Originally published 3/21/16 FutureSox.com
In a world of black and white, Seby Zavala fits in quite well. He’s not really a neon orange or lime green kind of guy. He’s quiet, but he’s always watching, always observing, processing, thinking. He takes in everything around him and doesn’t offer unless it is in action. Nothing about the reserved, 22-year-old catcher screams, “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”
Unless you count his bat. Or his pitchers’ earned run average. Or anything else that matters in baseball, or in life.
Bernardo Sebastian (Seby) Zavala was born on August 28, 1993, in Fort Hood, Texas. The love of baseball is in his family DNA. His father and great-grandfather both played above the amateur ranks. Dad, Bernard, took the mound for the Bonn Capitals while stationed with the Army in Germany. Great grandfather Jose Maria (Chema) Zavala was a catcher in Mexico. Even when Seby’s mother, Tatiana, was in labor with him, his dad clearly remembers watching their home town team from Long Beach, CA repeat as Little League World Series Champions. Seby’s mother and sister are both great baseball fans, and his younger brother Dylan is a high school junior whose offensive production is garnering attention for the 2017 MLB draft. Baseball really is a family affair for Zavala.
A native of California’s San Gabriel Valley, Seby played soccer and football along with club/travel baseball until high school. Then upon entering Bishop Amat High School in La Puente, California, he turned and focused all of his attention and efforts solely on baseball. His numbers were always good while playing for coach Andy Nieto; producing roughly the same number of triples as doubles and home runs each year. His defensive numbers behind the plate were stellar, despite not having started on varsity until his Junior year. A common theme in Seby’s life is how hard he’s worked to earn anything of value, including the catching position.
When he first joined the varsity squad, Coach Nieto said, “He earned it. We didn’t have a position for him, but when he was moved up to varsity, he earned it”
His end-of-season CS:SB ratio of 1.125 was proof that the position was, in fact, earned. Before graduating from Bishop Amat in 2011, Zavala along with former teammate and current Astros prospect Rio Ruiz, and current Pirates pitching prospect Daniel Zamora, defeated the Palm Desert Aztecs 7-0 to earn the CIF Southern section title. They finished 3rd in the state.
SAN DIEGO STATE
When they were first recruited to play baseball for San Diego State University, Zavala and his teammates had no idea that they would be among an elite group; the last group of players who would be fortunate to play under MLB Hall of Famer, and long-time SDSU head coach Tony Gwynn.
During his freshman season in 2012, Zavala played in almost half of the season’s 63 games; making 11 starts at catcher, and 22 at DH. After playing fall ball, the pain in his right elbow returned, as it would so often. From the time he was a sophomore in high school, the young catcher would periodically have great pain in his elbow, which was routinely diagnosed as tendonitis. Because there is no cure for tendonitis or any immediate treatments, Seby would stop all baseball activities for a month or so and then slowly start back up and increase his workload. Then, after a while, the pain would return and the cycle would repeat. However, in the fall of 2012, the pain was more profound and Seby knew it was time for this to be addressed differently than it had in the past.
Around this same time, Seby’s roommate, outfielder Spencer Thornton, underwent Tommy John surgery. After learning more about another non-pitcher having a tear in his UCL, Zavala took matters into his own hands. In early December 2012, he made an appointment with a legend in sports medicine, and longtime L.A. Angels team physician, Dr. Lewis Yocum. With MRI results in hand, Dr. Yocum confirmed there was, in fact, a tear in Seby’s right (throwing) ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). As he had been asked many times before, Seby again could not recall a “pop” feeling when the ligament snapped, to which the good doctor said it was just a matter of time before the ligament would tear and it would be best to repair it at this point; early in his college career, rather than when his professional career was beginning; because it would happen soon.
The decision was made. Dr. Yocum would perform the TJS procedure, as he had many times before. The doctor’s office would call to confirm the exact date and time it would take place. However, when Dr. Yocum’s office did call, it was not to finalize the details but to inform Seby that the 80-year-old doctor’s health took a turn for the worse and that he would have to find another surgeon. At that point, the catcher contacted the surgeon who works with San Diego State University and 2 weeks later, the surgery was performed and rehab had begun.
