While there have been many conversations this season surrounding the big league bullpen of the Dodgers, many fans have taken it upon themselves to scour the depths of the farm system in search of any rising arms that stand out. In the past, it was rare to find a true reliever who was developed in the bullpen, because most of the pitchers with the highest values are often groomed as starters regardless of their pedigrees. However, in the newest generation of prospects, pitchers like Joe Broussard, Shea Spitzbarth, and Marshall Kasowski have been developed as relievers since day one and have been rising to the top very quickly. Add Rancho Cucamonga reliever Zach Pop to the aforementioned crew, and it’s not difficult to see why the organization is extremely excited about the bullpen talent that’s ready to emerge.
Pop joins Kasowski in the back-end of a Quakes’ bullpen that’s easily considered one of the best in the Cal League. Like Kasowski, not many Dodgers fans are familiar with Pop, as he was chosen in the seventh round of the 2017 MLB draft out of the University of Kentucky. The native of Ontario was considered the best high school pitching prospect in all of Canada after his 2013 season at Notre Dame Secondary School and was subsequently selected by the Blue Jays in the 23rd round of the draft. Pop declined Toronto’s offer, instead electing to attend Kentucky to further develop his game.
For the Wildcats in 2016, his performance as a starter was mediocre at best. In the second half of the season, the 6’4″, 220 lb. right-hander was moved to the bullpen, and he hasn’t looked back since. The following year he emerged as one of the best setup men in the SEC. Ahead of his 2017 campaign at Lexington, he was ranked No. 74 in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects while being listed at No. 69 in D1 Baseball’s Top 100.
In the Dodgers system, Pop started the 2018 season at Low-A Great Lakes where he posted a 2.19 ERA in 16 innings thrown over 11 appearances. He struck out 26 batters during that time which earned him a quick promotion to Rancho. So far with the Quakes, he has tallied a phenomenal 0.41 ERA and a 0.73 WHIP with five saves and 19 punchouts over 15 appearances.
In an effort to get to know Pop a little better, we asked him if he would be interested in talking a bit about his background, and he was kind enough to to take time from his very busy schedule this week to oblige.
Straightaway, we inquired about the roots of his last name, which could conceivably be likened to a major league slugger who hits 40 bombs a season. Instead, Zach had more of a reasonable explanation.
“My grandparents are Dutch, but I don’t know if it was abbreviated when they came to Canada, though,” Pop explained.
He told us that he played a ton of ice hockey while growing up in Canada, and ironically, that he absolutely hates cold weather, which works out nicely with his current venue at Rancho in the Cal League. And despite all the hockey in his past, he did play baseball as a youngster. He indicated he was a childhood fan of the Yankees, and his favorite player growing up was the greatest closer in the history of the game, Mariano Rivera.
“I always admired how Rivera dominated the late innings, and most importantly, how he conducted himself both on and off the field,” Pop said.
Digging in to the technical side of the game, we asked him about his repertoire, hoping to find out if his ability to hit triple digits on the radar gun had any credibility.
“I throw a four-seam, a two-seam, a slider, and a change, but it’s mostly the two-seam and the slider,” he stated. “Unofficially, I was clocked at 100 MPH in Hoover, Alabama. Officially, it was 99 at Kentucky.”
Talking a little about the nuances of relief pitching compared to starting pitching, Zach told us about his mindset and mental approach on the typical day of a game.
“Honestly, I feel like being a reliever is easier. You don’t have to sit on the fact that you’re pitching on a certain day and all the anxiety that comes with it,” he said. “Being a reliever, I also find that you are pretty much always available to pitch, so you have to have the mindset that, good or bad, you are going to pitch again and soon. For the most part, I try to stay consistent and not get too happy with a good performance or too down on myself for a negative one.”
Most of the regular readers of the content of this site know that we’ve been giving Kasowski a huge amount of air time lately, so we asked Pop what his relationship was like with Marshall and if they have any sort of friendly competitions out of the bullpen.
“No, there’s no real competition between the relievers. I think we all just pull for each other and try to win as many ball games as we can,” he explained. “But Marshall and I are friends—we were locker buddies at Great Lakes and now we live together in Rancho. Great teammate, hard worker, and an even better person.”
Looking ahead, based on his early success at High-A alone, it wouldn’t be surprising if the 21-year-old Pop earned a promotion to Double-A Tulsa to begin his 2019 campaign, if not before. Fitting the prototypical mold that Andrew Friedman and his management crew seek out in player prospects, Zach’s exceptional skill set and remarkable work ethic should play large while climbing his way up the organizational ladder in rapid fashion.
His ceiling is high according to MLB Pipeline, which said “if a pro team can polish him up, he has the pure stuff to turn into a big league closer.”
And that’s certainly the intention of the Dodgers.
(Follow Zach on Twitter: @pop_zach)