Image credit: Zac Veen (Photo by Alyson Boyer-Rode)
The first time Spruce Creek (Port Orange, Fla.) High School coach Johnny Goodrich met Zac Veen, he didn’t entirely know what to make of him.
Here was a small, undersized sixth grader riding up on a bike to a high school baseball field, hoping to get some swings in the cage while the team practiced.
“You’ve got a 12-year-old that is basically riding his bike a mile and a half, two miles every day,” Goodrich said. “School gets out and he’s coming to the field. (At the time) I didn’t realize it was that far. We would practice and he just started going in the cages and working and emulating some of the players who we had on the team.”
It didn’t take long before Veen was an unofficial member of those practices.
“You could just see the determination in his eyes,” Goodrich said. “At one point we were like, ‘Hey, this kid is here every day, we may as well just include him.’ He just wanted to soak up as much knowledge as he could. He’s a guy who would listen to the other players, he would have the courage—and not many kids have the courage—to say, ‘Hey coach can you watch my swing?’
“At that point we were like, ‘Man, this kid’s in middle school.’ I will do anything I can to help him out because not many kids have that desire … You can’t predict what it’s going to be, but the one thing you know is he’s going to be a really good baseball player just by the sheer will that he had.”
Fast forward a few years—and a few pounds and inches—and Veen has become one of the fastest-rising prospects in the 2020 draft class. In an unusually muddled prep class, Veen came out of the gate around 20 pounds heavier this season.
Now standing around 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, Veen is no longer that undersized pre-teen with unknown future potential biking up to the baseball field, just hoping to get some reps with the big kids. He’s a first-round lock with big league tools who has hundreds of scouts watching him hit moonshots over 400 feet in batting practice.
After a summer competing alongside the best players in the country, Veen isn’t fazed by the attention he’s drawn to himself.
He starts in center field and is just starting to tap into the potential Goodrich first glimpsed when Veen was a sophomore in high school. Veen made the team as a freshman and started at first base, but was still weak and undersized. During his second year, though, Veen started growing, adding more strength and showing hints of the player he would become in 2020—and the player he might be five years from now.
“He had a really, really productive season as a high school sophomore,” Goodrich said. “Led our team in everything. And then that summer it was just like, ‘Who is this guy?’ This guy’s not only going to be a really good college baseball player, this guy is going to play in the big leagues.
“In my view, the guy’s going to hit 40 home runs and be an MVP one day.”
Fittingly enough, Veen is frequently compared to two MVP winners with 40-homer seasons under their belt: Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger. And the Florida commit isn’t shying away from either of those comparisons.
“I definitely agree with the Yelich and Bellinger comps,” Veen said. “That’s kind of who I mimic my game after. I love watching the guys in different parts of the game. I love watching Mike Trout in the field, I love watching Billy Hamilton on the bases. Just trying to do what the best players in those aspects of the game do.”
And while Veen will never be the sort of runner that Billy Hamilton is, he emphasized improving his speed over the offseason, in addition to getting stronger and more athletic. Evaluators nitpicked his running ability over the summer and he’s determined to prove that they were wrong in doing so.
“I love being doubted,” Veen said. “And I love proving people wrong. So that’s kind of where my head was at. I trust my game and I trust myself on the bases and my speed.”
Veen’s ability to spit on pitches just off the edge of the plate and control the strike zone accentuates his other skills. When Veen steps to the plate, he’s always in control. He knows what he’s looking for, works the count until he gets the pitch he’s looking to drive, and is happy to take a walk if that pitch doesn’t come.
It’s a skill that’s rare in an amateur hitter, particularly one who combines it with the power potential that Veen has from the left side.
“I’ve never had a guy like that,” Goodrich said. “We’ve had a couple guys get to the big leagues, but they were always free-swingers. The closest guy that I had like that was Eddy Lucas, but he certainly didn’t hit the ball with the authority that Zac hits it with.
“I’ve never seen an amateur hitter be able to have the plate discipline and still be the player that he is. You see a lot of guys who will go in there and take, but they don’t command the presence that he does.”
Veen’s added strength has already affected his game and the ball is coming off his bat hotter and with less effort.
“Before, I thought I could hit balls out with ease,” Veen said. “I think now being bigger and stronger with the extra weight, now I just have to touch the ball and it’ll do what it does. Kind of takes the stress off me of trying to muscle some out. I just have to try and hit the barrel.”
That’s how Goodrich wants him to play during his final high school season: without stress. He doesn’t want him to think about all of the area scouts, crosscheckers, scouting directors and even general managers who will be coming to Port Orange to see him play. He doesn’t want Veen to feel like he has to do everything for the team to win. He just wants him to play.
He wants him to play just like the 12-year-old who biked to the field and hopped in the cage because he loved the game and wanted to be great.
“I think I’ve been put on the big stage a lot this summer and I kind of thrive off of it,” Veen said. “I know I play my best when I go play for my boys, play for my team. I go out there every time just hoping to get a win and playing to get a win. That’s when I know I’m at my best, so I kind of block out everybody (who’s watching).
“I really think I wasn’t a (high-profile) prospect going into my junior year. All that hard work I put in ever since freshman year kind of came to fruition. And there’s a lot of doubters, a lot of people who say you can’t do things and that’s kind of what I live off of and how I think about life.”