Name: Clay Pflibson
Draft: 30th Round, 2006
Position: Left Handed Pitcher
Weight: 195 lbs
History: Clay Zavada began his professional baseball career with a merely solid season in the Pioneer League. As a 22-year old relief pitcher drafted in the 30th round, Zavaa remained anonymous to anyone outside of the Diamondbacks organization. He showed enough during those couple of months to solidify his relationship with the D-backs, however, and that relationship would continue to grow to a mutual benefit for both parties.
Statistics Thru 5/26/09
But like any great story, the success didn't come without some initial adversity. In this case, it was more tragedy than adversity.
"My dad died at age 55 and we weren't expecting it," explained Zavada. "My mom had passed away when I was younger and now I lost him as well. My brother is in the Navy, so it became up to me to take care of our house and our farm. I decided to take a year off in order to figure out what the hell was going on... I felt like I had more important things to attend to than baseball."
So in 2007, Zavada worked on his family's farm, continued his college education, delivered furniture, and gave pitching lessons while his draft-mates from 2006 advanced through the Diamondbacks organization. He graduated from Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, then signed with the Southern Illinois Miners of the independent Frontier League in the spring of 2008. Even though Zavada had been away from baseball for a full year, the Diamondbacks were keeping their eye on him.
"They told me if I could show I was interested in getting back in baseball, and my head was in the right spot, that they'd take me back," said Zavada.
After Zavada went 2-1 with a 1.72 ERA and four saves in 12 appearances out of the Miners' bullpen, that's exactly what the Diamondbacks did, although it took some creativity on their part. Major League Baseball rules prohibit direct trading between major league franchises and independent league teams, so the Diamondbacks and Miners each agreed to drop one player whom the other would immediately sign. The D-backs parted ways with Brad Miller, who had led the farm system in homers the year before, and brought their prodigal southpaw back into the fold.
What Zavada would do with the South Bend Silver Hawks was hard to believe; the numbers he put up seemed like misprints. He allowed just two runs, five walks, and six hits in 35.1 innings during the regular season. He then saved all three games in which he appeared during the playoffs, striking out five, allowing two hits, walking none, and letting no runs cross home plate.
"He opened some eyes," Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch said. "One, being left-handed, and two, he had a good arsenal. But he didn't come in with a lot of accolades. He's had to earn every bit."
Zavada began 2009 in Double-A, which wasn't a surprise given his advanced age and success in the Midwest League. He continued to succeed there, and after a false-alarm callup May 12th in which he would get sent down again the next day without having pitched, Zavada came up again on May 21st and seems like he's going to be here to stay this time.
"I've been pleased with him; he's been prepared," Hinch said after a loss on Memorial Day. "He can throw every day."
Makeup: The way Zavada handled the death of his father speaks volumes about his makeup, but it doesn't tell the whole story. He is an incredibly fun guy to have in the clubhouse. Zavada keeps his teammates loose by cracking jokes, making sarcastic remarks, and even doing impressions. When he helped the Silver Hawks to the Midwest League Finals last year, he was one of the oldest guys on the team, although you would only have known that from the fullness of his mustache, not from the levity that he brought to the ballclub.
His intelligence plays a big role in his pitching acumen. Zavada knows that he can't blow hitters away with his fastball, but also knows that by locating well and changing speeds, he can make that fastball look a lot harder than it really is.
Pitches: Fastball, Cutter, Changeup
Zavada's heater usually sits at 87 or 88 miles per hour, which is part of the reason that he has been overlooked by scouts all his life. The other is that he does not have a hard slider nor a big curve with which to complement his primary offering. Scouts love flashy breaking pitches.
What Zavada does so well is something that is difficult for scouts to discern for themselves, but that any hitter who has faced Zavada can attest to. He uses two pitches that look like his fastball, but have late movement in opposite directions. His cutter moves away from left-handed batters while his changeup dips down and away from right-handers. Both pitches hover around 79-80 mph, which isn't a huge difference from his fastball, but enough to fool hitters because he uses the same arm slot and action for all three pitches.
"He's got some weapons for lefties and righties," said Hinch.
Major League Clone: Neal Cotts
Prediction: Zavada's ability to get right-handers out with his changeup separates him from the average left-handed reliever, and he should enjoy several successful years in the majors. It may be difficult for him to last into his 30s, however, because any dip in his velocity could make his stuff just too hittable and allow no room for error.
In the short term, he could be sent down to the minors once Scott Schoeneweis and Brandon Webb return to action, but Esmerling Vasquez, Doug Slaten, and Leo Rosales are equally good bets to move back to Reno at this point. Zavada is a great story, a great man, and so far an effective pitcher at the major league level, so if he continues to succeed, his manager will stick with him.
"This whole organization's behind him," concluded Hinch. "Obviously as his career develops and if he's able to sustain success, the story will get better and better."
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