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Better know a prospect: Tyler Zuber

The Arkansas-native should be grabbing your attention.

Kansas City Royals Photo Day Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Kansas City Royals pitching prospect Tyler Zuber was working out in the gym in Surprise, Arizona when his manager walked in.

“They’re probably going to shut the complex down,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said to a group of players.

Though it appeared the MLB season was leaning toward postponing Opening Day, the players were still allowed to workout in the facility for the time being. Now that option was out the window, as players were being sent home until further notice.

“I ended up getting a flight for the next day,” Zuber said in a phone interview. “I got out of there before they shut down travel.”

Things were moving quickly. Just a few weeks earlier, Zuber was throwing against the Chicago White Sox’ Opening Day lineup in a spring training game in Phoenix. Zuber, who spent the majority of 2019 with High-A Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas, would face a collection of hitters featuring Yoan Moncada, Edwin Encarnación, Eloy Jiménez, and Luis Robert. He retired all of them and struck out three of the four.

“Facing those guys was surreal,” Zuber said. “I didn’t realize {Encarnación} had over 6,000 at-bats and 400-plus home runs. I also didn’t realize how big {Jiménez} was as a person until he stood in the box. He was crouched over and he still looked like he was seven-foot tall.”

It was a 13-year age difference between Encarnación and Zuber. When the White Sox slugger debuted for the Cincinnati Reds 15 years ago in 2005, Zuber was just nine years old. But their first-ever matchup was dominated by Zuber, who retired Encarnación on a wicked slider.

Zuber also struck out MLB’s third-best prospect in Robert, who faced the Royals’ pitcher a handful of times in the minor leagues.

“I faced {Robert} in the minor leagues the past two years and he’s owned me,” Zuber said. “It was good to get him out.

Now with baseball on hold, Zuber is back home in Arkansas while he awaits word from the MLB on a start time.

“I have been working out in my garage,” Zuber said on how he stays busy. “I’ve actually been going on walks, which I never do because I’m playing (baseball) at this time and I’ve been throwing five to six days a week to keep my arm in shape.”

The Royals drafted Zuber three years ago in the sixth round out of Arkansas State in Jonesboro, Arkansas. During his senior season with the Red Wolves, he was virtually un-hittable.

“For some unknown reason, we had the opportunity to get him back as a senior,” Arkansas State head coach Tommy Raffo said in a phone interview. “He was absolutely, positively, lights-out as a senior.

In 52.1 innings, Zuber logged a 2.06 ERA with 80 strikeouts (13.8 SO/9) and walked just 16. Additionally, he posted a WHIP under 1.00 at 0.860 and tallied six saves.

“There was a huge bright spot in his future and career at Arkansas State,” Raffo said. “We knew his arm talent would lead him toward the Major League draft.”

As it came to be, that final season was a vast improvement over his previous three. After his freshman season in which he was 2-1 with a 2.34 ERA in 42.1 innings, Zuber followed up with a 3.54 ERA his sophomore year and a 6.59 ERA his junior season. In each of those three years, his WHIP was above 1.00 and his SO/9 was less than 10.

“I got to college and tried to be someone that I wasn’t,” Zuber said. “For example, I was trying to be Aroldis Chapman. Obviously I’m not left-handed and throw over 100-mph, but I was trying to be that guy. Finally, I was like ‘why not be the best version of me?” Because that’s what got me here. If I can’t be the best version of me, how can I be the best version of someone else?”

Belmont pitching coach Caleb Longshore, who was Zuber’s pitching coach for two years at Arkansas State, witnessed that transition first hand.

“A lot of that was he thought he had to turn himself into that junior year draft,” Longshore said in a phone interview. “He tried to do things he wasn’t necessarily capable of and it turned into frustration.”

The day the Royals drafted Zuber was one he won’t forget. After reading that draft coverage would begin around 12:00 p.m. CDT, Zuber decided he would sleep in until 11-12ish and watch the coverage for the rest of the day. However, an 8:00 a.m. phone call woke him up. Those calls continued until noon.

“When a team says, ‘hey, today is the day’ who can go back to sleep after hearing that?” Zuber said. “I think I ended up having about six or seven calls that day.”

The Royals called in the fifth round. The club told him he would be going in the next round or two. As Kansas City’s pick inched closer, Zuber called his dad, a now-retired police officer who was patrolling the streets at the time.

“Get home, it’s about to happen,” Zuber said to his dad.

He made it back just in time to join the huddle of Zuber’s family intently watching an iPad with the draft on in front of them. With names quickly coming off the board, a message popped up on Zuber’s phone. It was the Royals again.

