Cards' scouts find another hidden gem in Petrick
Small-school pitcher went from undrafted in 2012 to an emerging talent a year later
ST. LOUIS -- As the third and final day of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft neared its end, University of Northwestern Ohio pitcher Zach Petrick retreated to his room. This was not the scenario for which he had prepared.
Ten years after watching his older brother, Billy, be drafted, Zach was eager to hear the family name called again. Nearly certain that he would be taken with one of the 1,238 picks, Petrick joined his college roommates, and with speakers plugged into the computer, they listened to each round unfold.
Petrick's expectations of a phone call were not entirely unfounded. He had participated in scouting showcases during his senior season, and he was aware that he was being watched. His college coach, Kory Hartman, estimated that a half-dozen scouts had been present at Petrick's final start -- a May 2 outing in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference Tournament.
Problem was, that game had not gone well for the right-hander out of Morris, Ill. The Racers' season ended that day, with Petrick allowing five earned runs on eight hits and a walk. A balk and two hit batsman compounded his six-inning start.
In talking with some of the scouts afterward, Hartman sensed that Petrick's Draft chances were waning. Petrick never allowed himself to believe that. That's why it hit him so hard when none of the 30 teams phoned him on Draft day.
Petrick had exhausted his collegiate eligibility and had a broken dream to show for it.
"That was my goal my entire life -- to get drafted," Petrick said. "I knew it wasn't going to be early rounds, but I was at least expecting to be picked up in the later rounds. Coach Hartman was pretty good about getting our names out there and would bring us to showcases. I knew at some of those showcases that some scouts knew my name.
"I heard everybody else's name but mine."
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Under the organization's decade-long focus on drafting and developing, the Cardinals have saturated their system with surprises. All clubs scout the top talent. What differentiates one organization from the next is how they find the hidden gems.
Scout Aaron Looper vouched for Trevor Rosenthal in the 2009 Draft after seeing him pitch a total of one inning. Kevin Siegrist was a 41st-round find in '08. Brian Hopkins, then an area scout, found Matt Adams playing at a small school in Pennsylvania. It was the analytics department that identified current bench player Brock Peterson in independent ball.
All four are currently on St. Louis' big league roster.
"We'll do whatever we can do to unlock the potential, but they have to find us the players," said Brent Strom, the Cards' Minor League pitching coordinator. "I have enough disappointments. It's nice to have a surprise."
The Cardinals believe they have another one in Petrick.
At Hopkins' urging, the Cards had considered Petrick on Draft day. Hopkins had first taken notice of Petrick the previous September at a small school scout day at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus. About 50 players from non-Division I programs attended. It was one of the best chances for these players -- who played shorter schedules at smaller schools in colder climates -- to be seen.
It was one of two times that Hopkins would see Petrick pitch. Yet he saw something that stuck.
"Body wise, he was athletic," Hopkins recalled. "He had a feel for a breaking ball, which was good, and he threw strikes. He showed some abilities, they just weren't consistent. The glaring thing was that he has such an even-keel demeanor about him. That's such a big part of success -- not getting too high, too low."
Hopkins stumped for Petrick in his discussions with scouting director Dan Kantrovitz, who then made a calculated decision. With the Draft now condensed from 50 rounds to 40, St. Louis had to use its selections wisely. Hopkins believed he had found a hidden gem, a player who had gone relatively unnoticed and perhaps undervalued by others.
Believing there was a strong chance Petrick would go undrafted, the Cardinals deliberately let him fall.
"I think we realized it wasn't a situation where we had to draft him to eventually sign him," Kantrovitz said. "At that point, it's very nice to see one of our scouts outwork a lot of other people."
Unaware that the Cards still had him mind, Petrick spent the days after the Draft trying to piece together his immediate future. He wasn't ready to give up on the baseball dream and eventually secured tryouts with a pair of Chicago-area independent league teams.
"His brother pitched in big leagues, and there was a lot of living in the shadows," Hartman said. "He was just looking for a chance. When that chance didn't come, he was pretty devastated. But it also sounded in his voice that he was motivated."
As Petrick packed and prepared to leave Ohio, Hartman got on the phone. He called scouts he knew with the Rockies, Yankees and Rangers. He also called Hopkins. A day later, Hopkins called back asking for Petrick's phone number.
The Cardinals were ready to make an offer.
The money would be minimal, as it always is for outgoing seniors who have no leverage or competing offers. For Petrick, that was inconsequential. He accepted the invitation to fly out to short-season Johnson City (Tenn.) the next day.
"I wasn't even thinking about being picked up as a non-drafted free agent," Petrick said. "There was no way I was going to let go of my dream just yet. I knew I had something in the tank, and I wanted to give it a try."
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While Petrick's 2012 numbers with short-season Johnson City -- 5-0 with a 2.17 ERA, 50 strikeouts and nine walks in 45 2/3 innings -- reveal the absence of many hiccups, it took Petrick weeks before he felt that he deserved to be teammates with players who had just been drafted instead of him.
