Oklahoma City pitcher Zach Lee said he knows he made the right decision in signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being selected in the first round of the 2010 draft.
With the $5.25 million signing bonus, it was a no-brainer. However, Lee said he wonders what it would have been like being a two-sport potential star athlete at LSU.
“I just know it would have been a great experience to play in Death Valley and, of course, The Box,” said Lee, who had signed to play quarterback and pitch for the Tigers. “Part of the appeal for me was they had great programs in baseball and football in the past, and they continue to have great programs.
“They’ve had some guys — Jared Mitchell, Chad Jones — who were able to play both at a high level.”
Lee was a standout football player at McKinney (Texas) High School, and may have been drafted higher if not for wanting to continue to play football. However, the leverage football provided ultimately helped get a signing bonus that was much higher than expected for a player picked 28th overall.
Lee enrolled in summer school at LSU after being drafted in June.
“I took English 1001 and music appreciation and had a couple of hours for calculus and physics I got credit from high school,” he said. “For my English class, I did a paper on Mike the Tiger, the whole history and everything. It was really interesting.”
He participated in football practice in August before he struck a deal with the Dodgers.
He rapidly climbed up the Dodgers’ minor league ladder, but now is in his third season in Triple A. When he struggled recently, it was considered in the organization to be mental, that Lee feels he should be in the rotation in Los Angeles.
Lee, who is 7-5 with a 4.89 earned-run average in 13 starts this season, knows he still has to show more.
He has given up 11 home runs in 73.2 innings.
“It’s been a season with some ups and downs,” he said. “My last outing, I showed some promise that I can get back to where I was at the start of the season.”
After giving up six runs on 10 hits in 4.2 innings against Nashville on June 10, Lee bounced back Thursday against Omaha and allowed two runs on seven hits and no walks in seven innings.
“We’re all trying to go deep in games and win games,” Lee said. “If you can consistently go five, six innings in games and keep your team in games, you’ll have a better opportunity to get called up.”
Lee said his focus is on attacking the strike zone a lot more. He’d gotten “a little timid” about that and ended up with bad counts, he said.
He was called up twice last year and made one appearance. He pitched four innings against the Mets in New York and was torched for seven runs, four in the first inning.
However, 2015 was an important season for Lee. He had the worst season of his life in 2014, the team’s last in Albuquerque. Lee went 7-13 with a 5.38 ERA, allowing 18 home runs in 150.2 innings.
Last season, the team’s first in Oklahoma City and out of high-altitude Albuquerque, he allowed just five home runs in 113.1 innings and had a 2.70 ERA.
“Part of it was not being in Albuquerque, where it’s hitter-friendly,” he said. “But some of it was making strides and getting hitters to hit the ball on the ground. I made strides as a pitcher, keeping the ball down.”
After the season, he was chosen the Dodgers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the second time. He also received the honor after his first year, 2011, when he was the organization’s No. 2 prospect. He went into this year as the Dodgers’ 16th-rated prospect.
Manager Bill Haselman said Lee will be called up this season.
“I feel like he’s progressing well,” Haselman said. “He’s an incredibly hard worker. He commands the ball well.
“He’s had a couple of rough outings, but in the whole scheme of things, he’s going to be a big league pitcher. He’s a smart guy. He changes speeds, he locates. It’s just the consistency every time out, going six or seven innings.”
Going pro out of high school has one advantage. Lee is just 24 and on the brink of his dream.
He didn’t get to compete with Jordan Jefferson or Jarrett Lee for the starting job, nor with Zach Mettenberger, who followed those two.
“I still follow LSU football,” he said. “In baseball, I would have been on a team with Aaron Nola (now a Philadelphia Phillies pitcher) and a lot of good players.
“To me, it was a matter of being able to go to an organization that prides itself on pitching. And in the long run, careerwise, I wanted the baseball route (more) than the football route.”