At the end of Zac Veen’s first month in professional baseball, he was a .238 hitter with a .704 OPS and over twice as many strikeouts as walks. For the first time in a long time, Veen was on a playing field he wasn’t dominating.
That didn’t last long.
Baseball’s No. 53 overall prospect is roaring to the end of his first campaign, riding numbers that have improved at eye-popping rates since those early weeks by embracing a recurring valuable lesson: baseball isn’t easy.
“I’m actually very happy I went through that at the beginning of the year,” Veen said recently from Fresno, hours before hitting for the cycle with his first career grand slam. “I’m happy I learned the lows of baseball. It’s definitely something that I will always remember. I think if anything, it’s made me a better player and made me stronger for the rest of my career. It’s definitely making me realize that this game is a little bit physical, but it’s all mental.”
Colorado’s top prospect was the No. 1 prep talent entering the 2020 Draft, according to MLB Pipeline, and went to the Rockies with the ninth overall selection. An unorthodox summer awaited. With his high school season canceled and no Minor League season to play, Veen had to wait.
“That just taught me to really enjoy every day and every game because something like [the pandemic] happens, it’s a thing that can be taken away from you just like that,” the outfielder said.
The Spruce Creek (Fla.) product finally got his introduction to the Rockies organization at instructional league play last fall, then reported to Low-A Fresno in May for his first game action.
“Honestly, [I was] a little nervous because I’ve never played 120 games before and never played every day,” he said. “Summer ball in high school was the closest thing I got to this. That’s nothing compared to this. It’s something that hits you all at once. You don’t really understand what the grind is like and what the true mental and physical expectations are going into a full season.”
Results didn’t come quickly. He struck out 30 times while working only 13 walks in 23 May games, and none of his 19 hits left the yard, a sluggish start for a player whose 55-grade power is among his best tools. But things started to come around as Veen acclimated.
In June, the 19-year-old bumped his monthly slash line to .289/.420/.444 with his first two pro homers. In July, it was .300/.372/.620 with nine blasts. Veen truly erupted in August. The slugger batted .389/.462/.633 with 12 extra-base hits, including four homers. The surge came in part from Veen’s comfortability in being in the moment.
“If you go 1-for-4 with a broken-bat base hit, you better be the happiest man on the field with how hard this game is,” said Veen, who currently sports a slash line of .303/.400/.508 with 15 homers and 73 RBIs in 100 games. “The game is hard. If I could go back [to May], I’d tell myself that every little accomplishment, you better celebrate it like you just won the World Series. With how hard the game is, you can’t ever be too good for a single or too good for a walk or too good for even just helping the team out, whether it’s a sac bunt or anything along those lines. If you do something to help win every day, you’re a good player.”
Among the most surprising element of Veen’s breakout campaign has been his proficiency on the bases. Described as a “solid average runner” in Pipeline’s pre-Draft evaluation, Veen has swiped 36 bags this year, second-most in the Low-A West behind Grizzlies teammate Eddy Diaz.
“It’s more I’d say just learning a good technique, learning counts and when to go,” he said. “I think a lot of it too is just not being scared to get thrown out. That’s the biggest thing. What I learned in high school and what I was taught and raised by is you can’t be scared to make the mistake. When I started playing the game like that, stealing bases and being aggressive on the bases became much easier.”
As Veen began heating up, so did his team. Just 14-10 at the end of May, Fresno finished June at 31-19 and July at 52-25. As of Labor Day, the Grizzlies lead the North Division at 71-37, a .675 winning percentage ranking fifth-best among MiLB teams. Along with Veen, Fresno’s roster features catcher Drew Romo (Colorado’s No. 8 prospect), southpaw Sam Weatherly (No. 16), speedster Diaz (No. 30) and more.
“I’d say we have the best and the most talented team in the league,” Veen said.
“I think in a couple of years, you’re going to see a lot of these names in Denver.”