Image credit: Zack Dodson (Photo by Mike Janes/Four Seam)
“From Phenom to the Farm” releases new episodes every other Tuesday featuring players whose experiences vary across the professional baseball spectrum. Players will discuss their personal experiences going from high school graduation to the life of a professional baseball player.
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With over a decade to reflect on the Pirates’ 2009 draft haul, it’s fair to say that their class didn’t quite live up to the organization’s expectations.
Per Baseball Reference, despite holding the fourth overall pick, the class in its entirety totaled -0.1 Wins Above Replacement for Pittsburgh (although 9th round pick Brock Holt did help net the organization Mark Melancon in a 2012 trade).
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In the days before draft bonus pools and hard slots, Pittsburgh went into that draft with a specific strategy: paying big-time bonuses to buy out high school pitchers from their college commitments.
The Pirates selected college players with their first round and supplemental first round selections, but then with five of their next seven selections chose high school arms, signing them for a combined $3.945 million dollars in bonuses.
Presently, the most notable of these five arms is Zachary (LA) High School right-hander Zack Von Rosenberg, who signed for $1.2 million as a 6th round pick. While he didn’t make it past High-A in pro ball, he would go on to be the punter on LSU’s 2020 National Championship team. Pittsburgh’s 2nd round selection, Temecula (CA) High School right-hander and current free agent Brooks Pounders is the only player of the group to see big league time, compiling 45.2 innings in four separate MLB stints.
Along with Pounders, only one other of Pittsburgh’s five high school pitchers is still active; fourth rounder Zack Dodson, the Medina Valley (TX) High School left-hander that Pittsburgh bought out of a Baylor commitment for $600,000. Of the five arms, Dodson’s career arguably has been the most similar to a rollercoaster ride.
If you’d told an 18-year-old Dodson on draft night that in 2020 he’d still be an employed professional baseball player, he’d likely have been pleased to hear it. When you then told him that his current employer was a semi-pro team in Bonn, Germany and that he’d thrown more innings in the past five years outside of the United States than in them, there’d probably be a few questions.
His draft experience might have been an omen for a career that wouldn’t go quite to plan. Dodson headed into day one of the 2009 draft under the assumption that the Nationals would make him their third-round pick; the team then passed on selecting him and he disappointedly ended the first day unselected. Not exactly what Dodson, who was surrounded by friends and family that were assuming he’d be a first day draft choice, had in mind.
“I felt so dumb.”
However, once chosen and signed by Pittsburgh, Dodson was brimming with confidence, at least for a little while.
“On signing day, I thought they could’ve used me right then,” said Dodson. “About 10 minutes before the press release came out, my ego took its first huge hit whenever I found out that the guy I was there signing with [Cain] that was picked after me, was getting twice as much money as me.”
Thus began a series of ups and downs in his Pirates tenure. On the mound, Dodson showed real promise, twice ranking in the organization’s Top 30 Prospects. In his first trip to Low-A West Virginia in 2011, he recorded a 2.56 ERA over 66.2 innings. Off the diamond, though, things started bursting at the seams.
After signing, Dodson had given $75,000 to a trusted friend and coach from his amateur days for an investment opportunity, and it was around that 2011 season in West Virginia that he realized he’d never be seeing a dime of that money.
“It ended up being a very expensive lesson,” said Dodson.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last tough lesson. That first season in West Virginia was shortened to just those 66.2 innings because of a broken pitching hand sustained in a drunken argument. A year later, after returning to West Virginia and nearly doubling his ERA, Dodson was suspended 50 games for a drug of abuse.
“I had to make some of the hardest phone calls of my life to my mom, to my girlfriend at the time,” said Dodson. “In my mind, I was going to do everything I could that offseason to go to Spring Training 2013 to show the Pirates this isn’t something that is going to define me; this isn’t something that is a problem.”
Dodson did rebound with a good spring training, getting ticketed for High-A Bradenton. But, after a middling season and scuffling early in the subsequent season with AA Altoona, a conversation with the club’s pitching coach let Dodson know that his chance to continue in pro baseball might be slipping away.
“I said ‘I know I’m struggling; if things don’t go better they’re going to send me down,” said Dodson. “He’s like ‘no man, they’re going to send you home.’”
Dodson realized that while the future he’d envisioned as a big leaguer might not come to fruition, he loved pro baseball and wanted to “play until they rip it off.” If Dodson wanted to stick around as a pro, he was going to have to make changes.
In our latest episode of From Phenom to the Farm, we talk to Zack Dodson about his career as a minor league veteran. He’ll discuss suspensions and rebounds, changing his craft to hang around, and chasing pitching jobs worldwide to keep a jersey on his back. You can check out From Phenom to the Farm wherever you get your podcasts.