USF’s Three Million Dollar Man

Written by Rene Romo
Kyle ZimmerPhotos courtesy of USF Athletics.

Sometimes life throws you a curveball. Consider 21-year-old Kyle Zimmer, who dreamed of playing professional baseball ever since he was a little boy, but joined USF’s team as a barely noticed walk-on with no scholarship and little chance of playing. Coaches at the university spotted something special in Zimmer, however—a raw talent—and together they decided to take a chance. This is the unlikely story of how one player started on USF’s baseball team as an infielder and left as a star pitcher, chosen by the Kansas City Royals in the first round of the draft with a $3 million signing bonus and a genuine shot at the big leagues.


A Promising Start in the Minors

Kyle Zimmer’s life has been a study in the unexpected, so it was fitting that his professional baseball career started in a town called Surprise. It was late July, and the Arizona town hit a blistering 107 degrees. It was cooling slowly that evening as Zimmer took the mound on George Brett Field for a game pitting the newly signed Royals rookies against those of the San Diego Padres. 

This was a promising start for a new player climbing the minor league ladder, and as he warmed up, Zimmer was the picture of composure. The weather was anything but. A haboob—a massive dust storm—was bearing down on the Phoenix sprawl with a solid wall of sand and dirt. It was miles wide and thousands of feet high, stretching from the floor of the Sonoran Desert to the clouds above. Zimmer was bearing down too, on the batters, demonstrating the awesome arm strength that caught the attention of USF coaches and sparked his remarkable transformation.

His first pitch topped 94 mph. His fourth hit 97, a speed so fast it makes coaches giddy, even in the majors.

Then the haboob hit. Hard. Sweeping in from the outfield at 50 mph, it clogged the air with so much dust that umpires were forced to stop the game. Minutes later, it ended as suddenly as it began. Zimmer went back to the pitcher’s mound as if nothing strange had just happened—calm in the middle of a storm.

He then finished the first shutout of his professional career. 


A Passion to Play

Kyle Zimmer pitching
Photo courtesy of USF Athletics

Just one month before, Zimmer was chosen in the first round of the draft and received a $3 million bonus for signing with the Kansas City Royals. Zimmer was the fifth player chosen that day—the highest draft choice in USF baseball’s 106-year history. He had rocketed to the top tier of promising pitchers with a fastball that routinely hit 98 mph. 

But this wasn’t how Zimmer had imagined it would be. 

Like many young boys, the La Jolla native dreamed of playing professional baseball, but he imagined himself as a star batter. “Ever since I can remember, since the first day I could walk, I had a bat in my hand and was hitting balls off of tees,” Zimmer said. 

He had never thought of himself as a pitcher. Not even in his dreams. 

But he did show natural aptitude for the game. At age 6, he could hold his own against 8–year-olds. At 9, he nabbed a spot on the San Diego STARS, a legendary traveling team that’s seen more than three dozen players go on to the major leagues. 

“I’d come home from work, and they’d be sitting on the porch with a bucket of balls,” Eric Zimmer said about his two sons, Kyle and the younger Bradley, now a Dons outfielder. “Away we’d go to a batting cage.”

By high school, Zimmer had developed into a solid third baseman, outfielder, and hitter, according to Coach Gary Frank at La Jolla High School, but entering his senior year, he “wasn’t getting a ton of looks” from college recruiters.

But coaches from USF did notice. Greg Moore ’99, MA ’00, USF’s associate head baseball coach, and Troy Nakamura ’98, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, watched him play at a Sacramento baseball development camp in 2008, the year before he started at USF. They saw natural talent and amazing arm strength.

Dons Head Baseball Coach Nino Giarratano recalls Moore’s enthusiastic report. “I remember him saying, ‘Boy, this guy’s got a great arm. Watching Kyle field a ball at third base and throw it across the infield, it looked pretty special.’”  

Giarratano invited Zimmer to join USF’s team—but as a walk-on. Zimmer has never been one to shy away from hard work where baseball is concerned, and when he arrived at USF in 2009, he quickly impressed the Dons coaching staff with his maturity and strong work ethic. But he discovered that his usual position, third base, was already manned by one of the Dons’ best players, Stephen Yarrow ’11, a slick-fielding power hitter who would go on to sign with the San Francisco Giants in 2011. 

USF’s coaches didn’t have a third-base position for Zimmer, but they saw promise in the freshman and wanted to get him on the field. That’s when they decided to take a chance and ask Zimmer to consider something new: serve the team as a pitcher. 


Molding a Pitcher

USF’s baseball program may have a modest national reputation, but it has produced three first-round draft selections in the last five years. 

Matt Hobbs, the pitching coach at USF during Zimmer’s freshman year, attributes that success to a strong emphasis on player development, which he calls some of the best in the country. “They don’t have the biggest weight room. They don’t have the largest university. And still, they are able to develop and crank out some of the best players out there… Succeeding with less—that speaks to player development.”

Giarratano is a three-time Coach of the Year in the West Coast Conference, and Zimmer isn’t the first player he has converted from a position player into a pitcher. Jesse Foppert ’01, a walk-on at USF in 1999, toiled for two seasons at first and third base before he tried pitching. The San Francisco Giants drafted him in the second round in 2001. At the time, it was the highest draft pick ever for a Dons pitcher.

But even for a talented coach like Giarratano, converting a position player into a pitcher is no small matter. The athlete must leave his comfort zone and accept the humbling fact that he won’t play in every game. The player must give up one dream for the slim possibility of success in another. For most, it’s a gamble that just doesn’t make sense.