Under Coach Gwynn, injured players were not lost for the season – they were utilized in other ways. Zavala and his roommate Thornton spent the season in the press box of Tony Gwynn Stadium recording video of teammates’ plate appearances. After each game, they would spend time with Coach Gwynn, learning to break down video as though it was for advance scouting purposes. In little time the two became so familiar with their teammates patterns and preferences that they could predict situational outcomes with great accuracy. They were learning at the knee of the one of the greatest hitters the game will ever know. They discussed behavior patterns, mental approach, and physio tendencies of their teammates. Then, Coach Gwynn would turn the focus back to the roommates, and on their plate appearances, their swings, their decisions. This rehab time was an intense, comprehensive education in something for which there is no degree.
“You definitely learn more about yourself not playing,” Zavala said. “My baseball intelligence skyrocketed the year I sat down and watched other people play.”
The physical rehab process followed the traditional route under the care of physical therapists from long-time partners with the university’s athletes: Scripps Health in La Jolla, California. One therapist is so valuable to Seby, that he refers to her as, “the smartest person I’ve ever met” with regard to how the body works: Gail Kuwatani. Gail leads an expert staff of physical therapists at Scripps, who invest in the health of the young men, including a famous Aztec alum and pitcher for the Washington Nationals, Stephen Strasburg. She did the same when she worked with Tony Gwynn during his career.
Zavala had just begun his throwing program when his teammates won the 2013 Mountain West Tournament Title. Seby was a member of the team, so he received a championship ring, but he didn’t feel right about it. A typical response from the young catcher who believed he didn’t earn it.
“All the success they were having,” Zavala shares, “You want to say it’s you, but it’s not you.”
The criminal justice major spent the summer becoming stronger (lifting weights, following a strengthening program) along with his throwing program. He was not going to do anything to jeopardize his future; strengthen, improve now, and prepare for 2014, where he would be the left fielder for the season. The team had a starting catcher in Brad Haynal, and Seby understood. He was just happy to be playing and helping his team win. His offensive production was characterized as a little “rusty” after having missed a full season. That may be true, but it was probably more due to playing with a broken thumb and not telling anyone about it. Why would he? He was not going to miss any more time.
On May 25, 2014, the San Diego State Aztecs earned their 2nd Mountain West Conference Tournament Title in as many years. Haynal was named Tournament MVP just prior to being drafted in the 18th round by the Miami Marlins. Seby was a contributor to the success, hitting almost .300 on the season.
“That’s the difference, knowing you did something to earn the ring,” said Zavala.
Three weeks after the elation of winning the championship game, Seby and his Aztec baseball brothers felt the complete opposite when their beloved Coach Gwynn lost his battle with salivary gland cancer on June 16, 2014. The man who meant so much to Seby, the Aztec baseball team, and to baseball fans around the world, was gone.
Along with teammate Ty France (now a farmhand of the San Diego Padres) and baseball operations director, Cooper Sholder, Zavala knew they had to do something to honor their beloved coach.
“We all wanted to get something for Coach Gwynn from the moment he passed away. He meant a great deal to us. He wanted us to be better human beings first, then better baseball players. He always told us the baseball part would fall in line if we did things right on-and-off-the-field.”
The trio agreed upon a tattoo. The design is the familiar number 19 inside of home plate. The meaning is a little different for each, but for Seby, it is a reminder to do things right, on and off the field, a message shared by Gwynn and by Seby’s father, on a regular basis: integrity, responsibility, live a life of quality, be the best person you can be and then baseball will happen.
The 2015 Aztec baseball season opened February 13 against Valparaiso, but not before an emotional pregame ceremony honoring their beloved hall of fame coach by retiring the legendary number “19”. Members of the Gwynn family attended the event, some participated, and one member performed the national anthem. SDSU baseball alumni, including Travis Lee and Stephen Strasburg returned to honor Coach Gwynn.Then, it was time to get to work. Behind Friday night starter, RHP Bubba Derby, with Steven Pallares, Ty France, and Spencer Thornton also aboard,
Behind Friday night starter, RHP Bubba Derby, with Steven Pallares, Ty France, and Spencer Thornton also aboard, Seby started at catcher. He got a hit and drove in a run in the 5-4 victory over Valparaiso. The next game, on Valentine’s day, Seby announced his presence and set the tone for his season by hitting a grand slam in an eventual 22-12 victory.
