Zach Houchins was drafted out of East Carolina University to be a fast riser through the system. Primarily a third baseman, Zach made it to AAA Salt Lake City in his third full season of professional baseball.
I recently spoke with Zach about life in the minor leagues, his decision to go to college, and the crucial In-N-Out vs. Five Guys question. I found him to be humble, thoughtful, and very easy going. He’s a player who likes making fans smile, especially kids.
Here is the interview. I hope you enjoy it.
You made it to AAA this year. One step away from the biggest goal in your life. Is it hard to not look ahead and concentrate on what you’re doing in AAA?
“Yeah, it is hard not to look ahead but I just try to stay humble as I can. I just know that baseball is a very humbling game so I try to stay humble and try not to let baseball humble me.
I think if I just keep working hard things will take care of themselves. In the end it’s right time, right place, and I hope I get that call.”
Have the Angels given you any indication you will be in big league camp in Tempe next year?
“I haven’t heard anything from them yet.”
You’ve advanced through pretty quickly, which is what they hoped when they drafted you. Do you think going to college is better angle to advancing through the minors quickly?
“Yeah, I’d say so. I know a couple of high school guys who got drafted and they sit down in the AZL or the lower league and they sit there for a year or two and they get tired of it and next thing you know they’re done playing.
I think if you go to college and get drafted and play minor league baseball, you can move up. As a college guy, I didn’t take it for granted. It was one of those things where I earned it but I had to work my tail off to get where I wanted to be.”
How much of your decision to attend ECU was about the college experience as a whole and how much was about putting yourself in position to reach the MLB level quicker?
“Honestly, just going to college matured me a lot; helped me out a lot. If I could tell everybody in high school to go to college, I would. It just helps out in the long run.”
Speaking of college, you are from North Carolina, the hotbed of college basketball. Who, outside of ECU, is your college hoops team?
“I’m a North Carolina State Wolfpack fan.”
Cool. Getting back to baseball, what are you really working on right now?
“Getting stronger, working on my weaknesses, and I’m always trying to improve on my hitting.
Stepping into the box and having a good at bat every time I’m in there is it. If I can have those good at bats every time I’m in there I can gain the trust of my teammates and my manager.
Those are two things I’m working on and continue to work on.”
The AAA level is full of older players trying to hang on for another run and younger guys like you trying to move up. Have you run into any players you liked watching when you were younger?
“There have been a couple guys I got to play against both in double A last year and when I got up to Salt Lake this year. It is cool to see those guys and how they play the game. They were playing it then the exact same way they are playing it now.”
Are you in touch with the guys who got drafted around you? Do you guys stay in touch?
“Yeah, we do. As a matter of fact, I think there are only three position players left from my draft class.”
Now that you have played at all the ballparks in the Angels system, which one was your favorite to hit in?
“Oh, man, Salt Lake City. That was awesome. Can I say Orem?”
Of course, it is your favorite, ha ha
“That and Inland Empire. I really liked playing in both of those places. They were nice”
And which was your least favorite?
“Mobile. Definitely. I don’t know if the lights were low or what but during night games you just can’t see the ball at all. I’ve even asked other guys on other teams ‘can you see the ball?’ and they’d say ‘no.’ Don’t know what it is but it is just hard to see the ball there and hard to hit.”
That would explain its reputation as a pitchers park.
And how have you noticed the pitchers changing as you’ve moved up each level? From being in the box, what would you say is the difference between a low A, double A, triple A guy?
“At the lower levels you see guys, and everybody kind of throws hard at the whole minor league system, but those guys at the lower levels if you get into a hitter’s count you’re going to see a fastball.
Then you start working your way up and at double A and even triple A, you got to learn how to take your walks from those guys. Even in hitter’s counts they’re still going to throw their pitch. They’re still going to throw, you know, a 3-1 change up, or something like that and you just need to learn how to lay off of those pitches.”
Are you noticing that pitchers get better scouting reports as you move up? Do the guys know what you like so you are seeing a lot less of it?
“Yeah, most definitely. That’s another thing, and I learned that in my short time in Salt Lake. Even in that period they find out you can’t hit the outside pitch that well right now. They’re just going to just keep throwing out there and throwing it out there until you can hit it and then they’ll change from there.
But by that time, the series is maybe in the last game or the series is over so you have to wait until the next time you play them.”
And how much of your mindset when you step into the batter’s box is ‘I know this pitcher throws A and I’m looking for A’ and how much is ‘I want to hit B and I’m going to wait until he throws it to me’?
“Definitely in there in the sense that you got to have a plan and stick to that plan. But it is more, as you move up pitchers mix pitches more often and can throw them for a strike, that it is more I’m looking for a zone and if you throw it in there I’m hoping my swing is on time for a fastball and if it’s on off speed pitch I can still hit it.”
I’ve been told that at the lower levels a hitter might get 2 or 3 pitches he can hit per at bat but by the AAA or MLB level you might only get 1. Is that true?
“Yeah, it definitely is. Every at bat differs but in my short stint up here in Salt Lake I found that out real quickly. You get that fastball in the zone, where you’re looking, you better hit it; you better not miss it.
You ain’t getting another one.”
The minor leagues are known for providing crazy stories. Do you have any you want to share?
“I don’t really have too much. I think the best ones are the long bus trips when people wake up or before we get ready to stop you got those random, wild people that will start screaming and dancing and singing and waking everybody up.
I can’t sleep well on the bus. I find it pretty funny when people can sleep on the bus.”
You are from the East Coast and you’ve played out here. There’s one topic everybody on Halos Heaven has to answer.
You’ve eaten at Five Guys With Fries?
Have you eaten at In-N-Out Burger?
“Oh, gosh, don’t do this to me”
So, if you had to choose. You’ve got 10 bucks in your pocket, they are right across the street from each other, which one are you eating at?
“Aww, man, um.....I’m probably going to go with....umm. I like In-N-Out burgers better but I like the fries from Five Guys better.”
We’ll let you stick with that answer and be diplomatic, ha ha.
If fans want to follow you on social media, where can they find you and follow you?
“All I have is Facebook.”
And as fans start to follow you more, is there anything about you that you would like them to know?
“I’m a very approachable person. Just in the last few years I’ve gotten a card from maybe the year before from a fan saying thanks for talking to us, it was a good time.
I just like to interact with fans. They come to watch us play and I try to be as nice as I can to those guys and girls, and kids just to see the smiles on their faces.”
Nice. I’m always impressed by players who take time to sign and talk to kids. Thank you for your time, and best of luck.
I keep saying “if _____ is your kid’s favorite player, be happy” and Zach fits that bill just as well as Jones, Lund, and company. Stay humble, work hard, go to college. I hope he has a great career as an Angel and also see the type of person who would make an incredible coach and impact a lot of lives if he chose to do so.
Please leave your questions and comments below. Zach will see them.