Zerpa perfect in debut, continues to impress

March 23rd, 2022

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- As frequent as the chatter is surrounding the Royals' young starters, the one perhaps not talked about enough is the youngest of them all.

But he certainly shouldn’t be ignored.

 shoved over two perfect innings in his spring debut against the A’s on Tuesday afternoon, an eventual 5-3 Royals win at Surprise Stadium. The 22-year-old lefty struck out one and limited hard contact against him, showing deceptive stuff, a creative way to pitch and a calm demeanor through it all.

“We walk over and check him for a heartbeat every once and awhile,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s just really calm. There’s a toughness in there. We’re still learning him, but everything we’ve seen so far is pointing in the direction of this guy really knows what he’s doing. It’s going to be fun to continue to watch him.”

Zerpa was added to the 40-man roster last offseason because he was eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, and it was easy to see why when he made his big league debut at the end of last season. Three days after his 22nd birthday, Zerpa carved up Cleveland’s lineup for five innings, allowing two unearned runs, striking out four and walking one.

More than his stuff, what stuck with those watching closely was that he showed absolutely no fear in his debut -- something he didn’t think would happen in 2021 after spending most of the season at High-A Quad Cities and Double-A Northwest Arkansas.

On Tuesday, Zerpa was amped up for his first spring start and pounded the zone even when he fell behind in counts, something Royals coaches have been preaching to their pitchers since the first day of camp.

“I was very excited,” Zerpa said through interpreter Luis Perez. “I’ve been looking at it for a couple days, and I had a plan watching videos and preparing to go out there.”

“For a guy as young as he is, to be able to get to those 3-0 counts and all of a sudden say, ‘I’m going to trust my defense,’ it’s hard to do,” Matheny added. “We talk about it a lot. To get out there and do it is another thing. He trusts himself, and not afraid to pitch to contact. Realize good things happen in a bigger park with a good defense.”

Zerpa doesn’t have the hardest velocity, but he showcases a fastball that has tons of sink, and it’s hard to find it out of his hand. He locates as well as anyone in the Royals’ system and can elevate the ball when he wants to, which makes his changeup and breaking ball that much better. Both of those secondary pitches were what he said he focused on gaining more confidence with this offseason, when he was at home in Venezuela working out at an academy his brothers run.

The Royals will rely on the success of their young starters in Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Carlos Hernández in 2022. And while Zerpa will likely get more time to develop in the Minors to start the season, he also shouldn’t be counted out as a pitcher who could establish himself at the big league level this season.

He’s not counting himself out, either.

“Goal is to make the roster,” Zerpa said. “From the go.”

High-powered bullpen trio debuts

The Royals’ returning high-leverage relievers all made their spring debuts Tuesday, with Jake Brentz, Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow all throwing one of the later innings against the A’s.

Staumont has been electric in his side sessions, but he didn’t feel as “comfortable as he would have liked” Tuesday, Matheny said, noting that it was his first time back in game action. Even though the power right-hander walked two, he got out of the seventh without a run scored.

Brentz, coming off a stellar rookie year, struck out one and walked one in the eighth, and Barlow, who took over the Royals’ closer role last year, earned the save in the ninth with one walk and one strikeout. That group, plus lefty Amir Garrett, is shaping up to take over the back end of Kansas City's bullpen this season.

“Those were probably the best pitches we’ve seen from Jake,” Matheny said. “He’s mixing up his repertoire a little bit and trying to use a little bit more of the plate. He had very, very close misses. Scott looked like Scott.”