There were signs that Zach Petrick would be named the St. Louis Cardinals’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year before it actually happened in mid-December.
CardinalsFarm, a website independent of the organization, declared Petrick the winner of its own pitcher of the year award in October. His agent asked Petrick if he had won. His 1.99 ERA, which came over 34 appearances at three levels, was the lowest in the system by more than a half-run among pitchers with more than 70 innings pitched.
However, the call Petrick received from Cardinals Director of Player Development Gary LaRocque, while working out a few weeks ago, informing him that he was chosen for the honor by the organization, was still unexpected.
“When [LaRocque] told me the good news, I was very overwhelmed,” Petrick said during a recent interview. “With some of the names that were going for this pitcher of the year award, it’s hard to believe my name was actually picked.”
The award is a punctuation mark on a season during which Petrick exceeded his most optimistic goals. The Morris native, who signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 2012, entered 2013 hoping for a full-season assignment. He attained one, at Class-A Peoria, to begin the year; by its conclusion, he was pitching two levels higher, at Double-A Springfield.
Between three levels – Petrick’s season included a stint at Advanced-A Palm Beach – he had a 1.99 ERA, 122 strikeouts, 27 walks and four home runs allowed in 113 1⁄3 innings pitched. Petrick made 13 starts among his 34 appearances, winning seven of 10 decisions and he also earned eight saves.
“Zach moved through Peoria and Palm Beach quickly, making the jump to a starting role at Springfield and showing production at all three levels,” LaRocque said in a news release. “He earned the starting role after strong relief work in the Midwest League followed by an outstanding performance in the Florida State League. Once in Double A, after nine starts, he established himself for the season as our Minor League Pitcher of the year for 2013.”
At Peoria, all 16 appearances Petrick made were in relief. It was at Palm Beach that the organization decided to begin using him as a starter. His first five appearances there were out of the bullpen. After that, Petrick never pitched in relief again, starting four times for Palm Beach and nine times for Springfield.
Initially, the results of the move were otherworldly. Petrick pitched four scoreless innings in his first start, then finished his Palm Beach stint by winning his next three. In 23 1⁄3 innings as a starter there, he allowed one earned run, struck out 21 and walked three.
“They eased me into it. I only went four or five innings the first couple starts,” Petrick said. “I was getting plenty of rest as a starter. My arm felt great at that point. The organization’s great about keeping players healthy and putting them in the right spot to succeed.”
At Springfield, Petrick won two of his first three starts, allowing six earned runs in 17 2⁄3 innings, but the fourth start was his worst outing of the season. He allowed five earned runs on six hits, two walks and a home run in 3 2⁄3 innings against Arkansas on Aug. 1.
In five subsequent starts, Petrick went at least five innings and allowing three or fewer earned runs. The dud against Arkansas inflated his ERA with Springfield to 3.99, several times higher than the microscopic figures he posted with Peoria (0.83) and Palm Beach (0.27).
Petrick attributes fatigue, even more than better competition or his change in role, to his season ending more poorly than it began.
“I had never thrown over 90 consecutive innings in a season, and here I was getting into the upper 90s and the 100s, and it started to show,” Petrick said. “As you get worn down, you start to think about things differently and there’s changes in the mental aspect of pitching. And late, I was not in a groove anymore. I started to think too much.”
That is not to say that Petrick did not find the opposition more challenging at each stop. He said hitters are progressively more disciplined at each level. That reality, coupled with some talks with Palm Beach pitching coach Ace Adams, caused Petrick to make some adjustments.
“Up to that point, I was dominating with my fastball, just by commanding my fastball. It was like was I was able to put it wherever I want to,” Petrick said. “Still, I knew I needed to work on my offspeed pitches a little more. That’s where my change-up got better. I actually had to use it against those hitters because they would take that fastball that was a little off the outside corner for a ball, and then you’d have to come back with an offspeed pitch in the strike zone.”
Springfield manager Mike Shildt, who is preparing for his 11th season in the Cardinals organization, said the struggles like the ones Petrick encountered in Double A are expected.
“I was really pleased with the way he handled himself when things didn’t go as well as I’m sure he would have liked for them,” Shildt said. “It’s a tough game. When you’re playing a difficult, challenging game like this one and facing the various challenges, you learn ultimately who you really are. For me, Zach really was able to welcome and to embrace those challenges, and that sort of approach will serve him well going forward.”
On the surface, Petrick’s arsenal – fastball, curveball and change-up – remains the same as it was at the University of Northwestern Ohio, and even at Morris Community High School. The pitches themselves, of course, have changed significantly.
A fastball that sometimes did not hit 90 mph in college, and that topped out in the mid- to high-80s in high school, now regularly reaches 91 mph, and has been clocked as high, Petrick said, as 94 mph. His secondary pitches have evolved as well.
“The coaches with the Cardinals, they taught me how to throw a curveball that was actually a professional curveball,” Petrick said. “In college, my curve was all loopy and pretty slow. It didn’t come out anything like a fastball. Now, it’s very sharp.
“I’m starting to get a feel for my change-up as well. I threw a change-up in high school, and at the time I thought I knew what I was doing, but I had no idea. When I got to college, I didn’t have to throw it. I just threw a fastball and a curve for the most part, so I didn’t develop a consistent change until I got to Palm Beach.”
According to Shildt, Petrick was one of only a few players who entered the professional ranks, via the draft or otherwise, in 2012 that competed in the Texas League in 2013.
“He’s got good command of his fastball, and he’s able to throw that for strikes and locate it well. He’s also got a nice change-up,” Shildt said. “There are still some things for him to work on ... but it says a lot about him that he was able to get to Double A as quickly as he did.”
Until Petrick reports in a few weeks, he will be part of the Cardinals Caravan, which he will make several appearances to sign autographs and greet fans in Illinois and Missouri on Friday and Saturday. He also plans to appear at the 56th annual St. Louis Baseball Writers’ Association of America Dinner on Sunday.