Of the more than 20,000 players to wear a big league uniform in baseball history, just 55 were born in Idaho -- fewer than 0.003 percent.
The last time both starting pitchers in a Major League contest were born in Idaho was on June 29, 1986, when Ken Schrom (Indians) and Ron Romanick (Angels) faced off. A double dose of Idahoans on the hill is a rare enough circumstance that it’s happened just four times at the MLB level dating back to 1961.
“Being from Idaho, I really feel like we're underrepresented,” Penrod said. “We don't have any D-I [college] programs or anything like that. So seeking out that stuff outside of the state is tough for us – or at least for me it was. When I was younger, I definitely felt like I was always overlooked and everything like that, but [I told myself to] stay the course. And I found my way.”
While neither Penrod nor Vrieling was long for the showdown in Glendale's 7-6 win over Mesa in extra innings, their presence in Arizona is indicative of a growing trend of baseball talent emerging from the Gem State. More than 1,000 miles south from the pitching rubbers and batters' boxes where they fell in love with the game, Penrod and Vrieling are looking to forge their paths toward the big leagues as part of a quartet giving the AFL a distinct Idaho flavor that also includes first baseman Kyle Manzardo (CLE No. 2/MLB No. 58) and left-handed pitcher Ike Buxton (Marlins).
For context, one year ago, the Fall League did not have any participants that were born in Idaho.
The ultimate goal for any member of the premier prospect circuit is to parlay success among their peers into a big league opportunity. Of the 23 pitchers born in Idaho to reach The Show, nine have been on the mound for Major League clubs in the past 11 years.
“Idaho is definitely making more noise in baseball now than it ever has, for sure,” Vrieling said.
The two hurlers took entirely different paths to their pro debuts.
Penrod hails from Nampa, Idaho, the state’s third-most populous city. After signing as an undrafted free agent with the Rangers in 2018 out of his hometown Northwest Nazarene University, he was released in June 2020 following Tommy John surgery. His professional career officially got on track in 2021 in the Pioneer League, where he was earlier this year when the Red Sox signed him to a Minor League deal in August.
The Fall League stage represents a significant upswing in competition from just a few short months ago, presenting Penrod with an opportunity he felt he couldn’t afford to take lightly – even at the expense of his honeymoon.
“It was kind of a little awkward phone call at the beginning,” he said. “I was like, ‘Hey, you know, I got this opportunity, we got the whole month of October and I know we're getting married.’ The main reason I wanted to come back is because I just feel like this is important.
“This league is very important. It gives me a shot to stand out.”
Vrieling was born in Lewiston, Idaho, which has a population one-third the size of Nampa. Although he attended high school in Washington, he grew up with the game in Idaho, playing on a Little League team with Manzardo coached by the latter’s father, Paul. Vrieling makes his offseason home on the Washington-Idaho border and trains young hurlers from the Potato State.
“Every year that I've trained at [River City Athletics], we've had at least two or three, maybe four Division I commits,” Vrieling said, “And then a handful of JUCO commits.”
After a successful collegiate career with Gonzaga, Vrieling appeared on the fast track to success when the Yankees selected him in the third round of the 2022 Draft. But a fracture in his right elbow knocked him out for the entire '23 campaign, tunneling his pro debut to the Fall League.
Yankees draftees don't often debut in pinstripes. But under the unique AFL structure that features players wearing their respective organizations' away and home uniforms – a goal they hope one day to attain with regularity – Vrieling took the hill with the interlocking “NY” displayed prominently.
“You can throw 95 [mph] in college and get away with fastballs all day,” he said. “Here, you throw 95, you gotta be able to put it where you want and you gotta have offspeed that plays off of that too.
“I just need to become a master of my craft and be able to go, ‘Oh, I want to throw a fastball here.’ I can throw a fastball here. ‘I want to throw a slider here.’ I can throw it out there. It's just a matter of figuring out where my stuff plays in the pro ballgame.”
Penrod and Vrieling were often able to put themselves on the map by virtue of their pure stuff during their prep and collegiate days, but the stark reality of the Minors is that results matter and often dictate just how high a pitcher can climb. Penrod has been one of the top hurlers on the fall circuit with a 1.29 ERA over four starts, while Vrieling has delivered three solid outings with his pitch count climbing each time out.
Forget being the best in Idaho: both hurlers, along with Manzardo and Buxton, are aiming to go national while competing in baseball’s finishing school.
“There was always good competition [growing up in Idaho] and then a lot of guys are moving over toward Boise and the population is booming,” Penrod said. “The players are just going to keep getting better, the more they have to pull from.”