Playing collegiate baseball at LSU, RHP Zack Hess was successful using his fastball and above-average slider. He was able to dominate and contribute as the closer for the 2017 College World Series.
His slider was his most popular pitch, it had nasty break that was freezing hitters. In his freshman year, fans were already questioning when he was draft eligible.
To be a successful pitcher at the collegiate level in baseball, you must have two traits: command and a plus secondary pitch. Hess had that leverage, but it wasn’t too long until hitters began to have an approach knowing he only had the two pitches.
Fast forward four years, it’s 2021 and Hess, pitching in the Detroit Tigers organization, is struggling getting professional hitters out with just his fastball/slider combination. At this level, hitters become more smart and have begun to sit on Hess’s slider and turn on the fastball. He was struggling with only throwing the two pitches.
In 2020, Hess attempted to add a curveball by adding a third pitch. While the curveball didn’t last, Hess believed it helped improve the break on his slider. The third pitch was still missing.
In High-A, where Hess was at the beginning of the 2021 season, opposing hitters began to have more of an approach. He was going to need that third pitch in order to continue being successful in the minor leagues.
After posting a 5.85 ERA through the month of June, Hess decided to add a new pitch to his repertoire: a changeup.
“It was baptism by fire,” Hess said on adding the changeup midseason. “Just went out and refound that feel for it pretty quickly.”
The way Minor League Baseball was scheduled this season, teams would only play opposing teams in their respective division in a series of six games in six days. After one or two appearances, hitters had a better time recognizing pitches once they faced the same pitchers multiple times. The third pitch became even more critical for Hess.
“It’s pitching 101. The more pitches you throw for strikes, the more the hitter has to think and the more pressure you put on,” Hess said. “You can use that third pitch to sneak up on him or a put away pitch on a strikeout looking.”
When hitters are looking for the standard back-foot slider or high fastball in a two strike count, Hess now has the ability to go to the changeup as a third option.
From July 1 on, Hess finished the regular season with a 1.93 ERA in 32.2 innings; he struck out 39 hitters and only gave up seven runs as hitters had a .193 average against him.
The ability to get strikeouts is there for Hess, but his command has struggled a bit. In 52.2 innings in 2021, Hess walked six batters per nine innings. His changeup will help him open up his ability to dominate the strike zone more.
In the Tigers’ organization, they focus on count leverage, which includes maximizing counts (winning 1-1 counts and trying to finish batters in four pitches or less, were two examples Hess used).
“Guys are older, they’re getting more of an approach, so those little things of having count leverage and finishing guys quick, they start to get heightened and become more important,” Hess said. “Just getting ahead of guys, good things tend to happen. If you don’t and make a mistake, the mistakes start to get exposed a little bit more frequently up here than they do at the lower levels.”
Hess received a promotion to Double-A on Sept. 14. He threw three scoreless innings to end the year. On the season, he had a 3.41 ERA in 52.2 innings striking out 69.
Hess is one of seven Detroit Tigers pitching in the Arizona Fall League that begins on Oct. 13. He will be a reliever for the Salt River Rafters.