is hard to disagree with the assessment. Danny Duffy is the Royals' only pitcher drafted, developed, or acquired via trade worth more than 10 wins above replacement since 2009. Yordano Ventura could have been another success story for pitching development, but who else is behind them? Jakob Junis, Brad Keller, and many more high-round selections have not panned out.
One pitching prospect's early season success shows promise for KC Royals new pitching development.
But several new coaches at the major- and minor-league levels are bringing new approaches to pitching development. Each coach has a different style of coaching, but the mantra “Raid the Zone” should resonate through the farm system. This will cause some previously unknown prospects to rise, fitting into the new coaching goals or the desired profile. The first such example has to be pitcher Steven Zobac.
The Royals drafted Zobac 115th overall in the 2022 draft out of California. He was primarily a bullpen arm in his collegiate career, with 11 starts in 39 appearances. He was not a shutdown pitcher in his junior season, with a 4.09 ERA over 20 games. But the stuff was there. His 10.5 K9 and 2.9 BB9 were both career bests for Zobac, outside of a five-inning freshman year. Also, Zobac boosted his draft stock with his late-season performance for the Golden Bears. Zobac joined California's starting rotation with seven starts over his last eight appearances. Four of those starts were shutouts by Zobac, and he allowed eight total runs over those last eight appearances. The former outfielder willed his way into being a draft prospect, and the Royals took a shot on Zobac.
That is paying big dividends this season.
Zobac, who is nowhere near any major prospect lists this season, is overpowering his Low-A competition. So far in 2023, he is one of the best young pitchers in all of the minors.
Zobac struck out the first 10 batters he faced in his professional career, an impressive start for any pitcher. He has allowed four hits and no runs through 11 innings, all in relief. His absurd 18.82 K9 jumps off the stat sheet, while only one walk quantifies his exceptional command. Those numbers will certainly regress as he hits some rough patches, but Zobac has been dominant so far for Columbia.
Zobac is still developing his pitching arsenal, relying on a mid-90s fastball and solid slider. His changeup could use some work, but he used it in college, and the Royals could develop that as a third pitch. His arsenal right now fits his bullpen role well and is more than good enough against his opponents.
Zobac may not be a notable prospect right now, but give it time. The 22-year-old pitcher still has room to grow and time to do it. He may make the jump onto prospect lists come midseason or after this season. But in a system that previously relied on a pitcher's potential, Zobac is producing in the minors. Royals fans should take note of this dominant reliever's performance in Columbia.