How ‘Coach Z’ is impacting the Rays’ pitching staff, others

Tyler Zombro is still in the minor leagues, but he is having a major impact on helping pitchers process and implement data.
Tampa Bay Rays' Tyler Zombro delivers a pitch during the sixth inning of a spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Tampa Bay Rays' Tyler Zombro delivers a pitch during the sixth inning of a spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) [ FRANK FRANKLIN II | Associated Press (2020) ]
Published March 7, 2020

PORT CHARLOTTE — Tyler Zombro’s work for the day appeared to be done.

He’d wriggled out of the jam he created to close out the Rays’ 5-2 Tuesday win over the Braves, recording his first save in a major-league spring training game. That’s a noteworthy achievement for any minor-leaguer in his first big-league camp, even more so for one who had signed as a non-drafted free agent and spent most of last season at Double-A Montgomery.

But there Zombro was a few hours later, sitting in a nearby Starbucks, locked in on his laptop, putting in hours at his other full-time job, as the lead throwing trainer for the R&D Baseball Academy near Washington D.C.

The videos on his screen weren’t the latest Netflix drama, but clips of University of Virginia pitchers, accompanied by detailed data downloads of their pitches and biomechanics.

Zombro watches, reads, references past reports and interprets all kinds of advanced data in formulating their weekly training programs, at times using nerdy-sounding phrases such as “daily mobility/stability correctives," “throwing patterning work" and axis shifting.

He similarly works remotely with the pitchers for another college, James Madison, and checks in with, and answers questions from, dozens of other college and high school pitchers who are clients.

Even more interestingly, and somewhat unusually, Zombro also provides ongoing instruction, counsel and deep-dive data interpretation for other pros.

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Some are already in the majors, such as current Reds/former Cardinals pitcher Matt Bowman. Others, like Zombro, still are working their way through the minors, and, occasionally, on the team in the opposing dugout. And one just a couple lockers away in the Rays’ clubhouse, Sam McWilliams.

With all the other odd, different and innovative things the Rays have going on, here’s another — “Coach Z,” the pitcher working to get himself to the majors while also openly sharing his vast knowledge to help others on their way.

“It’s his passion, and it’s been fun to interact with him," Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “It’s where the game is now, and in terms of his understanding of the physics and pitch-effects side of baseball, I think in many ways Tyler is as well, or better versed in a lot of that stuff than even I am just given the depths at which he has dug in. …

“This is going to happen more and more, just given how much of this stuff is out there. I don’t know if we’re going to see another Tyler Zombro in terms of his understanding of it, and the fact that he legitimately teaches it as well."

McWilliams spent enough time with Zombro in Montgomery last season to be impressed with his knowledge, manner and ability to make complex data understandable and applicable. And to be certain the transition from teammate to trainer would be fine, unconcerned over any awkwardness, such as how they could someday be competing for a job.

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“I actually thought it was the best-case scenario," McWilliams said.

He headed to R&D after the season so Zombro and crew could watch him throw and do a full high-tech analysis to develop an offseason program for him. He came away impressed.

“He obviously can relate to all the guys because he’s doing the same thing, and he’s doing this (training) on the side," McWilliams said. “It’s definitely unique."

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Zombro, 25, has worked for years with Logan Driscoll, a minor-league catcher/ outfielder the Rays recently acquired from the Padres, playing together one year at George Mason University. He helped Driscoll with his throwing and swing, identifying movement patterns and recommending drills.

“He’s a guy I could always go to and bounce ideas off of very openly," Driscoll said. “I pretty much gave him the nickname 'Coach Z.’ He’s the smartest player I’ve ever played with."

Zombro also makes himself available to any teammates who want help, respectful and complimentary of the way the Rays disseminate information, but willing to provide clarification, which Snyder said they’re fine with.

“Most guys are well-versed here and they know what they need to know, but it does make for great conversation because we’re all seeing ways to develop ourselves further," Zombro said.

“It’s usually more like, ‘Hey, I heard you do this in the offseason, my numbers were this the other day, this is what they were saying, what does that mean exactly?’ I just reiterate what they said and try to explain it a little more in terms of how we can look at things from the mound."

It's clear he is quite comfortable doing so.

“Honestly, I think he loves the challenge of trying to help guys out," Driscoll said. “It’s just become part of his role in the organization. Guys just look to him for advice. He can serve — I’m not trying to speak out of line — but almost like a middleman. He’s a little bit more approachable and guys just feel more comfortable, and that just speaks to who he is."

Zombro was less certain to be a success on the mound.

He finished his senior season as one of the best pitchers in George Mason history, but saw 1,215 others players taken in the June 2017 draft and figured it was time to go to work. “I was fully moving on," he said.

He had studied biomechanics and physical therapy, which he’d always had an interest in, and planned to go to PT school when he got the chance to turn a part-time job at R&D, where he’d trained for years, into a full-time gig.

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A month later, the Rays called, needing a pitcher to cover some innings at the lowest levels of the minors, with no further promises. Unsure how long he’d last in pro ball, and knowing he wouldn’t make much money, Zombro made arrangements to keep his other job as well.

The pitching part has actually worked out pretty well.

Zombro was good enough in 2018 at Class A Bowling Green (8-2, 2.84, with 54 strikeouts and only eight walks in 76 innings), that the Rays skipped him straight to Montgomery last year. Around a couple of cameos at Triple-A, he dazzled again, going 2-0, 1.87 with 11 saves, plus 53 strikeouts and seven walks in 57 2/3 innings. That earned him the organization’s minor-league reliever of the year award, then the invite to spring training.

He clearly helped himself, applying the analytical data to increase his number of swings-and-misses and improve the movement on his slider and change-up. “No doubt about it," Snyder said. “He has a better understanding of who he is because of that information."

Zombro enjoys training and coaching pitchers enough that he plans to stay at it long-term. His more immediate goal is, obviously, is to pitch his way to the majors.

Doing both is even better.

“It’s really fun," said Zombro. “It kind of makes me complete."