The message informed Zuber’s family to get their cameras out and that he would be drafted in the next 15 picks. Sure enough, he was. With the 180th overall pick in the 2017 MLB draft, Kansas City selected Zuber.

“I remember me, my mom and dad were all in three different parts of the house,” Zuber said. “I think my mom was inside, my dad was in the front yard, and I was in the backyard and all three of us were on the phone at the same time. We couldn’t celebrate as a family until 30-45 minutes after I had been picked.”

During that hectic period of numerous phone calls, one of them was with Longshore.

“{Zuber’s} a small-town Arkansas kid that’s undersized but has a huge work ethic,” Longshore said. “For all the things going against him, you could just tell at that moment - being one of the highest draft picks in Arkansas State history - that everything he had worked for personally had all unfolded on that day.”

Following his selection in June, Zuber earned his first taste of pro ball in the Royals’ system less than two weeks later with the Burlington Royals. In Rookie Ball, he didn’t miss a beat, striking out 38 hitters in 25 innings with six saves and a 2.16 ERA. His performance earned him a promotion in August to Class-A Lexington before the season ended. The ensuing year, Zuber spent the first three months in Lexington, but was bumped to High-A Wilmington after he was punching out nearly 15 hitters per nine innings in the South Atlantic League.

After posting a 1.23 ERA with a 0.92 WHIP in 29.1 innings to start 2019, Zuber jettisoned from Wilmington to his home-state of Arkansas to join Double-A Northwest Arkansas. To close out the season with the Naturals, he posted a career-low 0.885 WHIP, struck out over 10 hitters per nine innings, and notched 10 saves.

“He was really nails the entire time he was (in Double-A),” Benjamin Kelly, radio voice of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals said. “He slid right into the closing role and he just took off and was as advertised.”

When Zuber arrived in Springdale, Arkansas, Kelly wondered if the right-hander compared himself to a closer with a smaller stature like Greg Holland, who pitched for the Naturals in 2009 and 2012.

“I asked him about that,” Kelly said. “He said ‘no, I’m just trying to be my own guy. I’m trying to be Tyler Zuber.”

Once Northwest Arkansas’ season concluded, Zuber didn’t stop playing. Instead, he joined his teammate Nick Heath in the Dominican Winter League. Playing for Tigres del Licey, whose pitching staff featured names such as Ubaldo Jiménez, Ervin Santana, Alfredo Simón, and Tayron Guerrero, Zuber appeared in 17 of the 50 games. The 24-year-old managed to log 15 innings and post a 1.20 ERA while striking out 10.8 hitters per nine.

Here is Zuber striking out former Royal Yamaico Navarro in a bases loaded jam.

His stellar 2019 earned Zuber a non-roster invite to the Royals spring training, where he didn’t take any steps back. Before the postponement, Zuber allowed just three hits in six innings and struck out eight of the 20 batters he faced.

While in Surprise, Zuber tried to soak up as much knowledge from the bullpen veterans on the team.

“I talked with Ian Kennedy a lot,” Zuber said. “I know last year was the first year he closed, but he still did it at the big league level and was very successful at it.”

Zuber also spent time around Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal, two closers that dominated in the playoffs and World Series.

“Those were two guys I looked up to and tried to talk to every day in the bullpen,” Zuber said. “We kind of felt that we wouldn’t pitch on Sundays and when we didn’t, those were the days I could sit there and talk to them for about five innings.”

Another voice Zuber highly respected was manager Mike Matheny, who is trying to adapt to the baseball world since the last time he coached in it two years ago.

“{Matheny} is an awesome manager,” Zuber said. “Whenever he steps in to talk, everyone is quiet. He’s not a small guy by no means, he’s a very intimidating figure standing up there. Whenever he says something, I almost want to stop talking to whoever I am talking to and listen.”

Per his Fangraph report, Zuber’s “command of both breaking balls is much better than one expects from a college relief prospect.” He also projects to be a backend bullpen arm with “several good pitches that will enable him to be a seventh or eighth inning type of arm.” His average spin rate on his fastball (2400) and his breaking ball (2750) rank third-best in the Royals organization. His curveball, which grades out as 55/60, ranks second-best in the system behind left-hander Austin Cox.

The stuff is there for Zuber, but his mentality is what has his former coaches and peers raving about as he strides toward the big league club.

“You knew whoever was going to call {Zuber}, he was going to be absolutely devoted and loyal to be able to do whatever he could to make sure the reason they drafted him was the right reason,” Raffo said. “That’s how {Zuber} takes it.”