Zach Pop isn’t the biggest name going from the Dodgers to the Orioles in the Manny Machado trade. But he does have the most electric arm, as well as an impressive track record against A-ball competition. In 35 professional games, the 21-year-old Brampton, Ontario native has allowed just 27 hits — only one of them a home run — in 48.1 innings. His ERA is a minuscule 0.93.
A seventh-round pick last year out of the University of Kentucky, Pop profiles, at least stylistically, as a right-handed version of Zach Britton. His signature pitch is a sinker that not only dips and dives but also sits in the mid-90s and ticks even higher. The worm-killer certainly proved to be an anathema to Midwest and California League hitters this season. Pitching for the Great Lakes Loons and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Pop boasted a 64% ground-ball rate and a .168 batting-average-against before being promoted to Double-A earlier this week (and subsequently swapped to the Dodgers, who are reportedly assigning him to the Bowie BaySox).
Pop talked about his aggressive approach on the mound and his decision to not sign with his then-favorite team out of high school, prior to the trade from Los Angeles to Baltimore.
Pop on how he gets outs: “For me, it’s being able to throw that two-seam sinker — whatever you want to call it — to both sides of the plate, and mixing in the slider. I’ll go in with the four-seam, as well, to give a little bit of a different look, but everything starts off with the two-seamer sinker. That’s my strength. I like to stay down in the zone.
“I’m hunting outs any way I can get them. My goal is to induce weak contact, and if they want to swing at the first or second pitch and make an out before I can get a strikeout opportunity, than so be it. I haven’t really struck out that many guys this year with the Quakes, only around one per inning, maybe a little less. For the most part, I’m just trying to be efficient. I’m trying to break a barrel or just keep the ball on the ground.”
On his sinker and his delivery: “I do [have good velocity]. Yesterday, I hit 99 with my two-seamer. It used to be the case that I’d throw harder with my four-seam, but now it’s kind of equaled out. The only thing that’s really different is the movement. I get some pretty crazy numbers on my sinker. I think I have something like 20 inches of horizontal, and five inches of vertical, movement.
“Delivery-wise, I’m kind of a low three-quarters guy, an almost side-arm kind of deal. I do a good job of pronating the baseball and kind of taking a lot of the stress that’s on my arm and moving it to my back, my scaps, and other parts of my body, like my triceps, to help decelerate.”
On his mental approach: “As much as anything, my focus is on going out there and competing, and more so with myself. The guys at the plate… I understand what they do, and I’m going to execute my plan within what they do, but for the most part I’m doing what I do. I’m going to throw this pitch here, and if he hits it, he hits it. If he doesn’t, or if he makes weak contact, I’m probably getting out of the inning. That kind of deal.
“I heard a really good quote from Inky Johnson, who was a football player at Tennessee. He came up with this idea of imposing your will on the outcome of the game. I kind of take that same mindset. I compete hard. When the hitter comes up, I want to make that at-bat the hardest at-bat he’s going to have. Whether he hits a bomb, or whether he grounds out — it’s baseball — he doesn’t enjoy facing me.
“I wouldn’t call myself [an adrenaline junky]. Not anymore. I used to be in college, but now that I’m in pro ball and going through the daily grind of baseball, I’ve kind of leveled out to where I’m able to keep a level head… [and] I’m not riding the highs too high or the lows too low.”
On not signing with the Blue Jays out of high school: “At the time, I was basically a new pitcher, learning how to pitch. I’d been a position player, a first baseman, and during my junior year I started transitioning to a pitcher. My first real full season on the mound was probably my senior year. Coming out of high school, I would sit 90-93 and touch 94. My sophomore year [at the University of Kentucky], from lifting and kind of just growing into my body, is when I got another velocity jump and hit 99 and 100.
“I wanted to go to college for that experience, and to develop there. I thought I could go higher in the draft — the first couple of rounds — out of college. Unfortunately I got the injury, which really hurt me in that respect. I had a forearm flexor strain, but I rehabbed that, and this year I’ve been feeling really good. Knock on wood.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.