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Angels prospect Zach Joyce defined by overcoming challenges


ryanmfalla

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by Ryan Falla, AngelsWin.com Staff Reporter

There are few qualities better suited for the Major League grind than the ability to overcome adversity on a daily basis. We see this time and time again as Major Leaguers regularly fall into slumps and prospects slip into doubt as the game stays unpromised to those who do not work for it. 80 grade tools suddenly become meaningless if the athlete possessing such talent does not have the fortitude to apply himself against the pressures presented by the game. Angels pitching prospect Zach Joyce is no stranger to overcoming severe adversity as his journey through baseball has seen him overcome the heaviest challenge a person can face; the battle with themselves. Now fully standing on his own two feet, Joyce aims to ensure his journey through struggle is no more than an introduction as he writes the rest of his story with the Angels in 2024.

Joyce entered his college days with a very promising future as he and his identical twin brother (Angels big leaguer) Ben Joyce attended Walters State CC for two years before their Tennessee days. Zach's freshman year saw him make short work of hitters he managed an impressive 24 Ks over 15.2 innings of work, though he would not be able to follow up in his sophomore season after an injury in spring put him on the path of Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately the 2020 pandemic would see the cancelation of the baseball season for many athletes, and by effect the shut down of many public services across the globe, including rehab clinics. This loss of opportunity would force Joyce to undergo a non-specialized rehabilitation for his elbow that would ultimately have little effect on strengthening his return from Tommy John. To make matters worse, Joyce was committed to pitch at his dream school in less than a year’s time. With everything seemingly falling apart this impending dream opportunity had transformed into a debilitating source of anxiety.

“All the physical therapy places were closed down. Going through that whole process pretty much on my own didn’t go well. Then at Tennessee I started throwing and it didn't feel great. I would keep trying to throw through it. It took a toll on me mentally because my dream basically my whole life was to play at Tennessee. When I got there I felt like I didn't have it anymore. That took a pretty bad toll mentally, I ended up having some pretty bad panic attacks basically every day [...] I put too much pressure to come back too quickly knowing that I was going to Tennessee in six months.”

A multi-year hiatus from the game (2020-2022) due to physical and mental health struggles put Joyce in a position that would snuff out the aspirations in most people, yet a strong support system from family and the Tennessee baseball program would see him re-enter the game with extreme success. His return to baseball in 2023 saw Joyce reinvent himself as he fiddled with a brand new cutter, a pitch that elevated his successes at both Tennessee and with the Angels Low A 66ers. His first 10.1 innings back in the game at Tennessee saw him strike out 17 on just two walks. This is about as good as it gets for a pitcher coming off a stretch with no live action since 2019, and clearly the Angels saw the promise in his upside as they called his name in the 2023 draft.  

“[Tennessee] wanted me to take my time coming back because they knew the whole story, they were supportive the entire time when I stepped away [...] Coming back was a slow process, working up to bullpens, working up to guys standing in the batters box. Once I got into a game I was so amped up and so ready for it that I didn't even think about it being four years since I faced a batter."

Zach Joyce comes into the Angels organization with the DNA of a high strikeout power reliever, but perhaps his most impressive stat last year was his incredible ability to limit the walks. Joyce walked hitters in just one of his eleven outings in Low A last year, all while managing at least one strikeout in seven of those eleven games. Joyce didn’t just keep hitters off the paths by limiting free passes, his ability to generate weak contact was prevalent through his debut season as hitters managed a sub. 400 SLG% through his appearances. Joyce’s repertoire screams back-end dominance as he regularly cuts through late game opposition with his aggressive power fastball/cutter combo. The Angels organization echoed this sentiment as Joyce spent eight of his eleven Low A outings pitching in the 7th inning or later. More impressive was his efficiency as he regularly managed three outs on 15 pitches or less with six of his outings coming as such. Furthermore, three of his Low A outings saw him manage an inning of work on 9 pitches or less. His pitchability and IQ are as high as it gets for someone with such limited recent exposure to the game, these two factors being key drivers in his successes next to his intense mental fortitude and extreme determination.

