Prospect Kevin Ziomek talks pitching, Detroit Tigers spring training

Photo: Kevin Ziomek pitches for the Detroit Tigers during an exhibition game against Florida Southern College on Feb. 29 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida.
Kevin Ziomek pitches for the Detroit Tigers during an exhibition game against Florida Southern College on Feb. 29 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Detroit Tigers left-handed pitching prospect Kevin Ziomek is in Lakeland, Florida, this spring for his first major league training camp. He talked about his experience at spring training, what he hopes to prove, and his development as a pitcher.

“I’ve really enjoyed it so far,” Ziomek, 23, said of major league camp. “It’s been good to kind of look to some of the other guys and see how they go about their business.”

He said being around experienced Tiger pitchers has helped him further understand the importance of a routine and how different players prepare.

Photo: Kevin Ziomek pitches for the Detroit Tigers.
Kevin Ziomek pitches for the Detroit Tigers during an exhibition game against Florida Southern College on Feb. 29 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

“Talking to some of the other starters—just to see how they go about their routine, whether it’s doing their extra running on the side or doing their weight-lifting and doing their extra bullpen sessions … you can tell they’ve been doing it for so long. They know exactly, to a T, what they’re going to do,” said Ziomek, who pitched for three years at Vanderbilt University before Detroit picked him in the second round of the Major League Baseball draft in 2013 and lured him with a $956,600 signing bonus.

He added, “Just being able to learn from some of the older guys and guys who’ve been through it—it’s been a pretty good experience for me, and I hope to continue to do that and just keep on moving up the ranks.”

After a 2015 season that saw him struggle early (4.74 ERA in 12 starts through June 10) and surge late (2.4 ERA in his last 15 starts), Ziomek hopes to prove he belongs.

“You go out there and you go about your business the way everybody else does, and you’ve just got to prove that it’s no different than any other baseball game you’ve played in your life,” he said. “There may be different guys around you, but you’ve just got to prove that you’re comfortable and you can compete at (the major league) level.”

Ziomek began spring competition in impressive fashion, starting and pitching two shutout innings Feb. 29 against Florida Southern College. He allowed a single, struck out two Mocassin batters, and threw 18 of his 27 pitches for strikes. Here’s video from MLive of Ziomek striking out FSC’s leadoff hitter:

“He’s funky, he’s sneaky because of his delivery,” manager Brad Ausmus said after the Tigers’ annual exhibition opener, according to The Detroit News. “He’s got a big curve, and the changeup looked good (Feb. 29). But, not knocking the Florida Southern kids, but there is a big difference between them and major league hitters.”

Five days later, Ziomek walked one and gave up a home run to Matt Skole in an inning of relief against the Washington Nationals. According to Chelsea Janes, Nationals reporter for the Washington Post, the homer was an “absolute bomb.”

Where he’s been

Ziomek in 2014 spent his first full season of professional baseball with the West Michigan Whitecaps, who finished 82-58 in the Class A Midwest League.

“My first year in West Michigan was pretty fun, and we had a really good group there,” he said. “We won the regular season, so that was pretty cool to be on a winning team like that.”

He finished 10-6 with a 2.27 ERA in 123 innings (23 starts). Among the 40 pitchers in the league with enough innings to qualify, Ziomek ranked:

No. 1 in ERA (2.27)
No. 1 in AVG (.197)
No. 2 in FIP (2.98)
No. 2 in K/9 (11.12)
No. 2 in K% (29.8%)

He was promoted and spent the entirety of 2015 with the Lakeland Flying Tigers, who went 55-79 in the Class A Advanced Florida State League.

Photo: Kevin Ziomek poses during Detroit Tigers photo day Feb. 27 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida.
Kevin Ziomek poses during Detroit Tigers photo day Feb. 27 at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Ziomek finished 9-11 with a 3.43 ERA in 154.2 innings (27 starts). Among the 24 pitchers in the league with enough innings to qualify, he ranked:

No. 1 in FIP (2.38)
No. 1 in IP (154.2)
No. 2 in K/9 (8.32)
No. 2 in K% (22.6%)
No. 3 in HR/9 (0.17)

Over his two seasons in West Michigan and Lakeland, he had consistently outstanding results in all of K/9, HR/9, K%, AVG, WHIP, and FIP. notes that “there are often expectations for a college lefty, especially from a program like Vanderbilt, to move quickly through a minor league system. In that regard, Ziomek hasn’t measured up.” But, considering his results, that seems like less of an indictment.

“The biggest thing for me is just to focus on what you can control, and that’s getting guys out on a regular basis and consistency,” Ziomek said. “I think the numbers show that it’s really going to take care of itself. Guys should move up when they’re ready to move up, and it’s not something I can really control, so I’m just going to go out there and try and make pitches every game and win some ball games.”

Where he’s going

Ziomek looks like a lock to break camp in a few weeks with the Erie SeaWolves of the Class AA Eastern League, where many expected him to land at some point last year. There’s a chance he could throw a few pitches in the big leagues this year, but any such opportunity would come in the bullpen, since he’s at least 10th in line to get a start.

Before we delve more into who he is as a pitcher, his ceiling, and when he might reach it, here’s where Ziomek stands on recent lists of Detroit’s top prospects:

FanGraphs Minor League Ball The Detroit News Baseball America
4 5 5 6 6
ESPN** MLive Motor City Bengals Baseball Prospectus* TigsTown**
7 8 9 9+ 17

*Baseball Prospectus ranks eight current Tigers and lists Ziomek among “five who are just interesting.”
**Analysis from ESPN and TigsTown is not discussed at length here out of respect for paywalls on their rankings.

