Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny became a vocal proponent of relief pitcher Tyler Zuber fairly early last spring training before the pandemic.
Matheny couldn’t hide nor did he try very hard to hide how impressed he was with the right-handed Arkansas native with relatively slight stature and a big-league pitch arsenal.
So it was hardly shocking that Zuber made the Opening Day roster in 2020 and made his major-league debut out of the bullpen in the season opener.
However after some ups and downs in 2020 and a bit of inconsistency this spring, Matheny had to deliver a tough love message when he informed Zuber he’d begin this season at the alternate training site.
“This is a big boy game,” Matheny said. “Sometimes we all know there are going to be some tough decisions that have to be made. That’s exactly how we talk about it.”
Zuber appears to have taken the tough, honest critique to heart and turned it into a road map for improvement. Since returning to the majors on April 13, Zuber put hitters on their heels in his three scoreless outings (four innings) through Tuesday night. He has struck out six and given up two hits, but more importantly hasn’t walked a batter.
Matheny said he still believes in Zuber’s ability to pitch in the kind of high-leverage situations that could swing a game. That’s part of the reason the Royals felt Zuber needed that jolt sooner than later.
Matheny delivered a direct and pointed message to the 25-year-old right-hander drafted out of Arkansas State in the sixth round of the 2017 MLB Draft.
“Listen. Right now from where you were a year ago, we believe you’re not in as good of a place,” Matheny said. “We need you to be taking steps forward, and there’s some things that you have improved on but there’s some others that we think are in your way right now. Let’s get these fixed so you can be a part of what we’re doing here.”
Before he tossed a scoreless seventh inning against a hot-hitting Tampa Bay Rays lineup on Tuesday night, Zuber discussed the changes he sought to make when sent down as well as his reaction to the initial news that he’d be sent to minor-league camp in the middle of March.
“Obviously, you don’t ever want to get told you’re doing down,” Zuber said. “Getting told that was like, ‘Dang.’ I can’t lie. For a day, it was kind of like a kick in the gut and you’re like ‘Golly!’ But then I went right back at it.”
Last season, Zuber made 23 appearances (22 innings) and finished the season with a 4.09 ERA, 30 strikeouts and a .197 opponent’s batting average. However, he walked 20 batters in his 22 innings.
That healthy respect a rookie pitcher should have for his opponents upon reaching the majors, Zuber had a bit too much of it. It turned out that it was more hindering than healthy in Zuber’s case.
“I think last year when I was up, I got into my head a lot about ‘Oh, well these are big league hitters. So if you miss, they’re going to hit a home run,’” Zuber explained.
Eventually, Zuber took the mound trying to make perfect pitches right on the corners with the most minuscule self-imposed margins for error imaginable.
As he tried to force himself to pitch to spots the size of a postage stamp, the pitch counts ran deep and the walks piled up.
That approach wasn’t sustainable, and that fear of giving up the big hit was a mindset change he needed to make this spring.
Zuber worked with Triple-A pitching coach Dane Johnson on the minor-league side of camp in Arizona to rebuild his confidence and get out of the passive approach he showed last season. He has continued to build on the progress he made there.
“I just kind of went back to if I give up a home run, I give up a home run,” Zuber said. “I just have to learn to be better in the next situation so that doesn’t continuously happen.”
On Tuesday night, he struck out two batters and worked around a one-out double. He got ahead in the count on three of the four batters he faced with first-pitch strikes. Of his 13 pitches, 10 were strikes.
“I came back with a completely different mindset than before,” Zuber said. “I was ready. I felt more prepared now than what I’ve ever been.”
Matheny insists the fact that Zuber and infielder Nicky Lopez were sent down and have returned quickly to make contributions in the majors is a testament to the club’s development system and communication between coaches and players.