When Kansas City Royals prospect and former Blue Valley Southwest star Ben Kudrna took the ball for the first time this season with the Columbia Fireflies — his debut as a professional baseball player — it marked a milestone in his baseball life.
Just one year prior, he’d been a high school standout preparing to attend LSU and working his way toward an eventual Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year award.
By May, when he made his debut with the Low-A Fireflies, Kudrna’s maturation and transformation had already begun. Bigger, stronger and with a modified pitch repertoire, the right-hander finished the year having garnered Columbia’s Pitcher of the Year award.
The 19-year-old selected 43rd overall in the 2021 MLB Draft seems to have fully embraced all that comes with pro ball, including traveling to new cities, bonding with new teammates from different regions and countries and generally adjusting to life away from home.
“Nothing short of exciting, amazing and fun,” Kudrna said of his first professional season.
At the same time, he’s only looking at this year as a “starting point” on his journey.
Kudrna displays the demeanor of someone who is having a blast with it all.
“It was awesome to say the least,” Kudrna said. “I always grew up loving traveling, especially summer ball. I played and traveled a lot by myself when I was going through the circuit in high school. I’ve always loved it.
“I like going to new places, getting to experience new things. I like being on my own. I think from a maturity standpoint, it’s great. You’ve got to figure out how to do things on your own. You don’t have mom and dad by your side to help you with everything. It’s what I asked for. It’s what I love. I like being independent, figuring things out, learning. Then, obviously, getting to play baseball day by day is also awesome.”
As far as familiar faces go, Kudrna has an older sister who started graduate school nearby at the University of South Carolina. Other family members, including his father and grandparents, have made visits.
But the local kid with the golden arm certainly seems to have jumped head-first into life as a professional baseball player with the goal of one day making it to the mound at Kauffman Stadium.
Drafted out of high school at 6 feet, 3 inches tall, Kudrna certainly had the makings of a potentially imposing presence. While he won’t turn 20 until January, he has already started filling out that frame.
He weighed approximately 185 pounds when he got drafted. With the Royals’ strength and conditioning, training, performance science and nutrition staffs at his disposal starting last summer, he’d gotten up to 215 pounds.
“From just a throwing standpoint and a bodily standpoint, everything felt a lot easier this year,” Kudrna said. “Putting on that weight and getting strong, turning it into muscle, things became a lot easier.
“I don’t have to be some grunt, muscle-up, grip it and rip it kind of guy. I can hone in more mechanically on this is what I want to do. And I know, now with my body type, that it’s going to come out how I want it to.”
Kudrna found out late in the season that the added strength and bulk also contributed to his fatigue as he reached the dog days of his first pro season.
While it was expected, it’s still an ongoing learning experience.
“Its kind of like I’m a boxer, figuring out what weight I like to fight at,” Kudrna said. “But it’s a year-by-year thing. A lot of times they say you really won’t know what weight you really like being at until you hit the bigs because you’re going to fluctuate and you’re not going to know how your body feels season-by-season, game-by-game, week-by-week until you’re kind of progressing at different weeks.”
Ben Kudrna’s strikeouts was our ABC Quality Play of the Game presented by the South Carolina Department of Social Services from last night! pic.twitter.com/AAXsHD2cPp
— Columbia Fireflies (@ColaFireflies) May 22, 2022
Changing as a pitcher
Kudrna largely dominated in high school with a fastball and a slider. He had a changeup, but it wasn’t a regular part of his arsenal simply because it wasn’t needed.
Last summer, when he reported to Arizona for the club’s mini-camp, the Royals had him throwing that changeup regularly in order for him to learn the action of the pitch as he and the player development staff familiarized themselves with his “stuff” during bullpen sessions. They used a variety of tools in their familiarization process, including Rapsodo and Trackman data, as well as Edgertronic cameras.
“My changeup was probably the biggest stride and step forward I made,” Kudrna said. “My slider, I had at times. It had good action all year, but I wasn’t throwing it for strikes as much.
“I got saved a little by being able to throw my changeup consistently for strikes, getting weak contact on it, being able to throw it down in counts, ahead in counts. So that was really exciting to see for me, just because last year it was a big focus and I worked on it a lot.”
Kudrna posted a 2-5 record with a 3.48 ERA (28 earned runs in 72 1/3 innings) with 61 strikeouts and a .239 opponents’ batting average in 17 starts for the Fireflies.
He considered his success at Low-A a big step.
“I got a great idea of how I’ll probably want to pitch and like to pitch.”
He found it “different” but also came away encouraged that his changeup overtook his slider as his second-best pitch. He still expects his slider to come around, but the progress of the changeup had him excited.
“It was good just to see it develop and blossom,” Kudrna said.
Royals assistant director of player development Malcom Culver was once drafted by the Royals as a teenage pitching prospect (2008). He spent 10 years in the minors and reached the Triple-A level.
Kudrna’s ongoing physical transformation was something Culver experienced first-hand in his own career. Creating good habits, learning to eat right, getting on a weight program — it’s all part of the early adjustment process.
But Culver also pointed out that some of the signs of a young minor-leaguer’s work don’t show up at this early stage. Especially for a high school draftee like Kudrna.
“That second season, that’s when you start seeing the strength and the physicality of them coming out,” Culver said.
Goal number one from an organizational standpoint for a first-year pitcher like Kudrna is simply to get through the first season healthy. Secondly, they want the first year to set that pitcher up for future success.
Kudrna started off with some guidelines for innings and or pitch counts. Until July, he didn’t throw more than four innings in any start. In his debut against Myrtle Beach, went 3 2/3 innings despite only allowing one hit and logging five strikeouts.
Despite those early restrictions, Kudrna finished the season with three quality starts in his final seven starts.
“Kind of letting the reins loose on him towards the end of the season, he did nothing but excel,” Culver said. “He went and was aggressive pitching to hitters, using his changeup more. Not only being able to do that outing to outing, but also being able to — in his bullpen work — fine-tune certain pitches.”
The Royals even saw his velocity tick up toward the middle and end of the season as he settled into his mechanics.
Asked if Kudrna had met or exceeded club expectations in his first year, Culver said the Royals don’t evaluate it that way.
“We just knew that he’s a great young pitcher, and we have nothing but great things in mind for him,” Culver said. “He’s held up to that. From an organizational standpoint, he has done nothing but excel.”