AFL Focus Part 2 - Seby Zavala

This is the second half of a split feature, covering a pair of prospects who played in the Arizona Fall League representing the White Sox. For an introduction, team-level highlights and a deep dive on shortstop Danny Mendick, you should read the first chapter.

This article focuses on catcher Seby Zavala. I’m the one who named Zavala and teammate Corey Zangari the “Killer Zs” (because if one doesn’t hurt you the other will). I looked forward to watching them again on a regular basis, and recently I got to see one of them play in the fall prospect showcase.

QUICK INTRO TO THE AFL AND THE DESERT DOGS

Each MLB organization is represented by 7 players on a roster at one time. The White Sox assigned a total of 8 including Mendick and Zavala: Pitchers Dylan Covey, Matt Foster, Jace Fry, and Connor Walsh, and outfielders Tito Polo and Charlie Tilson, who filled Polo’s spot in late October. They played for the Glendale Desert Dogs, along with minor leaguers from the Phillies, Pirates, Dodgers and Indians organizations.

Playing time is distributed as evenly as possible. However, roster spots occupied by those who missed innings or at-bats during the regular season or who are transitioning to a new position are the priority at their position. Dodgers’ catching prospect Will Smith was the priority catcher with 17 games behind the plate, after missing the 2nd half of the season (HBP in the hand in his debut with AA-Tulsa.)  Phillies’ Edgar Cabral barely edged out Zavala catching one more game - 7 and 6 respectively. All three backstops got in some games at DH as well.

The AFL represents an often-leveraged scouting opportunity for the White Sox. Dylan Covey returned to the Fall League after a spectacular 2016 with the Mesa Solar Sox, where he represented the Oakland A’s. His 4+ perfect innings in the AFL championship game last year, on the heels of starting a combined no-hitter against Michael Kopech and company, might have had something to do with the White Sox claiming him in the 2016 Rule 5 draft. He returned to the AFL for three outings after missing time this season with a back issue. The former University of San Diego Torero (whose teammates included White Sox’ Louie Lechich and Cubs’ Kris Bryant) had nothing but praise for his fellow Sox / Desert Dogs, whom he got to know and respect this fall, “… [Mendick and Zavala] are both awesome; great guys and teammates!”

Dylan reminded me of the “San Diego connection” that he and Zavala share. They faced each other once, in March 2012. Seby, in his first year at San Diego State grounded out to 2nd base.

SEBY ZAVALA

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George Kachigian served his country for 32 years as a member of the US Navy before he started a career in baseball, as a coach and part time scout in San Diego for the Chicago Cubs. In 1985 he lobbied for them to draft a first baseman in the 24th round from San Diego State named Mark Grace. A few years later he signed on as a full-time area scout with the White Sox where he’s been for almost 30 years. Among those Kachigian has signed for the Sox include: LHP Royce Ring (1st rd, 2002), 1B/OF slugger Chris Carter (15th rd, 2005), OF Trayce Thompson (2nd rd, 2009), RHP Addison Reed (3rd rd, 2010), and catcher Seby Zavala, 12th round pick from 2015.

I asked Kachigian for a comp for Zavala. He said Yankees All-Star catcher, Silver Slugger and 4-time World Series champ, Jorge Posada.  George also used the word “clutch” several times when sharing both what he saw in Seby before the draft and how he envisions him as a big leaguer. He clarified that it doesn’t always mean a walk-off home run, maybe it’s a line drive up the middle to keep the inning alive, or one of his two-out, double-digit plate appearances resulting in a base on balls. Those were his words more than 2 years ago, and all I can say is: NAILED IT! The more Seby reveals himself to the baseball world, the more the baseball world sees how good George Kachigian is at finding diamonds in the rough of the draft.

The relationships he has with his pitching staffs – high school to fall league – are rooted in respect and trust. They know he’s a grinder, they see what he does and how he prepares for it. They know how mentally strong he is, which is exceptionally greater than his physical strength. Starters and relievers know he carefully studies opposing hitters and identifies their weaknesses. As a receiver, Seby is quiet and smooth. He works with the strike zone and presents the pitch to support his batterymate’s efforts. He’s got a cannon to throw out runners, and more importantly, he understands the importance of timing and how it applies to hitting and baserunning which makes him a buzz-kill to would-be stealers. He fields his position with accuracy, and when it’s his turn to hit, he’s going to maximize every pitch he sees and he’s probably going to be responsible for a couple runs each game.