As expected, Seby was behind the plate for every game in the 2015 season, hitting .290, scoring 42 times, with 67 hits, 13 doubles, and 1 triple. His 14 home runs was the most on the team. Defensively, he only allowed 8 passed balls, which after having missed so much time between regular catching duties is very good.
When it was time for SDSU to again defend their conference title, Seby again produced when it mattered most. In the Mountain West Conference Tournament, he smashed a conference-tying-record 5 home runs, and he went 2 for 3 in the championship game against New Mexico. No surprise, Zavala was named Tournament MVP. His only comment:
“I couldn’t do this without my teammates, they’re a big part of this.”
THE WHITE SOX
Long time area scout, George Kachigian followed Seby’s collegiate career from the beginning. He liked what he saw in the 6 foot, solid built catcher and knew he would be a good fit for his ball club. After all, the Chicago White Sox are like 29 other MLB teams; always looking for strong defensive catchers – good receivers, game callers, leaders with quick strong, accurate arms – who are also offensively dominating.
George’s track record includes names like Mark Grace, Addison Reed, andTrayce Thompson. He’s good at finding below-the-radar treasures. The more he saw Zavala, the more his unorthodox hitting approach grew on him. It didn’t take long, however, for George to make the comparison to former New York Yankee catcher, Jorge Posada: “…nothing fancy, hard plugger. When you need that base hit to drive in the winning run, he hits a grounder up the middle and wins the game.”
White Sox Amateur Scouting Director, Nick Hostetler agrees on all accounts: “Seby’s offensive potential is what attracted us the most to him. Very advanced approach at the plate.”
Defensively, Kachigian said he “was always a decent catcher, but improved significantly throughout the season to the point that I was convinced he could make adjustments and end up a big league catcher.” Hostetler again agrees: “He didn’t catch full time in college, so there is some ceiling there” He continues, “if Seby continues to put in the work and adapt to what our instructors are teaching, he could become a regular in the big leagues.”
Kachigian knows the cornerstone of who Seby Zavala is, is his integrity and work ethic: “He’s earned everything he’s achieved and has the utmost respect of his teammates.”
And with that, the Chicago White Sox selected Seby Zavala in the 12th round of the 2015 draft. Two days later, once the contract was signed, the 21 year old was headed to Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona – spring training and player development home of the Chicago White Sox (and Seby’s beloved Los Angeles Dodgers.)
Zavala made his professional debut in the Arizona Summer Rookie League (AZL) on June 21st of 2015. He went 1 for 2 and scored a run. He continued to play in 35 regular season games – 18 as DH, 17 behind the plate. Being a catcher in the Arizona League includes handling a staff whose experience ranges from major league rehabbers (like Jesse Crain) to high school and college rookies making their professional debut (such asJack Charleston, Chris Comito, Johnathan Frebis, Jordan Stephens, andBrandon Quintero). Seby thrived with each opportunity, including being the receiver when White Sox 1st round draft pick (8th overall), Carson Fulmermade his one inning professional debut at Camelback Ranch against the Angels.
Being a natural observer, and after the hours spent breaking down video with Gwynn, one of Zavala’s defensive strengths behind the plate is being able to make in-game adjustments. He watches the batter’s body language, reaction to pitches; mental approach, twitches, and works with pitchers’ strengths. Working with catching coordinator, former Angels’ first round draft pick in 1987, and big league catcher. John Orton, was incredibly valuable.
In 35 games regular season games, Seby was behind the plate in 17 – starting 16 – for a total of 131 regular season innings. When he was the receiver, his staff averaged .87 hits per inning, grabbed .9 strikeouts per IP, and pitchers had a mere 2.68 ERA.
Early into the season, along with fellow rookie Corey Zangari, the “Killer Z’s” were born. The two have polar opposite backgrounds, but share the same “clutch gene.” If one wasn’t the offensive hero for the AZL Sox, the other was. Seby was by far the best hitting catcher in the Arizona Summer League (AZL). In fact, he was voted an All-Star (by opposing coaches) with numbers like a .326 AVG, 33 R, 42 H, 17 Doubles, 5 Triples, 4 HR, 35 RBI, 15 BB, 27 SO, 2 SB; .401 OBP, .628 SLG, 1.029 OPS.
