Mound Move Pays Off For Kyle Zimmer
SAN FRANCISCO—Worst-case scenarios don't often turn out much better than Kyle Zimmer's.
Recruited as a slugging corner infielder out of La Jolla High near San Diego, it was as a position player that Zimmer had big league ambitions when he arrived at University of San Francisco's hilltop campus two and a half years ago.
But his collegiate career at third base ended before it started, with Zimmer going to a Plan B when it became apparent he was a man without a position on a USF team that already had third baseman Stephen Yarrow, a future Team USA player and San Francisco Giants minor leaguer, ahead of him.
"It was do-or-die freshman year and I wasn't going to be playing as an infielder, so I saw the pitching route as a possibility," Zimmer said.
USF rolled the dice in signing Zimmer—a player USF coach Nino Giarratano hadn't scouted—on the recommendation of Steve Booth, a former Dons' catcher coaching at La Jolla who touted Zimmer's makeup and "off-the-charts" work ethic.
"(Booth) always ended the conversations with, 'He's got a great arm, and worst (case), he's going to pitch," Giarratano said.
"That always kind of stuck with me."
The gamble paid off, with Zimmer's raw ability and intangibles coming together in a surprisingly short adjustment period that has seen the junior righthander go from obscurity to projected first-round draft status in just more than a year.
"There was a lot of experimenting," said Zimmer, who barely pitched 20 innings in high school. "It was just a matter of figuring out how my body works and getting my legs into it, getting my whole body working as one to explode off the mound in a pitching style rather than just throwing it across the infield."
The experiment culminated with Zimmer excelling on the national stage.
In an effort that elevated his baseball stature as much as any single amateur event could, Zimmer outshined UCLA's Gerrit Cole—the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft—in a 3-0 victory over the host Bruins in a Los Angeles Regional game last June.
"In that setting, and in front of their fans, it was a pretty magical thing," Giarratano said.
A Blank Canvas
There wasn't much magic in the early stages of Zimmer's pitching development, though. Zimmer relied on coaches, older teammates and watching videos just to learn the basics.
"Hey, how do you grip that pitch?" he'd ask a teammate one day, and then "how do you do this, or how do you do that, how do you throw that slider?" the next.
A freak injury during the critical fall of his freshman year set him back more than a month, when a pitching machine spat out a ball that ricocheted off a batting cage pole, breaking his left wrist.
Zimmer started to harness an 88-92 mph fastball but had difficulty commanding his offspeed stuff as a freshman, when he pitched just five innings and had an 8.44 ERA.
He followed that with a breakout 2010 summer in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, posting a 1.37 ERA in 46 innings for the Alexandria Aces, and his progression continued during his sophomore year, when he added velocity and developed command of a changeup and a spike curveball. He also started a hybrid slider/cutter.
He went 6-4, 3.73 that year, highlighted by a four-hit shutout in the UCLA game in which he struck out 11 and allowed no walks.
"I've been trying to treat it like nothing's really changed," Zimmer said of the UCLA game. "Obviously I've been getting more attention, some people know my name now whereas before they didn't, but I try to ignore all that. I'm glad that I pitched well and we won but I'm just trying to put it in the rearview.
"It was a great experience, a great game, and something I'll never forget, but something that was just another step towards what I want to accomplish."
Zimmer has done nothing to silence that buzz. Last summer he topped out at 97 mph pitching for the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape Cod League.
"It blew my mind," said his younger brother, Bradley Zimmer, himself a high-ceiling freshman outfielder at USF who also played with Kyle at La Jolla.
"I saw him pitch towards the end of his senior year (at La Jolla) and he had no pitching mechanics, he just threw as hard as he could, so it was definitely a shock to me."
Scouts have taken notice too, according to Giarratano, who said the 6-foot-4 240-pounder projects to be a first-round pick.
Zimmer would become the third USF pitcher in four years to go in the first round, joining Aaron Poreda (2007) and Evan Fredrickson (2008), who went to the Brewers and the White Sox, respectively.
Zimmer said his parents, both former collegiate athletes (his father, Eric played baseball at UC San Diego, and his mother, Cathy, ran track at San Diego State) instilled in him a passion to succeed in all endeavors, which he says has paid dividends on the baseball diamond as much as it has in the classroom. Zimmer was a San Diego County All-Academic selection at La Jolla, and he is carrying a 4.0 grade-point average at USF majoring in business administration.
But it is the USF coaching staff's vision and instruction that he says led him down a path he never considered when he first showed up at USF, noting pitching coach Greg Moore's role to be crucial in his development.
"They've set me on a road to success that's been detailed from step to step, keeping it as simple as they can for me," Zimmer said. "They deserve credit for everything."
Although Giarratano said the pace of Zimmer's development is unheard of, the transition itself is not such a big surprise, noting that his coaches get an empty canvas on which to work in such situations.
"The biggest thing for Kyle is that he wasn't scarred, he wasn't taught one way and had break it and go another way, so there's really nothing crazy in there that had to be changed," Giarratano said.
"His arm action didn't need to be changed, his body movements didn't have to be changed; he's just been able to add this whole time."
An added benefit is that Zimmer hasn't experienced pitching burnout.
"It's still new, fresh and fun," Zimmer said. "I've only been doing it the past three years, and I think that makes it a lot easier to make those jumps and adjustments. I think some guys get stuck in the mud, maybe because they've been trying to work on the same issue five or 10 years."
Given the pace of his progress, it's exciting to consider where Zimmer might be in five or 10 years.