Name: Jesus Zambrano
Height/Weight: 5’11’’, 170
How Acquired: Signed as an international amateur free agent on Aug. 24, 2012
For many teenagers, turning 16 equals independence in the form of a driver’s license. For Jesus Zambrano, turning 16 meant a whole new life. The native of Valencia, Venezuela, signed a professional contract with the Oakland A’s two days after his 16th birthday. Since then, he has made significant strides despite competing against players several years his senior.
Zambrano was the youngest member of the A’s 2012 International Signing class that includes fellow top-50 A’s prospects Yairo Munoz and Jhonny Rodriguez. Despite his age, Zambrano spent just one season in the A’s Dominican Academy before coming stateside for the first time during Oakland’s fall Instructional League in 2013. In 2014, Zambrano made his US regular season debut with the AZL A’s, throwing 70.2 innings for the A’s Rookie League squad.
This season Zambrano returned to the Arizona Rookie League for the majority of the season. Although his numbers in 2015 weren’t as good as they were in 2014, Zambrano showed significant improvement with his mechanics by the end of the year. The A’s showed their confidence in the young right-hander by sending him to Triple-A to make two late-season starts when the A’s had some openings in the Nashville rotation. Zambrano held his own in those two Triple-A outings and continued to open eyes against advanced competition this winter in the Venezuelan Winter League. In the VWL, Zambrano posted a 1.98 ERA in 27.1 innings in a league that features several major league and Triple-A veterans.
Jesus Zambrano stats
When Zambrano first came to the US in the fall of 2013, he was throwing mostly in the 85-87 MPH range, but the A’s liked his pitchability and his secondary offerings. The hope was that as he matured physically, he would add more velocity. Zambrano still isn’t a particularly hard thrower, but over the past two seasons, he has added to his fastball and now sits in that 87-91 MPH range. At 5’11’’, Zambrano’s frame doesn’t offer a lot of projectability to add more velocity, but the A’s are hopeful he can add another MPH or two to his fastball.
What the A’s have always liked about Zambrano are his off-speed pitches and his advanced approach on the mound.
“From a physicality standpoint, he’s grown over the years. He’s in that 5’11’’ range and he has grown a little stronger,” A’s Assistant General Manager Billy Owens said. “It was nice to see him go to that Triple-A level and not be afraid and pound the strike-zone and stay consistent in that 87-91 [MPH range]. He has a solid change-up for a secondary pitch and the breaking ball has good shape and has a chance to be sharper in the future. He pounds the ‘zone. He throws strikes. Hopefully his stuff will get a tick faster from a velocity standpoint and he’ll still have that good pitchability.”
Although Zambrano’s AZL ERA was significantly higher in 2015 (5.52) than it was in 2014 (4.43), he did a good job reducing his walk percentage from 6.1% in 2014 to 4.5% in 2015. Zambrano’s K/9 fell this season, but he increased his groundball rate and generally did a better job of pitching within himself as the season went on.
Former A’s minor league pitching coordinator Garvin Alston says that Zambrano is learning to pitch to his strengths rather than trying to be a power pitcher.
“He is understanding his energy level. That’s the one thing, when Zambrano gets too excited, he doesn’t throw strikes,” Alston said. “When he is able to get ahead of hitters and control his energy and do the things he needed to do, he is as good as they come. He got into a bad habit of wanting to fall off of the mound. He watched a lot of baseball on TV and some of these guys he was watching throw 99-100 miles per hour coming out of the bullpen were guys that he loves watching. He ends up trying to mimic what they are doing. I had to explain to him that ‘they are relief pitchers and you are a starting pitcher. You have to understand the difference.’
“We worked on some stuff with him with his delivery, Grady Fuson and myself. To be honest with you, it started in spring training a little bit and we saw it and we attacked it and it got better. After it got better, what ended up happening was that he went back to what he was doing before. The energy in his delivery was off. He thought he was doing the right thing, but now he understands what is right and what is the wrong way to go about his delivery. He’s good to go.”
Zambrano was able to carryover what he learned from Alston, Fuson and A’s 2015 AZL pitching coach Gabriel Ozuna this season into his VWL campaign for the Navegantes del Magallanes. Zambrano filled the strike-zone during the VWL season. He struck-out just 10, but he walked only eight and he had a 1.34 GO/AO. Zambrano allowed two homers in his final outing for the Navegantes and he may have been tiring at that point in the season. The A’s shut him down after that outing. He finished the year with 80.1 official innings between the MiLB regular season and the VWL, but he threw another 30-40 unofficial innings in extended spring training and during the A’s fall Instructional League.
Zambrano’s change-up has a chance to be an above-average pitch and his breaking ball flashes major league-average potential, as well. When he isn’t trying to over-throw, he has good fastball command and he isn’t afraid to challenge hitters in the strike-zone. Zambrano is starting to get a feel for working in the lower-half of the strike-zone and his groundball rate is rising accordingly. He is very bright and has a good understanding of how to mix his pitches. If he is able to add another MPH or two to his fastball, he could be a solid mid-rotation starter in the big leagues in a few years.
Zambrano will be a teenager until the final week of the 2016 regular season. Whether he pitches his 2016 regular season in the New York-Penn League or the Midwest League will likely have to do with how the A’s spread out their starters from their 2015 draft class.