"Splitsville" is a series of articles on the Yankees' prospects that we'll be doing throughout their…
Zach Kroenke Trained For Primetime
Now, the battle tested lefty is looking to take himself where he needs to go. His experience, mental toughness and polish he has picked up a long the way could propel him to greater things in a potential career in pinstripes. But, make no mistake, this is not a pitcher with just the polish and intestinal fortitude of a big time pitcher, but the firepower and talent to go along with it.
When draft day came, it was essentially a given that Zach Kroenke was going to be high draft selection. And, true to form, the Yankees were very quiet about the fact that they were interested in the Cornhusker lefty.
"Well, you know, I was hoping to go in the top eight rounds or something like that," Kroenke told PinstripesPlus.com. "I had talked to a bunch of other teams more than I had talked to the Yankees. But, when it happened, I was just happy to go. I just wanted to be able to move on and pursue my baseball career at a higher level. Being with this organization and going that high just makes it even better."
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that the Yankees liked the Nebraska southpaw so much was his college experience. And, what an experience it was. Leading his team to the College World Series in 2005 as a junior, Kroenke learned things through that experience that simply can't be taught. Not to mention, if and when he does encounter the Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park stage, he'll be more prepared than most other players would be.
"I've already played in front of crowds of like 21,000, 22,000 people," the southpaw explained. "So, when I come here, the crowds aren't even that big when the games do sellout. But, when there are a lot of people, you get some hostile crowds. You got a lot of drunk people yelling stuff at you out in the stands."
"I think it was good preparation for me playing at places like Texas A&M," he added. "There's a lot of fans yelling stuff at you and all. I think the first time I pitched for Nebraska at Texas A&M it was a hostile crowd as always. I was younger at that time and I think they got in my head a little bit. Now, that just can't and doesn't happen to me anymore. I mean, I've heard and been called every name in the book so nothing bothers me anymore. Playing in that environment in college definitely is going to help me. I've played against big teams in front of big crowds. In my mind, I'm ready for anything."
The fact that Kroenke has been through pressure situations, quieted hostile crowds, and pitched big games means more than any talent he may have in his left arm. And, according to his battery mate in Staten Island, P.J. Pilittere, it makes that much of a difference in Zach's game.
"I think Zach might be a hair more polished than some other guys because of his experiences in college," Pilittere said regarding Kroenke. "He throws high-80's, low 90's, but he can spot the ball really well with three or four different pitches."
Despite the experience and the big game pitcher tag, Kroenke still, admittedly, had to go through an adjustment period to professional baseball. But, as indicated by his sub-three ERA, he certainly has found his way so far.
"My first time out I did well, but then the next two or three starts, I think I had to adjust my game a little bit," Kroenke commented. "You know, in college, there were more guys I could blow my fastball by. I have a pretty good fastball, but now I still need to learn how to use my changeup more. Now, you can throw these guys inside and with a wood bat in their hands, you can snap that thing in half. In college, with aluminum bats, than same pitch ay be hit over the third baseman's head for a single. Also, the ball here has smaller seams so I had to adjust my grip on a couple pitches. I don't think I'm going to have any trouble picking up the game at this level."
One of the adjustments Kroenke mentioned had to do with the smaller seams on the professional baseball. And, when he said he had to adjust to that, he meant it. His main strikeout pitch in college, his slider, became that much more difficult to throw. But, in his recent outings, his slider appears to be back to it's previous form.
"Everything works off my fastball," the Staten Island hurler told PinstripesPlus.com. "My slider was my out pitch in college, but I had a little trouble locating that early on. But, I've been working on it with my pitching coach, Mike Thurman, and it has been coming back to me recently. My last couple outings, I've been able to use it more and more in big spots. If guys are looking for fastballs in a full count, I can throw them a breaker and catch them off guard."
Coming from a big college program at Nebraska, Zach Kroenke has seen his fair share of top notch hitters. But, as he says, nothing can top the hitters you see at the professional level. And, again, that was all part of the switch to the pros, adjusting to much tougher hitters.
"They're all great hitters here," said Kroenke with a laugh. "I think they take a lot more pitches and make you work. Here, they can hit the ball wherever you put it. There just isn't easy outs. You know, facing big colleges, you're facing the best hitters from every high school. And, now you're facing the best players from all those good colleges. Now, you're facing the 2,3,4 guys guys from the college lineups. It makes a big difference."
So, where does Kroenke get his killer instinct, his mental toughness, and big game pitcher tag from? Is a pitcher born this way? Apparently not. The southpaw explained to us just where he learned to be the type of pitcher he is today.
"I always looked up to Nolan Ryan when I was growing up," a smiling Kroenke explained. "He was always my favorite pitcher. I just hope to someday be something close to someone like him or Roger Clemens. They're guys that go out and compete even if they don't have their best stuff that day. They battle to keep their teams in the game even if it is not their day. That's what I like to do each time I take the mound."
Becoming a Yankee may have been the perfect fit for a pressure trained pitcher like Zach Kroenke. And, unlike some players, he isn't discouraged by being a Yankee. Instead, he couldn't be more inspired by the chance.
"I say, if I'm good enough, they're going to be bring me up," he said confidently. "I have a long way to go before worrying about breaking into a rotation with Randy Johnson. I have a couple years before I have to think about that. Right now, I'm more focused on working on my game and focusing on what I need to do. But, I take it as an honor to be part of this organization."
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