Electric stuff and rehab through a pandemic: Zach Pop’s journey to the Miami Marlins

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The bullpen gate in left field opens, and Zach Pop makes his way to the mound at loanDepot park for his Major League Baseball debut. It’s April 3, three games into the 2021 season, and manager Don Mattingly is calling upon the quiet-yet-confident 24-year-old right-handed pitcher in the sixth inning of a tie game against the Tampa Bay Rays as the Miami Marlins search for their first win of the season.

Pop throws a handful of warm-up pitches to catcher Chad Wallach with the sounds of Metallica’s “The Unforgiven” playing in the background. He adjusts his pants, shrugs his shoulders and takes a deep breath — a prepitch sequence seen often — and gets ready to dominate.

Two pitches to Willy Adames. Fly out to center field.

Three pitches to Mike Zunino. Pop out in foul territory.

Two pitches to Mike Brosseau. Fly out to left field.

Seven pitches, six strikes, three outs. Pop heads to the dugout, his job completed.

“When you get to the mound, you’re trying to slow everything down,” Pop said last week, reflecting on the moment. “At the end of the day, your head’s just spinning. And when you kind of look back on it, it’s still kind of spinning. It’s like ‘Wow. That just really happened.’”

It was a debut that served as a prelude to Pop’s early season success with the Marlins. Heading into Thursday, Pop has held opponents scoreless in 10 of his 12 outings. His sinker has topped out at 98.2 mph. His slider is resulting in swings and misses 51.7 percent of the time — the seventh-best rate among relief pitchers this season.

But it was a moment Pop wasn’t sure would come — at least not this early.

Not after the past couple years.

Friday marks two years since Pop underwent Tommy John surgery while still a budding prospect in the Baltimore Orioles’ system. He had accumulated just 80 1/3 innings of professional baseball experience at that point and just 32 at the Double A level.

His 24 months since then included two years of rehabbing his right arm (the second of which also requiring him to maneuver around restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic while back home in Canada), being taken in the Rule 5 Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks before being subsequently traded to the Marlins and, ultimately, making that MLB debut and flashing potential to be an in-house late-inning reliever of the future for the Marlins.

“It’s a growing experience, a constant growing experience, coming off of Tommy John and then getting thrown right into the heat of battle,” Pop said. “There’s a lot of development that needs to go on and a lot of reps that need to take place coming back from that.”

‘Your mind goes blank’

Pop didn’t think too much of the injury when it first occurred. He threw a pair of scoreless innings for the Bowie (Maryland) Baysox, the Orioles’ Double A Affiliate, on April 23, 2019, while they were playing on the road against the Erie SeaWolves.

He thought maybe he pulled a muscle. It felt “weird,” Pop said, but nothing extreme. Plus, he was still getting the results he wanted. Velocity was fine. Pitch movement was fine. Maybe it was the cold weather in Erie, Pop thought. Gametime temperature was 58 degrees with 18 mph winds at UPMC Park at first pitch that night.

He then made two more appearances at home for the BaySox, a scoreless eighth inning on April 27, 2019, and a one-batter appearance on April 30, 2019..

“At the end of it,” Pop said, “I was like ‘Hey, this just isn’t going away.”

The MRI showed damage to the UCL in his right elbow. Pop, at 22 years old and as a burgeoning prospect in Baltimore’s farm system, was on his way to Tommy John surgery.

“Your mind goes blank,” Pop said. “I didn’t really have a reaction.”

Reality sank in shortly after visiting with renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews in May to confirm the operation was necessary.

“Three days later,” Pop said, “I’m on the table.”

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‘It’s tough to take a back seat’

The thoughts crept into Pop’s mind in the days and weeks and months after the surgery. Will he still be able to accomplish his dreams? Will he be left behind? Will his sinker and slider still have the same bite that got him to this point in his career?

“It was just a whirlwind,” Pop said. “You’re there pitching well with aspirations of playing in the big leagues and it kind of just gets shut down and put on hold. You see your friends going up and you see baseball going on and you’re like ‘Dang. I want to compete at that level. I want to play there. I want to be with my friends. I want to be with my team.’

“It’s tough to take a back seat.”

It made him reflect on his early days growing up in Ontario, Canada, and the drive that made him want to pursue an MLB career in the first place.

It brought him back to his days at Notre Dame Catholic and with the Canadian Junior National Team, where his career overlapped with the likes of the Atlanta Braves’ Mike Soroka and the Cleveland Indians’ Josh Naylor. Pop is one of 13 Canadians currently on major-league rosters.

It brought him back to admiring Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera — “I always felt like when he came into the game,” Pop said, “the ballgame was over, which is a pretty good feeling” — and how he wanted to follow in that trajectory.

It also brought him back to the mind set he had from the start: He’s going to succeed.

“You always feel like you can make it to the big leagues,” Pop said. “As a kid growing up, you never really think ‘Do I have the chance?’ It’s always “I’m gonna play in the big leagues.’ Take the ‘if’ out of it.”