On the night of August 30th, the same night that Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs no-hit the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine, the AZL White Sox defeated the AZL Dodgers, 1-0 in 11 innings of the first of three single elimination games; where the winner moves on to be one step closer to the title. Seby caught every pitch of the 29 innings (including the scoreless 11 inning duel against the Dodgers). The White Sox pitching staff only allowed 3 postseason runs; 1 by the Royals, and 2 by the Mariners in the title game. The game against the Royals was not a simple 4-1 victory; first pitch was thrown on August 31st at Papago Sports Complex, the AZL home of the Royals while their facilities in Surprise were being renovated. The box score shows no delay in
In three postseason games, the AZL White Sox pitching staff only allowed 3 postseason runs; 1 by the Royals, and 2 by the Mariners in the title game. The game against the Royals was not a simple 4-1 victory; first pitch was thrown on August 31st at Papago Sports Complex, the AZL home of the Royals while their facilities in Surprise were being renovated. The box score shows no delay in game; but there was an almost a 24-hour break in the 3rd inning, thanks to a monsoon that rolled through Papago with winds and rain so strong that trees were pulled up from the ground like they were paper dolls. Zavala was at bat when the storm hit. While the rest of us were looking for ways to escape under cover, Seby was not looking to move until his at-bat was over. Mother Nature yelled louder and the game was suspended until the next day, resumed at a new location.
On September 2, the AZL White Sox traveled to the AZL Mariners to contend for the league title. Zavala and right handed starter Christopher Comito were in a groove for 5 innings of play, allowing only one run, while Sox hitters had scored two. Brandon Quintero, Jack Charleston, and Richard McWilliams took care of the remaining 4 innings to ensure the good guys emerged the victors. Though it was a nail-biter to the end, the White Sox defeated the Mariners 3-2 and became the 2015 AZL Champions. As if this first championship was enough, there was a component involving Seby that made it even more special. At the time, the Mariners Director of Player Development was
At the time, the Director of Player Development for the Mariners was Chris Gwynn. He was at the game and next to me behind the backstop for the final 2 innings. I couldn’t help but appreciate the connection: Coach Gwynn’s brother’s team facing one of Coach Gwynn’s former players. Baseball is funny like that.
Zavala returned to Glendale for his first Fall Instructional League (“Instructs”) before he was to join Team Mexico in the Premier12 Tournament in the offseason. However, a broken thumb prevented him from playing. This time, there was no hiding; the White Sox shut him down until his thumb healed. They would have no part of him playing with an injury. As caretakers of their prospects, there are no risks where health is concerned. When he reported to his first spring training on February 1st, he had an insiders’ view from the shared clubhouse at Camelback. He was among the first to work with big league veterans including
When Seby reported to his first spring training on February 1st, he had an insiders’ view from the shared clubhouse at Camelback. He was among the first to work with big league veterans including Mat Latos, catching bullpens and learning the ropes; the perfect environment for the young catcher who soaks in every bit of information like a sponge.
In an on-field ceremony in Camelback Ranch stadium, before the White Sox hosted the Oakland A’s in early March, Seby and his AZL teammates received their championship rings. There was no doubt on his part that it was well-earned by the AZL All-Star catcher.
With the championship season a distant memory, the minor league spring training games were about to begin. Though there are no official stats recorded for the minor league back field games, March 19th will be one to remember. In a game against the Milwaukee Brewers High-A team, Zavala was the starting catcher for Jordan Stephens’ outstanding 3 innings pitched – the first since for Stephens’ since his one-inning-outing in the Instructional League last September. On the next field, was the other half of the Killer Z’s – Corey Zangari, playing with the Class A team against the Brewers’ counterparts. In the bottom of the 2nd inning, with 2 runners on base, Zavala and his slight leg lift launched one over the fence in left field for a 3-run home run, his first of the spring. On his next at-bat, Zangari also went deep – very deep. The Killer Z’s picked up right where they left off last summer.
I will let Nick Hostetler’s insight bring this profile to a close:
“Seby’s solid leadership skills and work ethic have him on the path to becoming a solid guy for us. Seby is in for a big 2016!”