The Cal Poly baseball team’s narrow win over last-place UC Riverside on Saturday brought its record to .500 for just the second time in a season that’s appearing more and more likely not to end in an NCAA regional berth.
While that’s the reality after last year’s historic 47-win campaign, 2014 seventh-round draft pick Zack Zehner has no regrets about walking away from a shot in the professional ranks this year for one more season in San Luis Obispo.
“It hasn’t been tough at all,” the senior outfielder said. “I love these guys.
“It’s baseball; it’s a tough game, and it doesn’t happen the way you plan it a lot of the times.”
Zehner has felt the game’s ups and downs enough to lend perspective.
He was cut from a walk-on tryout at Oregon out of Torrey Pines High and wound up in the junior college ranks, spending two seasons at Santa Barbara City College.
With the Mustangs in 2014, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder hit .316 with three homers and 16 RBI — not eye-popping numbers but enough for the Toronto Blue Jays to select him 204th overall in a draft that saw six Mustangs get selected.
While the other five signed professional contracts, Zehner spent the summer at Sinsheimer Park with the SLO Blues summer collegiate program.
Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said he was glad to see the San Diego native return for his senior year not only for the team’s benefit, but for Zehner’s as well.
“The bottom line was he didn’t think he was ready to go up and be an impact guy in professional baseball,” Lee said. “It was definitely the right decision. He’s had a really strong year, especially since we started conference.”
Zehner’s average is nearly the same as in 2014 — currently at .310 — but his power and run-producing numbers have increased dramatically. He leads the Big West with nine home runs and has driven in a team-best 43 runs with a .539 slugging percentage.
“I’ve loved playing here these past two years,” Zehner said. “It’s going to be a bummer leaving.”
He will be drafted again, but although his statistics have improved, recent history does not suggest his draft selection will also.
Looking at the past four MLB drafts with data from PerfectGame.org, nine players selected were college juniors who opted to return for their senior seasons.
Three — Zehner, Loyola Marymount’s Trevor Megill and Miami’s Andrew Suarez — came from the 2014 draft. Of the other six, only one was picked higher the following year.
Oregon State’s Ben Wetzler and Washington State’s Jason Monda went in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively, in 2013. Wetzler was selected in the ninth round in 2014 while Monda went undrafted.
Georgia Tech’s Brandon Thomas went from the fourth in 2012 to the eighth in 2013; Texas’ Sam Stafford from the second in 2011 to the 13th in 2012 and South Carolina’s Matt Price from the sixth in 2011 to the seventh in 2012.
Stanford’s Mark Appel was the only player to improve his selection spot the same, and that was because the Houston Astros drafted the right-handed pitcher first overall in 2013 after Pittsburgh took him eighth overall in 2012.
There’s also the chance that a team will draft a senior in the top 10 rounds and then offer him a bonus well below the slot price because the club wants to spend money on other picks and knows he has no other option but sign if he wants to play professional ball.
For example, when the Miami Marlins selected Wetzler 257th overall in 2014, he signed for $30,500 in a $151,700 slot.
Zehner’s seventh-round slot price was $192,400. Sometimes the best choice is to follow the money into the big leagues, Lee said, but another year of seasoning at the college level could help keep you there longer.
“There’s a lot of cases where it’s not worth going out,” said Lee, who spent time in the Seattle Mariners’ organization as a player before getting into coaching.
“It’s better to come back, get another year of school under your belt, get stronger, learn the game more, refine your offensive and defensive skills and then, if you’re good enough to play in the Major Leagues, things will work themselves out.”
The Mustangs have a talented group of draft-eligible players — headlined by Mark Mathias, Casey Bloomquist, Brian Mundell and Peter Van Gansen — and Zehner’s advice to them wasn’t necessarily to follow his path.
It also wasn’t to take the money and run.
“Go with your gut,” he said. “Go with what feels right in your heart and what’s right for you and your family. It’s a big decision for everyone. It affects multiple people, but have fun with it.”
Zehner’s instincts told him to return to school, and he and Lee agreed he’s a better player and person for it, regardless of where a Major League team chooses him this June.
“We’re lucky that he came back,” Lee said. “He doesn’t think about pro ball while he’s out here and, trust me, some guys can’t handle it. We’ve got that going on right now where … you’re already thinking into the future and pro ball, you can’t focus on what you need to do in the present moment.
“The guys that can handle and compartmentalize and not think ahead and just want to win each and every game that they’re a part of; those are the guys that are going to be successful.”