That led him to the University of Kentucky after high school, where he played for three years as a midweek starter and late-inning reliever during the Southeastern Conference slate.

Gary Henderson, Kentucky’s head baseball coach during Pop’s first two years at the school in 2015 and 2016, noticed Pop’s talent immediately during the scouting process. He saw the arm strength and the smooth delivery. He also saw the need for Pop to improve his secondary pitch to complement his sinker.

“He wasn’t ready for pro ball. He needed college,” Henderson said. “He was a college kid, both from a skill development piece and a makeup piece. He knew he’d do well academically, which he did. It was a good fit for him.”

Pop worked his way to eventually be considered a top-75 college draft prospect. Baseball America noted the “late life” of his fastball that is amplified by the deception that comes from his cross-body throwing motion that would be effective if he improved his command.

The Los Angeles Dodgers selected him the seventh round of the 2017 draft.

He was in the Dodgers’ organization for barely a year before he was one of five players the Dodgers packaged together in a trade with Baltimore for star shortstop Manny Machado in July 2018.

The Orioles put him straight into Double A, where Pop held opponents to seven earned runs over 32 innings (a 1.97 ERA) with 28 strikeouts against 10 walks between the end of the 2018 season and the first eight appearances of 2019.

“Pop has the pure stuff needed to carve out a late-inning role in the big leagues,” reads his MLB Pipeline scouting report, “perhaps even as a closer if he can further improve the action on his slider and refine his command.”

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The rehab process

Instead of racking up more innings and gaining more experience, Pop was biding his time.

You can’t rush back return from elbow surgery. So Pop waited.

He was in an iron sling and “sleeping in some pretty wonky positions” the first month after surgery before being put into a brace for the next few months.

“The progressions really slow,” Pop said. “It doesn’t really feel like you’re doing much day-to-day or even week-to-week, but when you look back over the month, it’s like ‘Wow. We got a lot done.’”

He started with light throwing in November 2019, about six months after the surgery. He threw off flat ground for the time on Feb. 28, 2020, nine months after surgery.

Despite a couple minor setbacks, the occasional tightness in his arm here and there (“par for the course after going through major surgery,” Pop said), his progression was tracking well heading into 2020 spring training.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down baseball, and things got interesting.

Pop wasn’t part of the Orioles’ 60-man player pool when the season resumed. He went back home to Canada to finish his rehab. Because the Canadian government’s restrictions, his options to continue his throwing progression were limited.

He worked out at the training facility for the Ontario Blue Jays, a team with whom he played during his prep days.

“I was basically doing it by myself,” Pop said, adding that a former pitching coach of his would occasionally help him organize bullpen sessions. “It was really interesting, that aspect of it. You’ve got the cold, Canadian weather, and then driving up there just to do your workouts all alone. You have this empty gym to yourself. When you finish up that and you’re done for the day, it’s like ‘OK. What now?’”

Pop said it took him until around late July 2020, 14 months after the surgery, to feel like he was back to some semblance of normal with his arm, but he would have to wait another eight months before his return to live game action — except not with the Orioles.

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 07: Zach Pop #56 of the Miami Marlins delivers a pitch during the sixth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at loanDepot park on May 07, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 07: Zach Pop #56 of the Miami Marlins delivers a pitch during the sixth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at loanDepot park on May 07, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Joining the Marlins

Pop was near the top of the Marlins’ radar when MLB’s Rule 5 Draft took place in December. General manager Kim Ng made retooling the club’s bullpen a priority during the offseason. The Marlins were intrigued by the movement in his sinker and slider and confident he would ready for spring training.

The only problem: The Diamondbacks selected him seven picks before the Marlins were on the board. Undeterred, the Marlins swung a trade with Arizona shortly after the draft ended, sending the Diamondbacks a player to be named later.

He made five appearances in spring training, giving up one earned run on three hits and two walks while striking out four.

“His stuff has just been outstanding,” Ng said.

His first spring appearance, a shutout inning on March 10, was a reality-check moment. He was back.

“To finally come back to this point where it wasn’t just workouts, it wasn’t just bullpens, it wasn’t just live [batting practices]. It was a real game situation,” Pop said then. “It felt pretty special.”

‘You can see his confidence growing’

What has followed has been pretty special, too. Pop has served as a steady piece in the Marlins’ bullpen all season.

Outside of two mistakes — a grand slam given up to the St. Louis Cardinals’ Dylan Carlson on April 7 and a three-run home run to the Braves’ Pablo Sandoval on April 15 — Pop has been dominant.

He’s retired 36 of the 51 batters he faced, is holding opponents to a .163 batting average and is throwing strikes at a 61-percent rate.

“You can see his confidence growing,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “That’s what you try to do with guys, especially the younger guys. His stuff, we always knew it was good enough, but now you’re starting to see confidence.”

Pop knows there’s still room to grow. He’s learning from the veteran relievers on the team, such as Anthony Bass and Yimi Garcia and Dylan Floro. He’s making minor refinements with his pitch delivery.

And he’s doing it injury free.

“I think we’re trending in the right direction,” Pop said. “Hopefully it stays like that.”

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