His first impression was a daunting one.
"I was playing catch with guys who were like 6-foot-7 and throwing 92 mph," Petrick said. "It was intimidating, especially coming from a small school where you didn't see much of that."
He soon learned, though, that the organization didn't differentiate upon Draft status. Petrick was put on a throwing program that helped him get his arm in sync with his body. Petrick took to the routine quickly and found increased velocity to be one of the residual effects.
After throwing a fastball that sat around 88-90 mph and topped out at 91 mph in college, Petrick was reaching 94 mph on the radar gun. The spike started when Petrick was pitching in a relief role but was sustained when he later slid into the rotation.
"I would have to believe that getting on a routine just benefited him," Strom said. "And perhaps when you're a starter, you're trying to conserve energy, so you may pitch at a velocity lower than what you're actually capable of. There's a basic premise that the body will accommodate the goal that's acquired. When he went to the starter's slot, he had already done that. He's been able to maintain that."
The added athleticism in Petrick's delivery now, said farm director John Vuch, has also aided the velocity bump.
"In the past, it was always a negative term to say a guy is a thrower not a pitcher," Vuch said. "But you still want guys to throw and let it loose. You just have to do it in a way that you're not sacrificing command. I think he's a little less constrained than he was when he came into pro ball."
Being given an opportunity to start with Johnson City was, according to Petrick, a pivotal moment in making him feel he belonged. He admits that his confidence waned a bit after the season, as he worried whether he would perform well enough in Spring Training to stick.
The Cardinals, still intrigued by the potential, placed Petrick on Peoria's low Class A Opening Day roster.
"Once I made a full-season team," Petrick said, "I think that's when I gained the confidence that if they thought I was good enough, than I should think I'm good enough."
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Petrick made his 27th appearance (sixth start) of 2013 on Sunday, allowing three runs on five hits and three walks in 5 2/3 innings. It was, without question, Petrick's worst outing of the year.
That's because Petrick's numbers this season are the sort you make up.
Petrick lasted 16 games with Peoria, posting a 0.83 ERA while striking out 46 and walking eight in 32 2/3 innings. He saved seven games.
A promotion to Palm Beach eventually led to a return to the rotation. In 33 1/3 innings at the high Class A level, Petrick allowed one earned run, while maintaining an eight-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio.
And so he was summoned to Double-A, where Petrick won his debut last week. In 77 2/3 innings this season, Petrick -- the kid who didn't get the call last June -- boasts an organization-best ERA of 0.93.
"I'm as surprised as anybody else in my numbers," Petrick said. "But it goes to show that even if you're a free agent, if you find something that works for you, you can be successful wherever you're at. I've been lucky enough to pick up things from every stop I've made to this point."
In Johnson City, Petrick picked up, in addition to mphs, a new curveball. Having previously thrown, in his words, "a loopy curveball," Petrick took to a change Strom suggested. It made his curve tighter and improved accuracy.
With Peoria, Petrick took on confidence. It was the ingredient that first-year Peoria pitching coach Jason Simontacchi sensed Petrick needed more than any message on mechanics.
"A switch got turned [on]," Simontacchi said. "He realized he could compete and be successful at this level. It was really simple with him. It was more getting his confidence where it needed to be and letting him go from there."
It was with Palm Beach that Petrick further developed his changeup. Pitching coach Arthur Adams suggested a new grip that Petrick says "has been working for me ever since." The pitch has been a particularly effective weapon against left-handers for the 23-year-old.
The emergence of a solid three-pitch mix is what has allowed Petrick to thrive in the transition back to starting. It is also why when Anthony Ferrara landed on the Double-A disabled list, the Cards chose Petrick for the promotion.
"He's kind of like Seth Maness -- an acquired taste, where you have to see him for a while to realize what he's doing and how good he is," said Vuch, who saw Petrick's Springfield debut. "He's got every bit of a Major League fastball. It's not a fringy fastball. It's an average to above-average fastball. He has a good changeup and good breaking pitch. There's no reason that stuff can't play at higher levels."
Hartman jokes that Petrick has become the poster boy and part of the recruiting pitch for Northwestern Ohio's now three-year-old baseball program. For the Cardinals, Petrick's rapid rise and stunning results is also a success story for multiple departments.
The player development folks credit the scouting department for the find. Hopkins and Kantrovitz are pleased to have offered the Minor League staff a player capable of being molded.
"It's a fun story of everything coming together," Hopkins said. "He's exceeded expectations, but I think it just comes back to him taking advantage of the situation."
A year ago, Petrick was just grateful to be playing. Now, he's finding that he belonged all along.
"Double-A was a three-year goal for me when I got picked up," Petrick said. "I wasn't even thinking Double-A this year. I was happy to be in Peoria. Everything is moving pretty rapidly right now. During the offseason, I'll be able to sit back and re-evaluate my goals and the ceiling I had set for myself."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.