You’d be hard-pressed to find a full-time relief pitcher in the Reds’ farm system enjoying a better season than 23-year-old Zack Weiss.
After recording uneven rookie ball numbers in 2013, the right-handed Weiss thrived at Low-A Dayton in 2014 (63.1 innings, 11.37 K/9, 2.98 BB/9, 2.92 FIP) and has enjoyed another leap forward in 2015.
The UCLA product began his 2015 campaign with High-A Daytona and was downright dominant — and in an Aroldis Chapman sort of way: 11.2 innings, 22 strikeouts, two hits, one walk, and zero runs allowed. Prefer all of that dominance formulated into a single number? How about -0.33. Yes, that’s a negative number, and that figure communicates Weiss’ FIP at Daytona.
Following a promotion to Double-A Pensacola on May 6, Weiss initially struggled, but has since regained the stellar form (33.1 innings, 40 strikeouts, 32 hits, nine walks, 3.28 FIP) he exhibited at Daytona. In fact, at each of his last three minor league stops, Weiss has logged more strikeouts than innings pitched, struck out at least 10 batters per nine innings, and walked less than three batters per nine innings.
I recently spoke with Weiss, with the topics including his California upbringing; his conversion from Angels fan to Reds farmhand; his interest in the environment; what he learned from watching Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer at UCLA; and, of course, his impressive 2015 season.
RN: You’re a California kid through and through — you were born in Irvine, went to high school in Irvine, and attended UCLA. What was the best part about living in California?
ZW: I still live in Southern California, and I love going home. You get beautiful summers and beautiful falls, springs, and winters. Growing up near a beach was great. There was a lot going on; I grew up an Angels fan, so I was always going to Angels games with my dad. We lived like 15 minutes away (from Angel Stadium of Anaheim). I’ve lived in Southern California my whole life, and I really enjoy my time there in the offseason.
RN: I’m always interested when players grew up rooting for one team, and how they react to playing for another organization. Do you find yourself ever rooting for the Angels? Do you still follow them, or are you all Reds now?
ZW: I wouldn’t call myself (an Angels) fan like I used to be. It’s a little different growing up as a kid. I have a lot of young cousins who are still big Angels fans, so I went to the playoffs with them last year, to Game 1 of the ALDS. It’s definitely a little bit different of an experience when you’re employed by another team.
It’s cool. I’ve now become a Reds fan, naturally. But I do still enjoy going and seeing baseball games anyway. Going to games with family is something I do enjoy, it’s just a little different emotionally for me now, you know?
RN: Right. And obviously the Reds pay you, so I’m sure that makes the decision a little easier.
RN: Do you people assume you’ve met or know celebrities since you grew up within driving distance of L.A.?
ZW: [Laughs.] Not really. I guess people ask more about who I met in college since UCLA is in the hub of (Los Angeles). Irvine is more a quiet, suburban neighborhood. There are a lot of athletes who live down there, but for the most part it is its own community and is pretty separate from Los Angeles. My sister is trying to become an actress and she’s doing the whole L.A. scene, but I was never too attached to it.
RN: Was there a moment early in your baseball career — or even recently — where you thought, ‘Maybe I have chance at doing this (playing professional baseball) for a living, and doing it for a long time?’
ZW: Yeah. My freshman year of high school, I wasn’t very good. I was a catcher and couldn’t really hit. I didn’t play my sophomore year because I tore an ACL playing football. I had always been a pretty good little leaguer at baseball, but I was never anything to write home about. Going into my junior year of high school, I grew a little bit and got a lot stronger. I started throwing harder, and that’s when colleges started talking to me.
So, to say have I had a moment where I thought I could (be a pro baseball player)? I wouldn’t really say that ever happened; I was expecting to go to school for academics. I wanted to go to UCLA, and when they called and gave me the opportunity to play baseball, I obviously took them up on that really quickly. But I wouldn’t say there was ever a moment that kind of clicked for me, it was just developing and trying to improve every year. And it became an opportunity that I might get the chance to get drafted and go play — and that happened. Once you’re playing, you know you’ve got a shot (to reach the majors).
RN: If you were not trying to make the big leagues and (play baseball) for a long time, what do you think you’d be doing?
ZW: I don’t really know. My degree that I’m finishing is in geography and environmental studies, and kind of learning how to utilize different mapping softwares. I’m pretty interested in that. I think it would cool to work for a major corporation and help them do their environmental consulting and how to be more green and more efficient in what they do. That’s something I would be interested in.
RN: Before the Reds took you in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, the Pirates took you in the 10th round of the 2010 draft out of high school. In the end, why did you chose to go to college over signing with Pittsburgh?