And it wasn’t easy for Zimmer. “I was sort of opposed to it at first,” he said. “I got so used to playing every game and being a hitter and going out there every day and being able to dive for balls and get dirty and get four at-bats a game. I mean, I’d never really thought about pitching until this point. And it was so new to me. It was like I was starting the game all over again.”

Moore taught Zimmer the grips and techniques for various pitches—slider, curveball, change-up—and Zimmer absorbed even more by studying the team’s veteran pitchers. 

Zimmer threw a few bullpen sessions in several intra-squad games that freshman year but saw less than six innings of play. Giarratano still liked what he saw, and he pulled the talented pitcher aside and told him he had the potential for something very special. 

“At first I thought he was just blowing smoke,” Zimmer recalled. “But I heard it, and I took it in and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a chance.’”


Signs of Success

A remarkable transformation had begun, both mentally and physically. Zimmer grew two inches his freshman year and gained 25 pounds of muscle, lifting weights six days a week that summer at the Cal Ripken Collegiate League in Virginia. He stood 6 foot 4 and weighed in at 210 pounds.

In his sophomore season, Zimmer firmly established himself at USF, recording 89 strikeouts in 91 innings. He also helped the Dons capture their second WCC championship. The high point came in the opening game of the NCAA regionals in Los Angeles. As dozens of scouts watched from the stands, Zimmer threw a shutout against UCLA, striking out 11 batters.

The boy who wanted to be a batter was turning into an accomplished pitcher, and people were noticing.

Zimmer had seen the scouts, but he wasn’t phased by their presence or by the pressure. He credits his composure to a motto Moore had drilled into him: Decision. Clear. Breathe. Attack. Zimmer had the acronym—D.C.B.A.—inscribed on a rubber bracelet. 

“You make the decision what pitch you’re going to throw, and you clear everything from your mind,” Zimmer said. “And then you take a deep breath, and then you just attack... It’s something he [Moore] came up with that’s helped me stay in that zone.” 

He says the motto applies to life off the field as well. “I think the game has sort of taught me how to keep everything in life simple and enjoy my time. This last season, it helped me just avoid distractions and not really focus on things that don’t matter or are out of my control and just have fun.” 

Zimmer still wears the bracelet every day. “On and off the field, it never comes off.”

Giarratano says Zimmer’s strong drive to conquer a difficult challenge helped him succeed. “That’s what makes Kyle so special. He went out and worked his tail off, worked on the mental side of it, worked on the physical side of it.”  

Zimmer also worked hard in the classroom, the epitome of the USF student-athlete. A business administration major, he took honors classes and still earned a 3.73 GPA, making an “A” in every class he took except for four “B”s. Zimmer was already being touted as a top-five draft pick when the team spent a day at Bessie Carmichael, a K-5 public school in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, in April. He and his teammates signed autographs, and Zimmer told the kids why education is so important. 

“Baseball is a huge part of my life—of all our lives—but the only way I could do the things I love is by being successful in the classroom.”

After a strong sophomore year, Zimmer was off to the Cape Cod League, which draws college baseball’s top tier. The confidence he gained competing against this top-level talent fueled an outstanding junior year, where he struck out 117 batters and walked only 17 in 88 1/3 innings. By now, the scouts were buzzing about Zimmer and predicted he would be a top-10 pick in Major League Baseball’s annual amateur draft.


The Big Offer

Kyle Zimmer headshot
Photo by Bill Mitchell.

At his family’s home in Southern California, Zimmer watched the draft choices being announced on TV with his parents and a large group of friends. When his name was read, everyone around him cheered wildly. But in his trademark cool, Zimmer just smiled and slowly donned a Kansas City Royals cap—calm in a storm of celebration.

Eight days after the Dons’ season ended in late May, Zimmer was drafted by the Royals. Three days after that, he signed.

He says receiving the $3 million signing bonus was “pretty surreal” but that it was never really about the money. “I do not think of myself as a millionaire, just a guy who gets to do what he loves and happens to get paid for it.”

He could have held out for the maximum $3.5 million bonus allotted for the fifth overall draft pick but wanted to start off his new relationship with the Royals on a positive note, not with potentially contentious negotiations.

Months after signing, he was still driving his 2003 Ford truck.


A Chance at the Majors

Zimmer is among the six-tenths of 1 percent of high school baseball players who get drafted by a professional team. But success isn’t guaranteed, even for a first-round draft pick. Players must gain strength, hone their craft, and acclimate to superior competition in the minors before getting promoted to the majors—if they get there at all. 

Zimmer recently underwent minor surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow but is expected to be ready for the start of spring training. The Royals called the procedure routine and expected.

Lonnie Goldberg, director of scouting for the Royals, says that Zimmer’s talent and mental makeup could propel him to the majors “within two or three years.” Other major league scouts say he has the talent now. An aggressive timetable with no injuries and an abundance of good luck just might get him called up to the majors by the end of next season.

Zimmer himself has set no timetable but remembers something Moore taught him: “Keep yourself separated from the results. The only thing you can focus on is executing pitches, and if you execute a high enough percentage of your pitches, then the results will be there.”

In order to get those results, Zimmer must fully focus on his baseball career. He left USF at the end of his junior year without completing his degree—but leaving something unfinished is not in his nature. 

“Although I wish I could have finished my degree in four years and walked across the stage at graduation with my friends and teammates, I am fine with where I am now. I only have six classes left to graduate and plan on finishing my degree as soon as possible.”

Still, USF, and especially the Dons coaches, are never far from his mind. He credits them with helping him mature “from a young, wide-eyed kid into a man.”

“I can’t say enough about the coaches at USF. They have taught me so many invaluable lessons about baseball and life. They are the best molders of men that I have ever had the pleasure to know.”

 

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