Pop emerges as Canada’s top draft-eligible arm

Zach Pop delivers a pitch (Adam Morissette/Baseball Canada)

When Zach Pop looks ahead five years from now, he knows he wants to be playing professional baseball, maybe even at the big-league level. Now it’s just a question of which path the 17-year-old Brampton, Ont. native takes on his way there.

Pop, the top Canadian pitcher eligible for the 2014 amateur draft, has committed to playing college baseball for the University of Kentucky on scholarship. Yet scouts like what they see from the right-hander, and if he’s taken high enough he could go pro.

“Both are very good options. I’m in a great situation right now. Either way, I think I’m going to be happy,” Pop told Sportsnet from the Dominican Republic, where the Canadian Junior National Team recently spent ten days.

“I think it’s going to come down to what happens and where I go in the draft,” he continued. “If I go really high, then I’d possibly pursue the career in professional baseball right off of the bat. If not, I’m always happy to start my university education, grow up a bit more, become a little more independent, gain some experience on the diamond and possibly come out a first or second rounder in three years.”

One way or another, Pop will continue refining his game. The 6-foot-4, 220 pound righty currently throws a fastball in the 90-92 mph range plus a sinker, slider and change-up. The change-up in particular is a work in progress since Pop has been able to overpower the competition to this point in his career.

But all of his pitches are relatively new. After all, it was just a couple of years ago that he started pitching. Pop was a first baseman until he took the mound one day and felt comfortable enough to take some pitching lessons.

“From there it just took off,” he said. “It started feeling natural and I started feeling more comfortable on the mound, so I started going that route as opposed to being a hitter.”

Like many Canadian prospects, Pop played hockey growing up before turning his focus to baseball. It wasn’t until an aunt directed Pop to baseball that he really got to know the game.

“She said ‘try this, you might really like it,’ so I ended up doing baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter and I guess I got pretty good at it and it just stuck from there,” he said.

Pop describes himself as a pitcher who pounds the bottom corners of the strike zone in search of broken bats and ground ball outs like his idol, longtime New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Scouts see potential in Pop, who doesn’t turn 18 until September.

“There’s a lot to like,” one scout said. “He throws up to 93, his breaking ball is a work in progress it’s improved, and he’s big.”

A second scout sees Pop going in the sixth to eighth round of the draft, while a third scout likes the velocity, but says the right-hander’s secondary offerings need work.

Velocity alone isn’t enough against advanced hitters, as Pop was reminded during the Junior National Team’s trip to the Dominican Republic. Pitching against a team of well-regarded Dominican prospects, he grooved a fastball down the middle and surrendered a home run. It reminded Pop that location will accomplish as much as power.

“You don’t have to blow guys away, it’s more hitting your spots and how do you work off of your fastball,” he said.

But facing top competition also allowed Pop to gain confidence in his pitches. “It shows that your stuff is good enough, it’s just fine-tuning it,” he said.

This week an MLB team will select Pop in the hopes that his stuff can translate into results at the highest level. For someone who was playing first base a few years ago, that in itself will be an accomplishment.

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