ZW: Right before the draft my senior year of high school, I kind of told teams, ‘I’m going to go to college. My lifelong dream is to go to UCLA.’ At the time, the baseball program was really developing into what it is now. I was really excited about the opportunity.
I don’t know…for me, college is what I wanted to do. I don’t think I was a good enough baseball player at the time, I think I needed to develop a little bit more. It was more of just a personal decision. Those were three amazing years of my life that I loved and wouldn’t trade. The decision for me was a good one — it was definitely a difficult one — but it’s something I’m happy that I did. I loved my time there and had a great experience with a group of guys baseball-wise and in the classroom.
RN: I haven’t had a chance to see who you played with at UCLA. Are there any guys that you played with that are already in the majors or are major prospects that general baseball fans would know?
ZW: Yeah. My freshman year, Gerrit Cole was our Friday night guy and Trevor Bauer was our Saturday guy.
[Author’s note: Cole and Bauer were selected first overall and third overall, respectively, in the 2011 amateur draft.]
RN: That’s pretty good.
ZW: Yeah. We had a pretty talented pitching staff. Adam Plutko, who is with the Indians now, and Nick Vander Tuig were both in my year, so I got to pitch with both of those guys. I think there were seven of us drafted in my class. [Author’s note: Weiss is correct.] So pretty much of all of those guys have gotten an opportunity to play professionally, which is pretty cool and pretty special.
RN: I’m sure you took notice when Bauer and Cole were pitching. When you’re a pitcher watching another pitcher that’s a little more advanced than you are, what are you trying to pick up on?
ZW: Both of those guys were exceptionally competitive. They did it differently, there’s not a lot of similarities between the two of them apart from the fact that they both have nasty stuff. They went about it differently and they both got their success differently, but I would say Gerrit was more of like a…he would get a little more jacked up for his starts and he was real competitive with guys. Bauer was a little more of cerebral in what he was doing, and so you can learn something from watching guys like that pitch.
RN: In 2012 you started some for UCLA, but in 2013, you made all of your appearances as a relief pitcher. What prompted that transition?
ZW: I went into the fall (of 2013) competing for a job in the rotation, and we were just a really deep pitching staff that year. I had a pretty good fall, but I didn’t get the job. And I ended up in the ‘pen and didn’t really know what my role was going to be at the time. I settled into the eighth-inning role, and we had closer, David Berg, who holds all the NCAA records ever, basically. The seventh-inning guy was James Kaprielian, who was just the first round pick (16th overall) of the Yankees this year. So, the three of us fit into roles and it was a really good run and we had a great rotation. I kind of just accepted my role and tried to be the best eighth-inning guy (I could).
RN: What’s your experience been like in the minors? Especially at the lower levels, you get spread out quite a bit. For rookie ball you were in Montana, then at Low-A, you’re in Ohio. Now you’re down in Florida. What’s it been like to play in completely opposite parts of the country in respect to where you’re from?
ZW: Yeah, it makes it tough to see the girlfriend and the family. It’s a pretty cool experience. My family has done a nice job of following me, and they’ve had a chance to come out and see me play. It’s a cool experience. Naturally, as you go up the levels it gets a little bit nicer at each park and the perks are a little bit better. I’ve been around groups of guys that I’ve enjoyed being around. It’s been a good experience; I don’t have anything bad to say. All of the Reds facilities are nice; even Billings is the nicest place in the (Pioneer) League.
RN: I mean this in the nicest way possible, but a lot of Reds fans probably haven’t heard about you. It’s just the nature of baseball prospects — people don’t really notice relief pitchers. But, you’ve had a great year. How would you describe your style of pitching, your mound presence, and your repertoire?
ZW: Yeah. My fastball is 93, 95 mph. I throw sliders, and I have curveball that I mix in, and a changeup that is probably my fourth pitch. I’ve had a variety of roles, but I settled into a late-inning role at (High-A) Daytona.
My best ‘out’ pitch is a slider. Over time, I’ve gotten a better understanding of what I’m trying to do. The more experience you get, the better off you are. You understand situations better. I haven’t really changed anything. I had success at Daytona, but when I got to Pensacola, I lost some feel and was trying too hard. I worked with the coaches, got my balance back, and got back on track.
RN: On July 21, you came into a tough situation in the eighth inning: bases loaded and one out. You got back-to-back strikeouts to end the inning, and then closed things out in the ninth. Where do you fall on the topic of reliever specialization and how regimented it can be?
ZW: The manager has trust in you, and it’s a spot where you want the ball. You can definitely utilize a closer, but you see it with Reds every so often with Chapman, letting him go more than three outs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a five- or six-out save.
This interview has been edited. Photo courtesy of Barrett McClean/Pensacola Blue Wahoos.