FirstEnergy Stadium is home to the Reading Fightin Phils. (Brian Michael / Phillies Nation)
Before right-hander Braden Zarbnisky signed a professional contract for the Philadelphia Phillies organization last summer, he didn’t devote all his energy to pitching. In fact, he couldn’t really afford it.
The 24-year-old spent his college career in West Virginia as a two-way standout and saw plenty of playtime as a helper and left field player for the climbers from 2016 to 2020. Zarbnisky was successful on both sides. He was a .304 batsman with an ERA of 3.58 on the mound and a finalist for John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year award in 2017. But when it came time, a side ahead of his Choosing a professional career was the decision was easy.
“Honestly, pitching was always the plan,” Zarbnisky said in a phone interview with Phillies Nation last week. “I was a good batsman; I wasn’t a power hitter. I was a bit of the kind of person you just got down to and I would run and bring jugs to life … kind of hell.
“I wasn’t really excited about doing power or home runs – which is what you see these days. … I mean, pitching was always the big plan and what would happen in the long run. “
Even so, Zarbnisky’s path to becoming a pitching prospect was hardly conventional, save for the fact that he wasn’t a full-time pitcher.
In 2020, he was a fifth-year senior and was returning to West Virginia for one final season after missing out on all of 2019 due to an injury. Zarbnisky scored in just 16 games and made four goalless reliefs before COVID-19 turned everything off.
Since Zarbnisky has not played a full season since 2018 and the draft for Major League Baseball was shortened to five rounds last year, he was not selected by any team. He decided last June to sign with the Phillies as an unoccupied free agent.
“They just kept in touch the most, and helped me the best financially, and gave me the best scenario to play pro ball. That was an important factor in my decision to play with the Phillies,” said Zarbnisky. “Your entire department is just fantastic and I couldn’t have asked for a better organization.”
The Phillies liked what they saw in Zarbnisky when he pitched in Georgia before the draft. He was supposed to play in the Sunbelt Baseball League, a college summer league, but it didn’t go as planned due to the pandemic. Even so, Zarbnisky’s Alpharetta Aviators and the opposing Gainesville Braves got together to play in front of Boy Scouts several times.
Gainesville head coach Micah Owings, a former major league pitcher with a knack for beating himself, had connections within the Phillies organization. He served as an advisor to his opposing player and helped Zarbnisky get a contract with the team.
The two sides were ready to get to work shortly after the deal was closed. The Phillies quickly arranged for Zarbnisky to coordinate with the organization’s pitching strategist, Pat Robles. Robles loved the prospect of helping the young pitcher.
“Everything was basically through distance learning,” said Robles. “We kind of got him rolling – we had an individual plan and we could just show him some of the work we can do on video. Meet with him weekly, either by phone or FaceTime, so he could understand better, and he just … ran with it. “
The two most focused on improving Zarbnisky’s mechanics. Robles stressed that the pitcher must move his body more efficiently and effectively to get the best results.
Zarbnisky also trained to increase his fastball speed, which is now in the 93 to 96 mph range, and to better break and spin his curveball. He has already made progress and there is reason to believe that with additional experience, even though he is already 24 years old, he can move forward.
“As a two-way guy in college, I never really did a lot of pitching because I always did outfield stuff or hit and then always had to split everything up,” said Zarbnisky. “… Well, I think it’s kind of nice to learn something about it right now [pitching] and being able to just expand what I know and what everyone else knows and grow as a pitcher every day. “
Robles agreed that an “individual plan” that met Zarbnisky’s needs as a player and continued training should help him move forward later than any other 24-year-old prospect would normally do.
“I think it was a big change for him and this shift where you can see that maybe that age prediction really isn’t that important because he’s able to do some things in the pitching that he’s never done before made, “said Robles Zarbnisky’s training in the Phillies organization.
To kick off this season, the Phillies hired Zarbnisky to play for the High-A Jersey Shore BlueClaws to kick off his first season of minor league ball. He gave up just one run, hitting seven in 5 1/3 innings in his first three games. He impressed enough to earn a promotion to Double-A Reading Fightin Phils.
“It was a great start at High-A and a great opportunity to see where I am,” he said. “… It was nice to start so high and do well and then get that call.”
Since joining Reading on May 15, Zarbnisky has made three appearances and given up three earned runs in 6 1/3 innings at the new level.
Robles said Zarbnisky has come a long way since he first joined the organization last year. He was always confident, but there was a bit of uncertainty at first.
“Now you’re talking to him and he’s in full attack mode,” said Robles.
Zarbnisky said his goal is to keep climbing the ranks one level at a time while getting better and better as a pitcher. Organizationally, the Phillies will continue to work with him and see how he develops.
“Just keep adjusting to his current situation,” said Robles of the team’s plan for Zarbnisky. “I think he’s on a really good path in terms of the work he’s done to get to this point. I think he’s a really smart kid too. That’s something that’s obvious, and the way he carries himself is real.
“He’s going about his business. He will go and do the job. He will attack you from the start. “
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