In the early morning hours of September 22, 2009, an extreme low-pressure zone began stirring intense winds over the dry, dusty Far West region of New South Wales, Australia, forming a massive red wall that surged eastward toward Sydney.
By the next morning, the cloud was more than 300 miles wide and 600 miles long, and had completely engulfed Australia’s most famous city in an orange, post-apocalyptic haze. It was the worst dust storm to hit Sydney in 70 years.
Zach Shepherd, the Tigers young third-base prospect, had just turned 14 a few days before what is now known as the 2009 Australian dust storm, and he remembers the day vividly.
“Yeah, I went to school that day,” he said. “I remember waking up, and I was like ‘Is it daytime? What’s going on?’ I look out the window and it’s like orange...but my school was still open. I only went there for like two hours, and then I called my mom and said ‘This sucks.’”
Shepherd credits his mother for coming to get him that day, when it was far too dusty to play baseball. He also credits her for introducing him to the sport in the first place, albeit for reasons that weren’t entirely altruistic.
“My mom’s brothers all played cricket,” he said. “And cricket, if you don’t know, goes for DAYS. And my mom just basically said ‘I don’t want to stand out there and watch you all day.’ Then she found out how long tee-ball went, and they said an hour-and-a-half max, so she put me in that. And I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
Shepherd had already shown a great deal of promise as a baseball player by the time the dust storm hit. The previous January he was named an all-star as his NSW Patriots finished second in Australia’s premier baseball competition, the Claxton Shield. And a few months later he began working with Tigers scout and former MLB player Glenn Williams.
“We have an MLB academy starting at the age of 15 or 14,” Shepherd said. “So I was involved with that until I basically finished high school.”
The MLB Australian Academy Program functions much like rookie-level teams do in the U.S., with practice, strength training, and games six days a week, and supervised academic sessions at night.
Shepherd, then a shortstop, first gained notoriety when he was named the most outstanding defensive player and won gold glove honors at the 2011 World Youth Baseball Championship in Mexico. The next year he won the 2012 Australian Baseball Youth Player of the Year award, and on July 4th he signed a professional contract with the Tigers.
Still just 16, Shepherd spent most of the next two years soaking up pro instruction, with his only game action coming in the form of 54 contests for the Sydney Blue Sox of the Australian Baseball League.
In 2014 he saw his first stateside playing time, impressing the organization by showing an advanced approach and solid power at the plate in the Gulf Coast League, and finishing with a strong .301/.373/.497 line in 51 games.
His precocious debut led the Tigers to challenge their young infielder with a full-season assignment to West Michigan. He was 19 for the entire season, but held his own against older competition until a wrist injury prematurely ended his season in late August.
“I learned a lot this year,” he said. “And that’s probably the one thing I wanted to get out of it. It sucks that I’m not playing at the moment because I’m hurt, but I definitely feel like I improved in the areas that I could’ve improved, and I tried to learn as much as I can.”
Shepherd’s manager, fellow Sydneysider Andrew Graham, and his hitting coach Phil Clark concur with the young third baseman’s assessment.
“I think he’s done a really good job for us,” Clark said. “He’s been a solid third baseman for us... he’s always around, he’s always talking, he’s always asking questions, you know, so he’s coachable. He’s learning, and I like what he brought to the table this year. I can see a bright future for him.”
“He hasn’t played all the baseball all these guys have, because we (Australians) don’t play high school or college,” Graham said. “But he’s come over and he’s done a great job for his first full season. You know, battling some injuries of late at the end, with the wrist and the finger, which his power numbers really dropped. But he’s got a lot of power, and he’s gonna show that next year.”
Power is the one aspect of his game that Shepherd wants to work on this offseason.
“I’m gonna head back home and then play in the Australian League later towards December,” he said. “I’ll have some time off. I haven’t really had much time to just relax and stuff, so I’m probably gonna go home and work on a few other areas. Try and get some strength and some size, which I think I need at the moment.”
There is plenty of room for growth in his 6’3, 185lb. frame, and most scouts agree he will eventually develop more power, though there’s some debate as to whether it will be of the gap or over-the-fence variety.
Scouts are mostly in agreement about Shepherd’s defense, however. Despite his amateur accolades as a shortstop, most evaluators have him rated as a well below-average fielder at the hot corner, with many predicting a move to the outfield.
Graham disagrees with that assessment, and thinks Shepherd can stick at the position.
“For a young kid, first year, he’s done a great job at third base,” Graham said. “He has really developed there at that position.”
For now, Shepherd is relegated to cheerleading duties as he nurses his injury and roots on his Whitecaps teammates in the Midwest League championship series. His wrist isn’t broken, but he’s been instructed to take time off and relax.
“They said two weeks of no activity,” he said. “And then I go back to Lakeland to rehab it for like three weeks.”
And then it’s back home to Australia, where there may be the occasional massive dust storm, but at least it’s not as cold as Michigan.
“It’s a lovely place, and the family I’m staying with are lovely,” he said. “But at the start of the year, that’s the coldest weather I’ve ever lived in, let alone played in.”