NOTE: The sixth of a 16-part series of individual feature stories, leading up for No. 25 Kentucky’s 2016 season opener at Wofford on Feb. 19. Wednesday, learn about Kentucky junior ace Zack Brown.
Zack Brown’s electric right arm ready for 2016
Brent Ingram, UK media relations | ONLINE: bit.ly/ZBwears33
Kentucky junior right-handed pitcher Zack Brown has an electric arm.
There has been no hiding that over his first two seasons.
After feeling his way through the Southeastern Conference in 2014 as a freshman, Brown became UK’s Friday-night ace as a sophomore, a role befitting the flame-throwing Brown.
As a star prep shortstop and pitcher in Indiana, Brown set the Seymour High School record with a 0.54 single-season ERA as a senior.
He was selected in the 38th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs, before electing to attend Kentucky to further his development.
During his collegiate debut, Brown was used in 19 games with five starts, showing glimpse late in the season that he was capable of pitching on the weekends.
He starred in 2.1 shutout innings at No. 9 Louisville, before making his first career SEC start at Georgia in the regular-season finale. But it was his performance in the NCAA Louisville Regional semi-final that pushed him to the next level in the offseason. He pitched UK to the win over Kansas with five innings for his first career win.
Brown, a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder, finished his freshman season with a 1-1 record and a 5.65 ERA in 28.2 innings, striking out 18 and walking 11. After the season, he worked in 36 innings in the Perfect Game League, setting himself up for a breakout sophomore season.
Brown immediately went into UK’s weekend rotation in 2015, joining fellow laser-armed right-hander Kyle Cody and command artist Dustin Beggs.
He shined as UK’s Friday-night starter, owning a 6-6 record and a 3.48 ERA, leading the SEC with his three complete-games and two complete game shutouts. Over 93 innings, Brown allowed only 87 hits, walking 38 and striking out 71.
After he tossed eight shutout innings in a 3-0 series-opening win at No. 5 Florida, Brown was named SEC Pitcher of the Week. Three weeks later, with UK’s season on the line, he threw a complete-game shutout in a 1-0 win at Missouri on the season’s final weekend.
“I would say that I had two really good starts that I can vividly remember, Florida and Missouri, but I remember the bumps in the road too, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Arkansas,” Brown said. “Those failures are going to help just as much as the victories. Looking back at those games, I feel like I have grown in the areas I need to and I’ll be able to make sure the negatives don’t happen as often this year.”
After a career-high workload, Brown – who had opportunities to pitch for the USA Collegiate National Team for his own Coach Gary Henderson or in the Cape Cod League – elected to stay in Lexington during the summer.
“It was good to be here, taking classes but get healthy was the main thing, and continue to get stronger,” Brown said. “That has really been crucial for me. It was great to just being here with the guys. We knew what we needed to do over the summer, we took into account our goals for the season and I think it served us well.”
Now entering his junior season, Brown is now longer just an electric arm. Sure he can run his fastball into the high 90s, but it has been his development in the mental approach that has spurred success.
“It was all physical for me when I got here. I had no idea about the mental side of pitching,” Brown said. “Coach Henderson is obviously one of the best in the country at emphasizing the mental approach, which is definitely what I needed. Fulfilling the role that I did last year, coming in this year with a year of experience, it is an immense difference from last year to now. It is not just the two and a half years I have been here, I’ve has grown a lot in the past 12-16 months.”
Kentucky’s biggest two recruits in 2016 came in the former of Beggs and Cody, a pair of seniors who elected to postpone professional baseball for a final run at college baseball.
“It instills confidence in everyone,” Brown said about the return of Beggs and Cody. “We feel it in the locker room, out on the field. People are going to play as hard as they can behind us because they know we are going to keep them in the game. Having Kyle and Dustin back, it is huge, not only for the team but for myself to keep pushing myself to get better, and also push them. We are going to push each other as much as we can and keep getting better.”
The trio allows UK to return its entire weekend rotation, and each pitcher has only improved over the fall and preseason.
“Well they’ve all gotten better and that’s not an opinion, that’s a fact just in terms of pure ability to grade out their pitches,” Henderson said. “The next step for Kyle (Cody) and Zack (Brown) is staying emotionally intact with what the process of pitching will allow them to do. They will both get better through the first month of the season.”
In terms of his stuff, Brown has worked to refine his breaking ball, while implementing a change-up.
“I probably threw 15 change-ups all of last year,” Brown said. “It has become a lot better and more consistent. The curveball, just shortening it up and throwing it in any count, early and not just as a two-strike pitch. I am going to be more of a three-pitch mix this year because of the growth in the change-up.”
Henderson knows the mental approach is a key to the development of his weekend pitchers, as well as refining their arsenal of weapons on the mound.
“(Brown and Cody) have really, really good arms, very good,” Henderson said. “The command of the secondary stuff for both of them has improved dramatically in the bullpen. The next step is to bring those pitches into a competitive environment, especially out of the stretch, with two guys on and the count is 2-1. Now we are challenged. That is where the game is really played. That is when you are going to make your money pitches. If we can get those guys to really buy in to the value of that and not revert to, ‘I’m going to throw the next pitch through the brick wall,’. Which you see a lot of in college baseball. That is where you are going to see their growth. They know that. This is not a new conversation for those guys. They know what the challenges are and they will get there. It won’t be perfect but they’ll get there. Because they care, they work hard, they are great kids and they want to be successful.”
Now that he has a year of experience, pitching under the bright lights in the SEC, Brown is more prepared for the role.
“My mindset is a lot different than this time last year,” Brown said. “Coming into last year, I didn’t really know what my role was going to be on the team. Whether it would be starting or coming out of the bullpen. Now, I feel like I have defined my role on the team. Proving that role and leading the team in the right direction is going to be a big thing. After last season, I feel like I still have a lot to prove.”