Though it would not have been his preference to return to Kannapolis to start the 2017 season, Zavala knew it was the only way he’d be able to play every day. The fact that his path is blocked by a 1st round pick could have bruised his ego, especially since Seby was drafted a year prior. But, like Mendick, he’s a grinder. They don’t indulge in the distraction of their egos; they maintain laser-focus on their goals. That’s what he did and in two months, he was the league leader in home runs and named a South Atlantic League All Star. After the game he was promoted to Winston-Salem where, on the very first pitch he saw at that level, he hit it over the fence in left center field for a grand slam. He homered the next day, too, because, why wouldn’t he?

Charlie Poe was now Zavala’s hitting coach. “Seby has always been a good fastball hitter. Always had a good eye. He tracks the ball well, knows the strike zone really well, even better than the…” He stops himself, laughs a little, then continues, “…let’s just say he knows the strike zone very well. But anytime he needed it, we’d work together on breaking balls with the machine. He would beat me to the field and be waiting for me, so we could work.  That’s how he is... He can hit’ [laughs] ‘he can hit. And he hits to all fields.”

Poe made a point of mentioning the connection between Zavala and Eloy Jimenez from the first day they became teammates. Jimenez and two others were the return for Jose Quintana from the Cubs. Winston-Salem was playing a series against Myrtle Beach at the time of the trade, so they simply changed clubhouses to begin the new chapter with their new organization. “It was like they [Zavala and Jimenez] were lifelong friends or family from when they first met. They connected and talked about hitting at a level that only they could. They were good for each other.”

Let’s look at Seby’s Fall League production from 13 games; 6 as catcher, 7 as the DH. He was paired with Dodgers’ right-hander Andrew Sopko for three outings, Pirates’ lefty starter Taylor Hearn for two, and Pirates phenom Mitch Keller for one. Below the categories are his rankings in top 5 of the team. With only 46 at-bats / 54 plate appearances, Zavala did not qualify to be considered for league comps.

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Here's a compilation video of a few of Zavala's moments from the AFL:

TOP 3 PRODUCTIVE GAMES:

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3) November 16 at Salt River Rafters, final game of the season, with Taylor Hearn as his batterymate. Went 1-for-3, scored a run and walked twice, but his arm was put to the test. With the first Rafters baserunner, they were off and running. I suspect it was part of the final game antics that are common and usually fun to watch. The track meet on the bases was familiar to Zavala who experienced the same conditions the first half of the 2016 season with Kannapolis. The Rangers’ affiliate Hickory Crawdads should have been renamed the Roadrunners with how much they ran the bases against all their South Atlantic League opponents. Seby was so vigilant in stopping runners that he led all catchers in baseball (major and minor leagues) in the number of runners caught. The final AFL game had that feel to it.

2) October 13 at Surprise Saguaros first game behind the plate and catching Andrew Sopko. Went 2-for-4 with 2 hard-hit doubles, the first one he drove in 2 with 2 outs and scored a run. As if that weren’t enough, in the bottom of the 9th, after a lead-off home run to bring Surprise within one, and a walk, Zavala stayed focused after the batter swings and misses for the first out and nails the runner trying to advance to 2nd. Two outs, bases cleared for the next batter to ground out and end the game. In only his 2nd appearance of the fall, Seby impressed MLB Pipeline Jonathan Mayo enough to interview him as the highlighted player of the game. As he returned to the press box, Mayo echoed what most say after their first conversation with Zavala: he probably never got in trouble in school for talking too much.

1) October 26 at Surprise Saguaros behind the plate with Sopko on the mound. Went 2-for-4, scored twice including a 3-run home run with two outs in the 9th inning off Royals’ lefty Matt Tenuta. This coming only 4 innings after teammate Mendick hit his first and only 3-rur home run of the campaign.

It’s not just the fact that he hit a home run that makes this the #1 performance - Zavala’s ability to hit for power is now well-established.  As I heard from everyone who was at Surprise Stadium that day, “it wasn’t just a “no-doubter”. It was “LLLLLAUNCHED…with, like 5 “L”s” according to a pitcher on the opposing team. My favorite, though, came from the farm director of an opposing team (where power hitters are the norm). He had been at the October 13th game at Surprise, as well. Saw Zavala’s two hard hit doubles and defensive skills on full display. He said he could see that he had, “some kind of power” but, “Kim, [pause for effect] the sound off the bat, the ease of his swing, it cleared the grassy area [berm] and hit a building and then concrete…in a hurry! Just thankful no one got hurt. It was…something!”

With that description, I had to find the details. Oh boy, he wasn’t kidding! Thankfully, Will Boor with MLB.com and MLB Pipeline was in attendance and asked for the specifics of Seby’s home run. Unfortunately, information for reference is limited; thankfully Will was at Surprise and later tweeted the information, here: https://twitter.com/wboor/status/923669998790361088

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I spent a lot of time imagining how it must have looked and where it landed, so I did even more digging. I also found on baseballsavant.com the numbers and some videos of MLB home runs so I looked for the most comparable to all three areas of Seby’s bomb.

