Former college two-way standout climbing Phillies’ minor-league ranks as pitcher

FirstEnergy Stadium is the home of the Reading Fightin Phils. (Brian Michael/Phillies Nation)

Before signing a professional contract to throw in the Philadelphia Phillies organization last summer, right-hander Braden Zarbnisky did not spend all his energy focusing on pitching. In fact, he couldn’t really afford to.

The 24-year-old spent his collegiate career at West Virginia as a two-way standout, seeing a large amount of playing time as a reliever and left fielder for the Mountaineers from 2016-2020. Zarbnisky found success on both sides. He was a career .304 hitter with a 3.58 ERA on the mound and finalist for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year award as a sophomore in 2017. But when it came time pick a side ahead of his pro career, the decision was easy.

“Honestly, pitching was always the plan,” Zarbnisky told Phillies Nation last week in a phone interview. “I was a good hitter; I wasn’t a power hitter. I was kind of like one of those guys where you just get on base, and I would run and just kind of make pitchers lives … kind of hell.

“I wasn’t really much for hitting for power or home runs — what you see nowadays. … So, I mean, pitching was always the big plan and what was going to happen in the long run.”

Still, Zarbnisky’s path to becoming a pitching prospect was hardly conventional, beyond the fact that he was not a full-time pitcher.

In 2020, he was a fifth-year senior, returning for a final season at West Virginia after an injury caused him to miss all of 2019. Zarbnisky hit in just 16 games and made four scoreless relief appearances before COVID-19 shut it all down.

With not playing a full season since 2018 and last year’s Major League Baseball draft being shortened to five rounds, Zarbnisky was not selected by a team. He chose to sign with the Phillies as an undrafted free agent last June.

“They just kept in contact the most and helped me out financially the best and gave me the best-case scenario playing pro ball, so that was a huge factor in deciding to go with the Phillies,” Zarbnisky said. “Their whole entire department is just awesome, and I couldn’t have asked to be in a better organization.”

The Phillies liked what they saw in Zarbnisky when he was pitching in Georgia ahead of the draft. He was set to pitch in the Sunbelt Baseball League, a college summer league, but it did not go on as scheduled due to the pandemic. Still, Zarbnisky’s Alpharetta Aviators and the opposing Gainesville Braves got together to play in front of scouts several times.

Gainesville head coach Micah Owings, a former major-league pitcher with a knack for hitting himself, had connections within the Phillies organization. He served as an advisor for his opposing player, helping Zarbnisky get a contract with the team.

The two sides were ready to get to work shortly after they finished the deal. The Phillies quickly arranged for Zarbnisky to coordinate with the organization’s pitching strategist, Pat Robles. Robles was excited by the prospect of helping the young pitcher.

“Everything was basically through remote training instruction,” Robles said. “We were able to kind of get him rolling — have an individualized plan and be able to just show him some of the work that we’re able to do in terms of video. Have a weekly discussion with him, either via phone or FaceTime, so he could further understand it, and he just … ran with it.”

The two focused most on improving Zarbnisky’s mechanics. Robles emphasized having the pitcher move his body more efficiently and effectively in order to achieve the best results.

Zarbnisky also trained to increase his fastball velocity, which is now in the 93-96 mph range, and get better break and spin on his curveball. He’s made strides already, and there’s reason to think he can keep developing with additional experience, even though he is already 24.

“Being a two-way guy in college, I never really worked on pitching a lot, because I was always doing outfield stuff or hitting and then I always had to split everything up,” Zarbnisky said. “… So, I think it’s kind of nice just now learning about [pitching] and being able to just expand on what I know and what everyone else knows and just grow as a pitcher each and every day.”

Robles agreed that an “individualized plan” to suit Zarbnisky’s needs as a player and continued training should help him progress later than another 24-year-old prospect would typically would.

“I think it’s been kind of a big change for him and this shift where you see that maybe that age projection really doesn’t matter as much, because he’s able to do some things in the pitching he’s never done before,” Robles said of Zarbnisky’s training in the Phillies organization.

To enter this season, the Phillies assigned Zarbnisky to play for the High-A Jersey Shore BlueClaws to begin his first season of minor-league ball. He gave up just one run and struck out seven in 5 1/3 innings in his first three outings. He impressed enough to earn a promotion to the Double-A Reading Fightin Phils.

“Starting out in High-A was awesome and a great opportunity to see where I’m at,” he said. “… It was nice to start that high and do well and then get that call up.”

Since joining Reading on May 15, Zarbnisky has made three appearances, giving 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’s always been confident, but there was a bit of unsureness at first.

“And then now you talk to him and he’s full attack mode,” Robles said.

Zarbnisky said his goal is to just keep climbing the ranks, level by level, while continuing to get better as a pitcher. Organizationally, the Phillies will keep working with him and see how he develops.

“Just keep adjusting to how he goes right now,” Robles said 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 as well. That’s something that’s apparent, and the way he carries himself is real.

“He goes about his business. He’s going to go and get the job done. He’s going to attack you from the get-go.”


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