“In Low A [the cutter] was kind of the main pitch I threw, I threw it more than my fastball. The biggest thing for me this off season is having that cutter. It's a more of a harder slider, honestly it's more of a mental thing calling it a cutter so I think about throwing it harder. You have a pitch that comes out almost looking the same but the shape is a little different and the change in speed is a big thing too. That's the main thing I've been working on this offseason with both pitches so they don't look too alike or look too different coming out your hand.”

It is difficult to truly quantize an athlete’s intangibles when attempting to correlate short sample success across long-term development trajectories, but for Zach Joyce it is as simple as understanding the struggles of where he’s come from and realizing the challenges of baseball are slim compared to such. The biggest factor of success in baseball is often one’s ability to simplify the game, and with such experiences under ones belt it becomes easier to see the game as it truly is; a game. Perhaps this unique perspective is the biggest quality that has and will continue to take him over the top as a professional athlete.

“He who has conquered himself is a far greater hero than he who has defeated a thousand times a thousand men.”- Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha)

Zach Joyce is a man defined by overcoming challenge, and if to conquer yourself is to conquer the world (according to Buddha) for Zach Joyce to rise above himself is a testament to the qualities he brings to the daily grind. What else is there to baseball other than rising above yourself day in and day out, 162 games a year? Of course there is still a journey of professional development to be had with the Angels, and aside from any philosophical platitudes the truest factor in on-field success is the execution of quality on the field. Joyce has shown he has the quality of stuff and pitchability to fully express his aggressive approach on the mound, and though his stuff may fly under the radar his mental qualities register as an easy 80 across the board. In some baseball circles that quality is greater than any 80 grade pitch, especially in circles led by Angels manager Ron Washington.      

“I got to go out to Arizona and do that [Angels] mini-camp. [Ron Washington] was out there. He talked to us multiple times as a group, it was awesome. He's a super impressive guy. It's incredible for the organization that he's there. You could tell how much he cared about all of us at camp, about the whole organization, and building that new culture. It was honestly kind of surreal at first. You grow up hearing about how good of a coach he is and seeing it in person was pretty incredible. The biggest thing he talked about, for me, was fear of failure. Growing up that was a real thing, especially with how competitive me and my brother were. He said multiple times baseball is a game of failure, the biggest thing is having your teammates around you to keep you up. But also using that experience to keep getting better. His big thing was talking about how hard you have to work to get where you want to be, that's the culture they want around the organization.”

2024 will likely see Zach Joyce start the season between Low A or High A, although knowing GM Perry Minasian's aggressiveness he will likely edge towards High A. His success last year clearly shows he is ready and more than capable for high levels of competition with his biggest need as of now simply being getting his arm stretched out over an entire season. However, considering all factors I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pitch his way into Double A considerations through the first half of the year. Joyce comes into the organization with an experience base far exceeding that of a 23 year old, yet his arm is as fresh as it gets coming out of college. Don’t let Zach Joyce’s limited on-field experience since 2019 fool you, you’re getting a guy who is ahead on the game in more ways than one. Perhaps moreso than many of his peers. This year will be a fundamental experience for Joyce, both as a pitcher and a person, as he grows further towards his destiny as a big league reliever alongside his brother Ben, just as they have been at every level since childhood. Although 2024 may be a year of growth for Zach at the development levels that within itself is a victory as he can now make claim to the future he’s earned as a Los Angeles Angel.

“Having a twin brother that's throwing 105, you hear about that quite often [...] He is one of the top three reasons that I'm even back playing baseball, he's pushed me a lot. I didn't even watch a single game of baseball for an entire year, and then when he started playing again I wanted to go watch and support him. That was the first game I went to. I always tell people I almost had to leave because I wanted to be down there so bad [...] We played on the same team growing up every year, basically the same position. In high school we would literally alternate closing games .The biggest thing for us right now is supporting each other in whatever role we're in."

Full Audio of the interview:

 

 

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