Last weekend, I was enjoying a great weekend series between the West Michigan Whitecaps and Lansing Lugnuts and had the chance to talk to a young pitcher for the Whitecaps who is making a lot of waves in the Midwest League in 2014.
Massachusetts native Kevin Ziomek, 22, was originally drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 13th round of the 2010 draft but chose to attend university to pitch for Vanderbilt, widely known as one of the top college programs for pitchers. After three years there, the lefty improved his draft stock quite a bit, getting selected by the Detroit Tigers in the second round of the 2013 draft.
In 2013, Ziomek only pitched eight innings for the Connecticut Tigers (Detroit’s Short-Season-A affiliate) before being shut down for the year (but not because of an injury). He’s come back in 2014 with the Whitecaps and has been excellent so far, posting a 1.38 ERA, 1.10 WHIP with 33 strikeouts and 13 walks in 32 2/3 innings. You can see my scouting report of Ziomek at the second part of my series on scouting the pitchers that weekend.
I spoke to Ziomek last Sunday (May 4), the day after a very strong start in which he struck out nine Lugnuts in six innings of work.
Jay Blue: [You’re] coming off a couple of really strong starts for the White Caps. last night in Lansing . . . [you] went 6 innings and only gave up two runs. [You were] very strong all night. What can you tell us about the start last night?
Kevin Ziomek: I felt good. Came out with a plan trying to attack some guys with fastballs early. It worked out; they started jumping on it a little bit into the game so we had to mix it up a little bit but overall I felt pretty good about it.
JB: How are you adjusting to the Midwest League, it’s your first season starting the year in the minor leagues. What can you tell us about that?
KZ: Anytime early in the season you want to come out and establish your stuff early on. I think early on in the season I was a little bit wild, command-wise but I think I was able to make some adjustments here in the last couple of weeks and it’s really paid off.
JB: Is there anything in particular that you’ve been working on with your pitching coaches here?
KZ: Yeah, definitely. Just trying to stay slow, mechanically. Especially early in the season, guys tend to rush through their delivery a little bit, get a little excited. I think I definitely was, especially [in the] first couple of outings but lately I’ve been feeling pretty good, slowing everything down, feeling a lot more compact, and it’s paying off.
JB: You’ve come out of Vanderbilt University where they have a very, very strong program. What can you tell us about the things you worked on there and how you were enjoying your time there at Vanderbilt?
KZ: I really enjoyed Vanderbilt. It was a great place. I’ll never forget it there but obviously now being in pro ball, there are some adjustments you’ve got to make. There are different kinds of hitters, smarter hitters and you’re playing every single day so it’s a completely different routine you’ve got to be able to adjust to. I think that first year is kind of an adjustment period. I’ve been trying to figure out things, what I need to do, asking some of the older guys, some of the coaches, what works and what doesn’t work. It’s been interesting to see the differences between the two.
JB: What are some of the differences between college baseball and professional baseball?
KZ: Obviously the schedule. You’re on the road six days at a time, seven days at a time with these road trips. You’ve got to get adjusted to that. For me, the biggest thing has been off the field. On the field, you’re still playing baseball. The mound is still 60 feet, 6 inches away. It’s not any different. You’ve got to be able to adjust to your eating habits, your running, all that kind of stuff. Your preparation is the biggest thing for me.
JB: Is it a bit of a relief not having to go to class, not having to worry about that half of your life, you can focus completely on baseball?
KZ: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, sometimes it’s kind of good to have a little distraction from baseball where you can get away. Obviously, going to classes isn’t always ideal but for me it’s kind of a good distraction sometimes because if you’re thinking about baseball 24/7, it can be bad. Being in pro ball, you’ve got to find something else whether it’s video games, hanging out with your buddies, talking to your family or whatever. You’ve got to be able to find things to keep your mind of baseball 24/7, at least that’s how I am.
JB: Is that what you do to get away from the game? Play video games? Or is there something else you like to do in you down time?
KZ: I think a lot of us like to play video games, go fishing, that kind of stuff. Some guys play a little golf, anything you can do. Obviously you’ve got to get down here to the field and focus, but I think baseball is such a mental game at times, people can overthink it and keeping everything simple is the best way to go.
JB: I know last year, you started in the New York-Penn league playing short season ball and I know the Tigers wanted to be careful with you. Can you tell us what was going on there, I know you only had, I think, eight innings pitched for the professional part of the season, obviously you had a much longer season playing in college. Can you tell us what was happening at the time, what was going through your head?
KZ: Yeah. Not too much. I think like I talked about it earlier, it was just an adjustment period, getting into pro ball. They were up front with me and they told me, listen, we’re going to be pretty careful with you, we’re not going to overuse you or anything. I was right on page with that. I thought it ended up being pretty good for me, to get in there and get a couple of starts under my belt but not do too much where I would hurt my arm or anything like that.
JB: Can you tell our listeners what’s been your favorite thing about the Midwest League so far?
KZ: I really enjoy just getting to go to all these different stadiums and see them. From every stadium I’ve been to so far, they’re pretty nice ballparks and it’s kinda cool to check that out. Obviously in college ball, high school ball, you’ve got some okay stadiums, some of them are pretty cool. In professional baseball, there’s a lot of different aspects here, all the food, and hopefully when the weather warms up we’ll get more fans out there so it’s pretty cool to check out all of the different stadiums.
JB: I know your stadium, Fifth Third Ballpark was gutted by a fire this offseason. I’ve heard you guys are just getting back into your own clubhouse on your next homestand. What’s that been like, coming into a field that’s still being reconstructed.
KZ: Honestly, they did such a good job with making all of the improvements on it and putting everything back together, we didn’t notice much of a difference. We got there and they had rebuilt the whole stadium. Obviously our locker room wasn’t 100% done but the skyboxes, the seats on the first base side were all fixed up. The stadium looked beautiful when we got there and I was really impressed with the job they did after seeing what it was like just after the fire versus opening day, it was pretty impressive. I guess we’ll be getting moved into our locker room soon and it hasn’t been too bad at all. We’ve made the right adjustments and it’s been fine.
JB: Kevin, just one more question. Do you have any personal goals or goals for the team going forward for the rest of the season?
KZ: We try not to set too many huge goals that are crazy but obviously, we just want to take it a day at a time and win some ballgames. I feel like we’ve started out pretty good and we’ve got some guys who are throwing the baseball pretty good and hitters are starting to swing the bats a little bit so I think we’re feeling pretty confident moving forward and hopefully this season ends up in a championship.
Big thanks to Kevin Ziomek for the interview and to Whitecaps’ radio play-by-play man Ben Chiswick for setting it up! You can find Kevin on Twitter: @KevinZiomek. Ben is also on Twitter: @BenChiswick