Continuing on with TJ surgery survivors, it is time to have a glance at another right-hander who was selected by the Dodgers in the 19th round of the 2017 Amateur Draft out of Kent State University following his junior year. They did so fully aware of the required surgery. TJ surgery is now so common place that it is almost accepted as a low risk surgery but it does have a relatively long period of recuperation. For Zach Willeman it used up all of his 2017 professional season and delayed his fist professional appearance until July 26, 2018. He was born in Toledo, Ohio and grew up in neighboring Napoleon attending Napoleon High School. It seems that the Dodgers and Willeman were not strangers to each other when he was drafted. The team scouted him dating back to his days as a Wildcat ace in high school. At Napoleon he lettered three years in baseball and basketball and one year in cross country running.On the baseball diamond he broke the single-season ERA (0.653) and strikeout (121) records as a senior and also broke the single-game strikeout record with 15. Willeman enrolled at Kent State University which is about a three hour drive from his hometown of Napoleon. With the Golden Flashes the 6’3”/200-pound right-hander had a three year career broken into three parts. The first two years at Kent he pitched strictly in relief. Over 41 appearances and 62.1 innings he posted an ERA of 2.75 along with 72 strikeouts and 44 walks. He had seven saves in 2015 and 14 in 2016. His scouting reports at that time suggested he had a workable fastball but had a not so workable breaking pitch and also has some control issues. From Baseball America:
“Willeman’s 90-95 mph fastball has plenty of sink and he can run it in on the hands of right-handed hitters. His curveball was a little loopier and slower this spring than it was last summer in the Cape Cod League, grading out more as a 40-45 pitch this spring. Some scouts believe he’ll end up back in the pen as he has a deep stab in his arm action, but he showed fringe-average control this year as a starter.”
From Perfect game:
“Willeman transitioned to the Kent State weekend rotation this spring after being a highly- Successful closer over his first two seasons–a relief role he’s likely destined for again in professional baseball. Willeman did not find the success that many had envisioned as a starter; but he did show stuff that still entices scouts. He usually worked in the 90-94 mph range with his fastball, generating solid arm side run; and while the curveball was erratic it still flashed as an above average pitch.”
The second part of his college career came in 2017 as he was converted to a starting role. His year did not go as well as hoped. Over 13 starts he posted a 4.91 ERA along with 57 strikeouts in 66 innings and 32 walks. Even with a bit of a down year he did not go unnoticed as a student and baseball prospect at Kent. First, his strong academic performance continued with additional Mid-American Conference awards.
- Letterwinner: 2015 2016, 2017
- 2017 MAC Distinguished Scholar Athlete
- 2017 Academic All-MAC
- 2016 Second Team All-MAC
- 2016 MAC Distinguished Scholar Athlete
- 2016 Academic All-MAC
Secondly,in additions to his awards he was recognized by Baseball America among their Top 100 College Prospect list ranking 94. Jim Ellis of Scouting Baseball watched Willeman pitch and had him on his sleeper list until he noticed Baseball America’s ranking no longer made him a sleeper. Ellis had come to a game tin 2016 to watch a matchup between Keegan Akin and Eric Lauder. He missed their part of the game but arrived in time to see Zach Willeman go to work. He then saw Willeman pitch as a starter in 2017. This by Ellis:
“It was during this game, though, that a solidly built reliever caught my attention. Willeman was sitting 94 that day, hitting 95, and had the look of a starter. His off speed stuff was 88 or 89 that day, giving him solid separation. I knew from that game on that Willeman was a name for me to follow for the 2017 draft.Willeman is the Saturday starter for the Flashes this year. Not only was Saturday his first start this year, it was also his first start during his college career. Willeman and the Flashes faced off against Belmont to open the season. It was an excellent first start, as Willeman went five and a third innings and did not give up a run on three hits and two walks. He struck out 10 of the 21 batters he faced.Willeman was a sleeper of mine until I saw him on the Baseball America top 100 college players list. He is a player to watch. He has a chance to move up boards if he continues to pitch well. I would not be surprised if he ends up a first rounder when it’s all said and done.”
The third part of his college career ended shortly after the college season and he had TJ surgery. The Dodgers signed him and at age 21 any return to college would have further delayed his shot at a professional baseball career. His long awaited debut came on July 26 with the Arizona League Dodgers. He pitched one inning against the AZL Indians striking out the side. After five appearances with the AZL team in which he posted an identical ERA and WHIP of 0.84 he was promoted to the Great Lakes Loons of the Midwest League. With the Loons in 8.1 innings pitched he posted a 2.16 ERA while striking out 10 and walking one. In his final appearance of the season he started and pitched three innings against the South Bend Cubs allowing only one hit, walking none and striking out three. Zach Willeman will turn 23 in March so his first stop most likely will be with the Loons in 2019. Will it be as a starter or in relief? I am guessing that he may have some three inning starts but ultimately I expect the Dodgers drafted him as a relief specialist especially in light of his college success in that role and his TJ surgery in 2017.