Dan Farnsworth of FanGraphs wrote Ziomek has potential that “maxes out in the middle of a big league rotation, though … he’s a safer bet as a number-four starter.” John Sickels of Minor League Ball said he has a “fourth starter projection but should be ready within a year.” Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote “he projects as a starter, probably in the back of the rotation.” said “while he doesn’t have the highest ceiling in the world … it may not take him (much longer) to contribute to a big league rotation.” Tom Zahari of Motor City Bengals wrote that he “looks to have mid-rotation stuff.” Baseball Prospectus said “it’s difficult to imagine Ziomek making his living in a starting rotation.” James Chipman wrote for The Detroit News last April that “you can squint and see a back-end of the rotation guy that eats innings.”

“You know, I try not to pay too much attention to that kind of stuff,” Ziomek said of analysts’ projections and opinions about his ceiling as a pitcher. “Whether I’m a starter or a reliever, it doesn’t really matter to me. I just want to get out there and prove that I can pitch and get guys out.”

He has proven that he can pitch and get guys out in Class A. It remains to be seen if he can do it at higher levels, and there are well-stated cases for and against him.

What he throws

Ziomek, listed at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, has an arsenal of four pitches: fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. Here’s video from James Chipman of him pitching for the Flying Tigers last April:

Reports indicate his fastball runs in the 89-93 mph range. Sickels called the pitch average, while and Baseball Prospectus both graded it 55 on a 20-80 scale (translating to slightly above average). Farnsworth wrote “he spots his fastball well to both sides of the plate, and his velocity and deception allow him to throw it by hitters with good location.” said Ziomek will add and subtract speed, “commanding (his fastball) well with sink to generate ground-ball outs.” TigsTown dissented, calling the pitch below average and noting “command was off all season.” According to Baseball Prospectus, more than one scout described Ziomek as “wild in the strike zone.”

Indeed, command—specifically of the fastball—was an issue last season. Ziomek would argue, though, that he improved in that area after his struggles in Lakeland through May.

“I just didn’t feel great at the beginning of the year for one reason or another,” he told Mike Moran of The Recorder. “I stuck with it and worked on a lot stuff and just tried to use it as an opportunity to grow. I worked on my command a lot. That was a big thing for me—command my fastball.”

He said his increased command was not a product of a change in mechanics.

“It’s something you’ve just got to work on and focus on muscle memory and being able to locate that pitch down in the zone every day,” Ziomek said, noting the importance of preparation in the bullpen between starts.

He sees his slider, with speeds in the mid- to upper-70s, as his best secondary pitch. Analysts seem to disagree. Baseball Prospectus rated it below average (and feels the same about his curveball). gave it a 45 (slightly below average), and FanGraphs graded it at 40 with an upside of 45, adding that the pitch features “horizontal break without a ton of bite, though (Ziomek) can spot it well and will back-door righties with it successfully.”

GIF: Kevin Ziomek's slider.
H/T Bless You Boys

The curveball, his other breaking pitch, gets mixed reviews. According to Farnsworth, who rated it a 45 with upside of 55, it’s “a slower offering that some scouts don’t seem to like, but it has average-to-above movement and is notable for (Ziomek’s) ability to drop it in the zone or bury it for a whiff on command.”, labeling it a 50 (average) now, said he “has the chance to throw a true curve in the future, but he’ll get on the side of it, and it takes on a different shape as a result. He throws a slider as well, especially against lefties, though the Tigers think the curve will be his better breaking ball eventually.”

With breaking balls that don’t jump off the scouting chart, Ziomek’s changeup is critical. FanGraphs said it “could be a plus pitch with more refinement,” while and Baseball Prospectus both rated it slightly above average.

“I think my change has made some pretty good strides here in the last year, so I’m feeling really confident in it,” he said. “It was pretty good (against Florida Southern)—just kind of keep moving forward with that and just consistency—being able to locate pitches every time out there.”

GIF: Kevin Ziomek's changeup.
H/T Bless You Boys

Ziomek relies more on pitchability, deception, and command than the pitches themselves.

“I think I do a pretty good job of mixing,” he said, “and I feel pretty good at my off-speed pitches. At the same time, I think I’m a guy that—I kind of have a sneaky fastball and I can get it by guys, especially inside. I like to pitch inside; that’s one of my strengths, and it’s something I’ve always done well.”

“Sneaky” is a word Ausmus used to describe Ziomek’s delivery, notable for a three-quarter release point from which the ball travels across his body. This has helped him rack up strikeouts, especially against lefties. Motor City Bengals’ Zahari wrote that, “since joining the Tigers, Ziomek has come much more over the top with his delivery but still will drop to the side a bit on certain breaking balls.” Here’s what his fastball looked like when he pitched for Vanderbilt:

GIF: Kevin Ziomek's fastball.
H/T Bless You Boys

Zahari also noted that inconsistency in the delivery has resulted in control issues, but a positive change in BB/9 from 3.88 in 2014 to 1.98 in 2015 suggests Ziomek’s command has improved.

What to watch

A key question for Ziomek going forward is whether he can deceive hitters less junior than the ones he has faced so far as a pro; with the Whitecaps and Flying Tigers, he was a relative man among boys. Since his raw stuff is solid at best, he will need to locate within the strike zone and continue to pitch intelligently (strategically sequencing pitches, reading hitters, and changing speeds) to succeed in the major leagues. It will be interesting to see this year if he can strike guys out at the Double-A level and whether he will have success against right-handed hitters.

If he turns out anything like Drew Smyly—an apt comparison drawn repeatedly since June 2013—then Ziomek will probably make the Tigers a very happy baseball team.

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