DENVER -- Rockies top MLB Pipeline prospect Zac Veen proved a quick study last season.
The Rockies selected Veen in the first round (ninth overall) in 2020, which meant his first possible pro summer was wiped out by the pandemic. That meant a year delayed in learning to think and prepare like a pro. But at Class A Fresno in 2021, Veen erased any concerns within the first couple monthly meetings with Rockies hitting coordinator Darin Everson and hitting coach Nic Wilson.
“The progress from the first month to the second month was really, really good,” Everson said. “Everything we talked about in the first meeting helped him going into the next month, essentially. When you understand the learning curve, you have awareness. When you have awareness, you have a chance to improve quicker.”
Veen, who turned 20 last month, has all the tools one would expect of a top pick, and he displayed them all in helping Fresno to the playoffs. In 109 games, he hit .300 with a .398 on-base percentage, 15 home runs, 76 RBIs and 36 stolen bases. But the mental awareness may be his biggest attribute.
Last season, just one of 491 plate appearances came against a younger pitcher. Yet, Veen earned a spot on the All-Low-A West team, and went into the offseason as the No. 50 MLB Pipeline prospect -- with a rise expected when new rankings are released.
The quick progress showed in Veen’s numbers -- May numbers of .238, no home runs and 30 strikeouts in his first 99 plate appearances, to averages of .289 in June, .300 in July and .389 in August, with 15 homers in that time (nine in July). But the improvement may be a direct result of the value he derived from learning to deal with the early struggles.
“Trying to remember your successes is pretty important is what I’m realizing,” Veen said. “You can have three bad days in a row and hit a walk-off the fourth day. You never know when your moment is going to come.
“There are so many factors. Your body could be sore one day and you’re not seeing the ball another day, then some days everything clicks and you get four hits. It’s just showing up every day and trusting the process.”
This process began long before Veen arrived with the Rockies.
While in seventh grade, Veen set a goal of becoming part of a renowned Port Orange (Fla.) Spruce Creek High School baseball program. He rode his bike to the school every day of fall practice.
“You always wanted people to wear the colors and want to be a Spruce Creek Hawk, so we never told people you can’t come” said then-head coach Johnny Goodrich, now general manager of high school teams for the Orlando Scorpions travel team. “He took it to heart. He was at the school every day, seventh grade through high school. He was there so much we just let him work out.”
Veen also listened. Orioles outfielder Austin Hays, a Spruce Creek graduate, would bring along baseball friends such as Mets catcher Patrick Mazeika, Blue Jays pitcher A.J. Cole and pitcher Rayan González, whose rise in the Rockies organization was halted by an elbow injury.
In addition to seeing the players work, Veen received, and continues to receive, information on the thought process, not only from the hitter but how the pitcher is thinking. Some of the principles backed by advanced metrics such as tunneling (pitchers having different types of pitches begin on the same path before they break), Veen has been hearing for years.
The result is Veen was prepared to speak the language of Everson and the coaches, yet not become enamored with or overwhelmed by the information.
“The information is definitely a tool that’s great to see after the fact, after the game is over,” Veen said. “But once once I get in those white lines, it's just compete mode. Only thing I'm thinking is that I'm not going to lose and you know that I know I'm going to dominate.”
The result is quick progress toward meeting a natural challenge. Veen is right at 6-5, likely still growing, which means he has long levers. Like many young, well-schooled hitters, Veen -- whose batting practice discipline rivals that of Major Leaguers -- entered pro ball with the ability to hit balls the other way. But as the Minor League season continued, the left-handed hitting Veen began pulling balls to right field solidly.
“When he began hitting some pulled-hard balls, he became a more complete hitter,” Everson said.
Assignment in other areas remains. Veen entered pro ball as a center fielder, but spent his first pro year learning the corners -- a process the Rockies continued in instructional ball after the season. But the most encouraging growth area is growth itself.
Veen faced the challenge of going from a high school schedule to no schedule at all to a full Minor League schedule, all while maturing physically. He went from 213 pounds at the start of last season to around 185 by the end. But he has regained the weight with an approach that evokes a Hall of Fame comparison in its studiousness.
“I worked with Brian Dawkins, who was a safety with the Broncos and Philadelphia, who is very inquisitive, super-intense -- literally the most intense human being I’ve ever met,” said Jeff Higuera, who trains Veen and others, such as Rockies infielder Brendan Rodgers, in the Orlando area. “As far as being inquisitive and wanting to improve, guys like that are who Zac reminds me of.”