Kevin Ziomek carved up Midwest League hitters in his first full professional season. In 123 innings at West Michigan, the 22-year-old left-hander logged a 2.27 ERA and an 11.1 K/9. His top-flight numbers notwithstanding, he created surprisingly little buzz.
The Detroit Tigers took Ziomek in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Vanderbilt University, which helps explain the paucity of plaudits. When a high-round pick from a high-profile college program excels in Low-A, the reaction is typically “That’s what he was expected to do. Let’s see what he does at the next level.”
Despite his dominance, Ziomek’s chance to pass that next test won’t come until next season. (Tigers farm director Reid Nichols gave a non-specific answer when I asked why Ziomek wasn’t promoted.) One possible reason was an opportunity to spent the entire summer working under the tutelage of Whitecaps pitching coach Mike Henneman.
Ziomek, whom Baseball America ranks as Detroit’s second-best pitching prospect, discussed his under-the-radar 2014 performance at the end of the season.
Ziomek on his high strikeout rate: “Making pitches early in the count can put you in position to strike people out. What (the Tigers) want is for us to try to get people out early in the count. Then, if we get to that two-strike count, we can try to get that strikeout. Every pitcher – I don’t care who you are – likes to get strikeouts.
“Guys coming out of the college game have a tendency to throw a lot of pitches that are unnecessary. Keeping my pitch count down is something I improved on over the course of the year. I threw first-pitch strikes and got ahead, and as a result my strikeout numbers went up. In a way, I got more strikeouts because I wasn’t trying to strike people out.”
On his fastball-slider combination: “I throw both a four- and a two-seamer. I do a pretty good job of getting the ball inside to righthanders, and I throw a four-seam for that. I’ll throw a two-seamer when I want to run the ball off the plate away from a right-hander.
“I guess I ran (my fastball) up to 94, but I was mostly around 90. Nothing too crazy. I just try to locate and come back with my slider when they’re not expecting it. My slider will be around 75 when I want to throw it for a strike early in the count, and sometimes I’ll run it up closer to 80 for a strikeout later in the count. My slider is probably my biggest strikeout pitch.”
On his curveball and changeup: “My curveball is pretty slow. I kind of like to mix it in early in the count and it’s probably around 70-72 mph. I use it to give hitters a different look. I don’t throw it often, but it’s good to have something extra to show the hitter.
“My changeup is around 78-80 and it’s the pitch I’m working on the most now. In the past, I was predominantly a fastball-slider guy. Here, working with coach Henneman, we’ve really started trying to develop my changeup. As I move up the levels, it’s going to be a big pitch for me, especially as a lefty. You don’t see too many big-league left-handed starters who don’t have a halfway decent changeup.”
On working with Mike Henneman: “I like talking about the mental approach to pitching with coach Henneman. He’s big on going out there and just competing — knowing your stuff is good enough to beat anybody if you locate the ball well. If you execute pitches, you’re going to be able to get guys out.
“He’s also helped me out a lot with pitch sequencing. We talk about that quite a bit. Some guys kind of just go out there and throw the ball – I was sort of like that in the past – but he’s taught me a lot about when to throw a certain pitch and how to outsmart hitters. What I learned from him really helped me take off in the second half.
“I like talking to our coaches, because they’ve been through it and know how things work. Coach Henneman pitched in the big leagues for a long time. A.J. (Sager), our pitching coordinator, and Mike Maroth also pitched in the big leagues and are great resources. I also like talking to some of the hitters. They’ll tell me what pitchers like to throw them in certain counts, and I can learn from that. By the time you get to this level, it’s not so much about mechanics, but more learning the mental side of the game.”
On mechanical adjustments and not speeding up: “There’s been nothing crazy, just trying to keep things slow. I kind of have a tendency to rush through my delivery a little bit. Sometimes I get a little excited out there. Coach Henneman has pointed that out to me. I’ll be rushing, maybe in tighter situations or early in the game. I’ll be a little more jacked up, so we focus on me staying slow and keeping things simple.
“I’ve always been that way. I get pretty excited when I get out there on the mound, so I always have to take a second before I make a pitch. I take that deep breath. I guess I just love to pitch so much that I get fired up.”
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.