At Pioneer High, he was stalked by scouts. At the U-M, he led a baseball revival. Once he turned pro, however, Zach Putnam’s rocket ride to stardom sputtered. Traded, waived, released, repeatedly demoted, he has pitched in ten different towns for four employers.
In his darkest hours, wondering if his childhood dream had died, the best ballplayer ever to come out of Ann Arbor focused on his father’s oft-repeated words during countless practice sessions: “Stay the course.”
After a decade of setbacks, those lifelong hopes are a reality. This month, he’s expected to start his first full season in Major League Baseball, pitching for the Chicago White Sox.
From the outside, Steve and Mary Beth Putnam’s ranch home on the west side of Ann Arbor doesn’t look like a big-league training facility. But in its large open basement are a pitching rubber, a batting cage, and lots of conditioning equipment. Almost as soon as sons Dylan and Zach could walk, they were downstairs with their dad, pitching and batting. They kept training there as they starred at every level of youth baseball.
When Zach was at Pioneer, his dad was the team’s pitching coach. The strapping teenager was by then not only a dominating pitcher but a fearsome hitter, blasting home runs into the prairie beyond the fences. He twice led the best team ever assembled at an Ann Arbor high school to the state championship final.
Scouts from big-league clubs traveled to Pioneer games with radar guns to clock the velocity of Putnam’s fastball, writing glowing reports that pegged him as a potential top draft pick.
But dreams of a million-dollar signing bonus foundered following a disappointing outing in front of a huge crowd of scouts in Dexter. The Detroit Tigers finally drafted him in the thirty-eighth round, but Putnam opted to go to Michigan instead.
There, starring as a pitcher and hitter, he led the team to three consecutive Big Ten championships. Wolverines head coach Rich Maloney, now at Ball State, remembers him as “a gamer–very gutsy, very competitive” with an advanced knowledge of the sport. “He’s one sharp dude,” Maloney says.
Though he was Michigan’s best baseball player since Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, Putnam got less attention in town than the average Wolverine football lineman. Not that he cared about that.
“In college, the game was fun,” Putnam recalls on a winter Sunday afternoon at El Harissa Market Cafe. He’s glad he didn’t turn pro at eighteen, admitting he wasn’t mature enough then to handle the responsibilities–and the temptations–of managing a big bonus while living away from home for the first time. Instead, he coached his own group of young kids in his parents’ basement for several years. This past winter he again trained there himself–surely the only big league player doing his off-season workouts in the same place he practiced as a preschooler.
After three years in college, players can reenter the major league draft. Most observers projected Putnam as a second-round pick. But once again, bad timing ruined his hopes–he missed two starts for the Wolverines with a sore shoulder, contracted a case of esophagitis, got very sick, and lost weight. His stock fell. “Teams got scared away,” he says. As the draft sagged into the fifth round, he wondered if he should return to Michigan and get his degree. Finally, the Cleveland Indians selected him as the 171st pick of the 2008 draft. Within weeks, he found himself in Niles, Ohio, to start his pro career with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in a short-season rookie league.
During the next three years, Putnam steadily climbed the ladder of the Indians’ farm system, pitching A ball at Kinston, North Carolina, then Class AA in Akron, and finally at AAA Columbus. To his surprise, he loved Columbus, where he says “the people are awesome, and the ballpark unbelievable.” He’d go to football games in full Wolverine regalia–yet was treated well. “If I ended up being a minor-league lifer,” he says. “I’d want it to be there.”
By the time he hit Columbus, Putnam had long since given up on being the now unheard-of pitcher and everyday hitter. He was being groomed strictly as a relief pitcher. A scouting report before the 2011 season noted that the young Putnam was already a mature pitcher with an “unusually diverse mix of pitches.”
Later that year, Zach got the phone call he’d long dreamed about. The next day, he was on a plane to Texas. On September 13, he dressed for the first time in a Cleveland Indians uniform in the clubhouse in Arlington, Texas, home of the Rangers–the team owned by Zach’s childhood idol, the legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan. It was beastly hot, and Zach strolled down to the bullpen expecting to have a day or two to get accustomed to his new team. Instead, he was summoned into the game. He says he has no memory of walking to the mound to start the seventh inning with Cleveland trailing, 8-3. Pitching to Texas slugger Adrian Beltre, Zach Putnam, according to the website BaseballReference.com, became the 17,715th player in major league history.
The first thing hecan remember is Beltre welcoming him to the big leagues–by powering his eighth pitch over the fence. But later that inning, he struck out two batters. He pitched in seven more games for Cleveland before the season ended.
In the off-season, Putnam was working out in his parents’ basement when the phone rang. It was the Indians’ general manager delivering a bolt from the blue: he’d been traded to the Colorado Rockies.
“The Indians had been a perfect fit for me,” Zach says ruefully. “It was like having the rug pulled out from under you.”
After the shock wore off, Putnam could see the upside: the Rockies wanted him so much they sent Cleveland a veteran major-league pitcher, Kevin Slowey, and $1.4 million to acquire him. The following spring, Putnam went to AAA Colorado Springs and pitched the best baseball of his life, mowing down opposing hitters.
