Lott: Top pick T.J. Zeuch getting his legs under him in Vancouver

T.J. Zeuch
Photo credit: John Lott

T.J. Zeuch set foot in Canada for the first time after riding a bus for more than seven hours from Spokane, Washington, arriving in Vancouver at 7 a.m. on July 21. He had no time to get settled before reporting for work.

“I’ve only taken a nap in Vancouver so far,” he said that afternoon.

The next day, Zeuch received a rude awakening. On his ninth pitch of the game, the Vancouver Canadians right-hander took a line drive off his pitching elbow. His manager and the team trainer bolted from the dugout before time was called.

The reason for their anxiety was obvious. The 6-foot-7 pitcher was the Toronto Blue Jays’ top draft pick in June. They paid him a signing bonus of $2.175-million (U.S.). He turned pro with a reputation as a strike-thrower who features a two-seam fastball with nasty sinking action. Earlier in that inning, the stadium radar gun clocked his fastball at 95, a couple of clicks above his usual maximum.

Zeuch winced as the trainer examined his elbow. Then, after several warm-up pitches, he stayed in the game, hit 95 a couple more times in the first inning and completed his allotted three innings on a tidy 39 pitches.

T.J. Zeuch
Photo credit: John Lott

One bullet dodged. Zeuch suffered no ill effects. He  made his next start on schedule Thursday night, and it was much like his previous outing: three innings, one hit, no runs, no walks, one strikeout. Seven of his outs came via the ground ball.

From a big-league point of view, a week is a long time between starts. But Zeuch is a long way from the big leagues. The Blue Jays are handling him with extreme care.

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I chatted with Zeuch (pronounced “Zoik”) outside the Canadians’ clubhouse in Vancouver on his first day in Canada. Helpfully, he sat down for the interview. Otherwise, I would have needed a footstool. He is a very tall dude.

Just that week, I’d heard unattributed reports comparing Zeuch to former Jays’ ace Roy (Doc) Halladay. So I asked Sal Fasano, the club’s roving pitching coordinator, whether he was responsible for the hyperbole.

“I don’t know if it was me, but I agree,” said Fasano, who caught Halladay four times during a brief spell with the Jays in 2007. “He does remind me of Doc. If he can tighten up the off-speed stuff, he might be (a credible likeness). He already has the sinker.”

Zeuch also had heard the Halladay comparisons. He’s flattered. But he believes his build and pitching style more accurately mirror another big-league pitcher.

“I’ve heard Halladay here and there, rarely, before I signed, just because I’m of a somewhat similar size and the sinker that we both throw,” he said. “But the more common comparison I get is with Adam Wainwright. We’re almost identical height, identical frame and almost identical pitch repertoire – sinker, curveball, slider, changeup. We kind of have the same mentality when it comes to hitters, working off the fastball, getting a lot of ground balls.”

Zeuch is listed at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds. Wainwright is 6-foot-7 and 235, Halladay 6-foot-6 and 225. Zeuch, who turns 21 on Aug. 1, will likely pick up more weight as he grows into his body and adapts to the Jays’ conditioning routines.

Whatever the apparent similarities between Zeuch and a couple of all-stars, it’s a little early to assign such labels to a greenhorn who has pitched a total of nine professional innings.

He has work to do and he knows it. The ink was barely dry on his contract before his new employers handed him marching orders.

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Zeuch’s last start for the University of Pittsburgh was on May 19. He was drafted on June 9, then reported to a mini-camp for fresh recruits to shed the rust from the layoff and work himself back into game shape. He made one start in the Gulf Coast League: three innings, no hits, no runs. Then it was off to join the Jays’ short-season Vancouver team.

He met his new teammates in Boise, Idaho, where he started and allowed two runs in the first inning, then nothing in the next two. For the time being, three innings will be his limit.

Meanwhile, he has been working on improving two elements of his pitching mechanics: using his legs more in his delivery to take pressure off his shoulder and elbow, and improving his fastball command to his glove side – inside to a left-handed batter, outside to a right-hander.

T.J. Zeuch
Photo credit: John Lott

For a pitcher whose arms and legs are unusually long elements in a kinetic chain, getting the most from his lower body might well generate a smoother, more repeatable delivery as well as greater velocity and sharper command. I asked him whether his college coaches had proffered the same advice as he’s hearing now.

“I’ve heard it before, but at school, it’s more, ‘we need to win now’ versus ‘we need to develop you,’ ” he said. “So at school, I was throwing strikes and throwing hard enough but I wasn’t using my legs as much as I am now. And I wasn’t getting hurt, obviously. So they just let me stick with it.”

He believes the new approach is working.

“When I throw bullpens, it just feels a lot easier on my arm,” he said. “It feels a lot more effortless. I definitely notice the difference.”

Which does not mean the Jays are eager to stretch him out beyond three innings or 50 pitches. In college, Zeuch often pitched only once a week. On his arrival in Vancouver, the Jays postponed his scheduled start by one day and installed a six-man rotation to ease his transition to pro ball.

Maybe in August, if he shows no signs of fatigue or diminished velocity, the Jays may extend him to four innings, he said. “But that’ll be the most that I go this year.”

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There are no guarantees for a team’s No. 1 draft choices, of course. Deck McGuire and Chad Jenkins can attest to that. And solid or sketchy, the first season of a pro career often means little, especially if you draw conclusions from a stat line.

Jon Harris, the Jays’ top pick in 2015, made 12 starts for short-season Vancouver last year and finished with a 6.75 ERA. This year he logged a 2.23 ERA at full-season Lansing before his recent promotion to Dunedin, where he was shelled in his first start.

At Vancouver a year ago, the Jays broke Harris in gently, confining him to three innings in the early going. He did make one five-inning start in mid-August before his handlers backed him off again. Harris logged 36 innings in 12 starts. This year, he is averaging just over five innings per start.

So the club’s early management of Zeuch is not unusual.

“They just wanted to take their time with me, and not rush me into anything and get me hurt,” he said.

And get his legs under him, both figuratively and literally, as he discovers just how much he has to learn.