In an attempt to make you feel like you were there, too, here are two versions of the stadium. Dimensions are 350 to right and left fields, 379 in right center and left center, and 400 to straightaway center.

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The closest home run video I found was hit by Giancarlo Stanton at Marlins Park in August 2017. Measured 460 feet with an exit velo of 114 and a 33 degree launch angle. Pretty impressive.

BOWMAN HITTING CHALLENGE

The first fall league event is the hitting skills challenge presented by Bowman cards. One player from each MLB organization that wishes to send a representative, gets one opportunity to make the most of their single round competition. While it’s not a home run derby, the team representative is typically a more skilled, power hitter. Zavala was the White Sox’ entrant at Sloan Park.

The photos below lay out the flow and details of the event. Each batter starts with 4 bunts, then swings for 2 minutes to hit obstacles on the field as well as hit home runs. Top three point-scorers from each of the National League and the American League were displayed on the video board throughout the evening. Zavala’s 2,100 points led the AL for most of the night and was only surpassed by Minnesota Twins’ first baseman Chris Paul (2.700). Top three in each division were recognized at the completion of the event. Twenty-seven of the 30 teams were represented.

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I recorded Zavala’s session and wasn’t surprised at all that he did so well. While there were more well-known participants (Dodgers DJ Peters, Athletics’ Sheldon Neuse, Indians Francisco Mejia etc.) the crowd support favored the White Sox catcher. Here is Seby's session:

HITTING

Many thanks to Daren Willman / BaseballSavant.com for the charts – and every morsel of data they provide!

The charts below provide details of Zavala’s production at 3 different levels this season:  AFL, Winston-Salem, and Kannapolis.seby-chart

A LITTLE MORE ABOUT SEBY

If Danny Mendick owes his career in part to the Braves and Bulls, then Seby owes his to Tommy John and the Padres. Well, one Padre, really. The greatest ever: Mister Padre. Tony Gwynn.

Zavala knows what it takes to win at every level of competition. The San Gabriel Valley native and lifelong Dodger fan finished his high school career with a championship game at Dodger Stadium. The Lancers from Bishop Amat High School shut out the reigning state division champs from Palm Desert, led by the son of Dodger legend Steve Garvey, by a score of 7-0. Even a pre-game speech by Hall of Fame Dodger manager, “Uncle Tommy” Lasorda could do little against Amat and the battery of LHP Daniel Zamora and Seby Zavala, and a 2-run home run off the bat of Rio Ruiz. The same three names currently playing professional baseball: Zamora in the Pirates organization and Ruiz with the Braves.

Four years later Seby was named MVP of the Mountain West Conference Tournament after a record-tying 5 home runs in 7 games. More importantly, he and his San Diego State teammates won their 2nd consecutive conference title and their first since losing their beloved coach, Tony Gwynn, to cancer.  “Mr. Padre” as he was called by many was one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game, and one of the first to optimize the use of video for his self-improvement. As the Aztecs head coach, he had a built-in video department – otherwise known as injured players who couldn’t take the field. After recording each game, the video staff and Coach Gwynn would spend hours breaking down each plate-appearance to help their teammates on the field for the next game. They also talked philosophy and strategy – both relating to hitting, the game of baseball, and to life. Imagine what one – just one - of those sessions must have been like? The height and depth of thinking and understanding, and then implementing what you’ve learned into your game - and your life -  would be invaluable. And to Zavala, who spent the 2013 season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery (Ulnar Collateral Ligament replacement procedure) the time spent absorbing every word from Coach Gwynn and then putting it in practice in 2014 and 2015 was like earning a Ph.D. in Hitting.

The relationship between a great coach and their players is always special on an individual level. Seby’s bond with Coach Gwynn was no different. After his passing in 2014, Seby and a few others from the team memorialized their coach with a tattoo – each one different but with the same intent. Zavala also wears uniform number 19 whenever possible to honor his coach. Number 19 was retired by the Chicago White Sox in 1987 in honor of 7-time all-star pitcher Billy Pierce who passed away in 2015. Seby wore #24 on the Glendale Desert Dogs and wore number 21 with the AZL White Sox his rookie year.

ONE MORE THING

Looking ahead to spring training, if there’s an opportunity to call up from minor league camp on March 3rd or 8th, I would choose these two Desert Dogs if I were Renteria and company.

As my conversation with the delightful Charles Poe was winding down, after recanting the stats and strengths of Mendick and Zavala one more time, Poe paused for a moment, then said, “…but you know the best thing about both of those young men? The kind of people they are. That’s what I like best.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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