But soon he grew disheartened. The Rockies organization is known for its incompetence in developing pitchers. Their home field is a graveyard for hurlers–homers and hits rocket through the thin mile-high air. The club was interested not in his mechanics, his command, or his mix of pitches, but only in his velocity–which has never been off the charts. “They should have known I wasn’t that kind of guy,” he says.
His dad is blunter: “Colorado is the worst organization in all of baseball.”
In September, Zach got his second call-up to the majors–but pitched only two innings for the Rockies. At the end of the season, he was placed on waivers and claimed by the Chicago Cubs, one of baseball’s most storied–and famously cursed–franchises. In the spring of 2013 he reported to the Cubs’ top farm club in Des Moines–his third chance to make it.
Later that summer, Putnam saw legendary Wrigley Field for the first time–from the bullpen. In his first time warming up there, one of his pitches sailed past the bullpen catcher and, incredibly, bounced up and hit the game’s home-plate umpire, Joe West, in the chest. West, a commanding veteran, strode to the bullpen after the inning and sternly confronted Putnam: “Are you the guy who hit me?” Zach gulped. The ump warned: “Don’t let it happen again.” Then West winked and smiled at the rookie.
Throwing a baseball is an unnatural motion. The number of pitches young ballplayers throw these days, playing in multiple travel leagues and practicing year round, has caused an alarming recent epidemic of pro pitchers who need surgery at an early age.
Steve Putnam took good care of his boys’ arms. Zach recalls his dad requiring him to use arm bands and other advanced training measures to strengthen his arm, imposing a strict pitch limit on him during youth league games, and making him promise to tell him if he ever felt pain in his arm while pitching.
But even with proper training and precautions, pitchers can suddenly go down. “I know guys who do everything right and still get hurt,” he says. Though he doesn’t mention him, that sort of bad luck befell his brother Dylan, whose own pitching career ended at Tulane when his ankle was shattered by a line drive.
Zach’s elbow started bothering him a few years after he turned pro. “For a couple of years I’d been feeling it,” he says, and then during his fifth game with the Cubs, “I could feel it get worse with every pitch.”
That cut short his season, and Putnam underwent arthroscopic surgery for bone spurs in his elbow. He was twenty-six, and his career was in jeopardy. It happens all the time, even to top prospects–they get hurt, get stuck in the wrong organization, never get a chance until they pass their peak. Getting to the major leagues is hard; staying there is even harder.
“Baseball is a game of failure,” says Zach philosophically. “If you can’t handle failure, you don’t belong. You have to roll with the punches–and trust all the work you’ve done will eventually pay off. So much of pitching is mental. You have four or five bad outings, you start to wonder. It takes a long time to figure it all out.”
His rescue came from Chicago’s other team, the White Sox. Six months after the surgery, his arm had recovered, and last spring, he was the last man cut from the White Sox during spring training. He was sent to Charlotte, his seventh minor league city. Within weeks, however, he was called up to Chicago.
Back in “the show,” he vividly remembers facing Miguel Cabrera for the first time. He’s always considered the Tigers’ star the best hitter in the game, and “I had to step off the mound and collect myself,” he recalls.
“Miggy” hit a “pitch six inches off the plate” for a screaming line drive straight to the center fielder. The next time he faced Putnam, he got a double. But the third time Zach pitched to Cabrera, he struck him out. After his long journey in the wilderness of baseball, he’d really arrived. “I felt like I belonged,” he says.
With other relievers getting hurt and underperforming, Putnam’s role grew as the season progressed. By the end of the year, he’d notched six saves.
Though Putnam doesn’t have as much “heat” as many other relievers, his command of his pitches is exceptional, says veteran White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. “He throws strikes, he’s aggressive, and he’s got three good pitches. He did a real fine job putting himself back on track. My head and heart tell me Zach is going to have a good career. He’s mature, he’s realistic, he’s hardworking, and he has a very prepared mindset.
“Last season, he seized the biggest opportunity he ever had, and the good news is that if he stays healthy, he doesn’t have to do anything different this year. We need him in the bullpen.”
The Sox have a new closer, Dave Robertson, but Putnam is ready to do whatever the club asks of him. His arm is now 100 percent, he says, and he’s eager to prove 2014 was “no fluke.”
Told that he was dubbed by one baseball analyst this off-season as “a sleeper who woke up,” Zach scoffs. “There was no magic bullet” that caused him to succeed last season, he says. “I’ve been here all along, doing the same stuff. I’m the same guy I always was.”
Three years ago, he bought his own house in town, not far from his parents. This year, he’ll make the major league minimum, a half-million dollars–and if he has a solid season this year, he could get a hefty raise next winter.
Though Putnam is the only big leaguer in town, he can still walk the streets of Ann Arbor without being recognized. A middle reliever for a team other than the Tigers is a nonentity here. But it’s not fame that excites him. After waiting so long to get a major-league job, what he savors are the instant opportunities to pitch under pressure in the late innings of a tight game.
“You’re sitting out there with the guys, and suddenly the phone rings, and five minutes later you’re in the game,” he says. “It’s an adrenaline rush. If that doesn’t get you going, what would?”