In every class of Major League Baseball’s annual draft, there are high school or college players who draw crowds rarely seen at this level of play. Hordes of scouts gather around the backstop to throw a look at the phenomenon, hoping their organization can pull him out of the prospect pool before another lucky team does.
Jared Koenig was not one of those players.
He graduated from Aptos High School in 2012, and although he had a very good high school career as one of the best pitchers in the Santa Cruz area, no MLB organization loaned lots of attention until the Chicago White Sox drafted him in 2014, after two years at Central. Arizona College.
Even then, Koenig was drafted in the 35th round of 40 and the team did not offer him a contract. What followed was an uninterrupted race through different teams, leagues and even continents in pursuit of the “spectacle”. June 8, Koenig’s exploration to the top through cities like Monterey; Saint-Raphael; Salina, Kansas; Utica, Michigan; and Avon, Ohio peaked with his major league debut in Atlanta as a starting pitcher for the Oakland Athletics.
Since his days as an ace on the Aptos High pitching staff, the 6-foot-5 left-handed starting pitcher has come a long way — literally and figuratively. Since the 2014 draft, Koenig has gone through two college teams and a host of independent teams from Kansas to Michigan to San Rafael, where he was named the 2018 Pacific Association Pitcher of the Year.
Finally, he signed with the Auckland Tuatara, New Zealand’s only team in the Australian Baseball League, where an international athletics scout gave him the chance he was looking for.
A season canceled by COVID and two successful minor league years later, he finally got the call while with A’s Triple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas Aviators. Veteran wide receiver Stephen Vogt announced the news at an Airmen team meeting while in rehab.
“I just lowered my head and started crying,” Koenig said. “It was really special and I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.”
Koenig, 28, was immediately given difficult assignments. He made his debut against reigning world champion Atlanta Braves, and had to follow that up with a start against 2018 champions Boston Red Sox.
After those two rocky starts on the road, he bounced back to Oakland on Sunday to secure his first major league victoryshutting out the Kansas City Royals in just over five innings of work.
Victory was bound to do Koenig good after his winding and unlikely journey to the major leagues. Yet being in the majors comes with its own set of daunting anxieties.
“There’s a little more pressure, because there’s nowhere to go,” he said. “I think that’s a factor that people tend to ignore.”
Ahead of a six-game homestand, Koenig spoke with Lookout about what it’s like to finally arrive in MLB, maintaining balance with constant changes of scenery and looking back at the many saves he made. throughout his journey.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Warning: I’m sure you’ve done a lot already, but explain to me when you got the call.
Jared Koenig: So that was Saturday June 4th. We’re done with BP [batting practice] and on our board, I saw that we were having a team meeting, and I thought it would just be some kind of random chat or whatever. We were playing well, so who knows? I went to get some food and continued to the locker room. While we’re all sitting there, [Stephen] Vogt stood up and thanked everyone for letting him in and letting him be part of the team while he was rehabbing.
As he speaks, [fellow pitcher] Zach Logue sits next to me and says he thinks someone is going to be called and it’s probably me. I just said “No, no, he’s just talking”, but then I saw someone recording and I thought maybe there was a possibility that someone was called, but I know that Vogt wants to be a manager in the future, so maybe he just wanted to have something to look back on.
So he finishes a bit later and we start clapping and he says he forgot to mention one thing is that it’s so cool to go to the big leagues, and everyone has a path different. Then he just said my name and said, “You’re going to the big leagues,” and then I put my head down and started crying. It was really special and he’s been a great mentor so far, and I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.
Warning: Of course, after this long road to the majors, you have to face the reigning world champions [Atlanta Braves] when you started, then the 2018 world champions [Boston Red Sox] just after. How to stay calm?
Koenig: To be honest, I didn’t really deal with the defending champions game until afterwards. I kind of went for it and I knew I had to go out there and do what I could. It’s tough training throughout, but I kind of just got into it. I mean, I was as nervous as possible and tried to be as excited as possible there, but it was really hard to think on the mound and do what I normally do when I pitch.
Still, it was so much fun. You know, you only get that first release opportunity once, and that was special. It’s also really fun to do it against a good team to tell me, and I hope the others, that I can get out there and I can do it. I just need to dig a little deeper into the games right now.
Lookout: Going from the minor leagues to the major leagues is a huge change – what are the biggest differences for you?
Koenig: Well, for starters, 42,000 fans in Atlanta is a big difference! But otherwise, I think hitters understand the strike zone and the plate a bit better. They swing less and miss less, their pitch recognition is better so they react faster and can hold their swing at the last minute much more effectively.
Another thing is that here you are on top now. There’s a little more pressure because there’s nowhere to go. It’s actually something that Vogt mentioned, and I think it’s a factor that people tend to ignore when talking about things in the majors.
I’m just trying to adapt quickly. I don’t think I’ve felt entirely comfortable yet, which I know I’m not expected to be, but I just want to be as comfortable as possible as soon as possible.
Lookout: After playing everywhere, how can you keep your approach and routine stable when you have different teammates on different teams so often?
Koenig: It’s definitely hard to create rhythm with the catchers every time, especially the ones that haven’t caught me. Even when I got to the A’s, I hadn’t had Murph [Oakland A’s catcher Sean Murphy] catch me first, so this is a situation where he and I just have to keep understanding each other and what we’re doing. But really, I’ve always worked constantly to figure things out and ask myself what I need to do to take it to the next level.
I wasn’t one to reach out to people and I kind of tried to let my game speak for itself. I wasn’t trying to annoy people, I kind of wanted people to recognize it, if that makes sense. So it wasn’t even in an arrogant way, I just felt like I was here to do my job and if I’m doing my job then someone has to notice.
Lookout: Is there a place where you thought it was the hardest to play? Do you have a favourite?
Koenig: The most difficult to play, I would say, was Saline [Salina Stockade, an independent league team in Salina, Kansas]. I was 23 at the time and was only there for five weeks, and that was my first year of professional baseball. So getting up there and learning what I’m supposed to do and adjusting to the professional aspect of baseball was a challenge. You’re up there against former Triple-A players, and I think even a few big leaguers were there too.
I had two good starts, and that was about it. It was hard because I was trying to figure it out because I hadn’t been this bad in a long time. I also threw a lot that season and traveled a lot compared to what I was used to, so my body wasn’t quite up to speed either. For me, that was the hardest part, but I also think it’s part of the growing experience.
Australia was great, but New Zealand was great. I really enjoyed my time there. Baseball is a learning sport there, and there are good talented athletes there for baseball and it continues to grow as a sport. You will definitely see more people from New Zealand and Australia. While I was pitching there, from week 1 to week 5, the fanbase grew tenfold. This experience was amazing, it’s cool to see the culture and how baseball evolves and grows there. Just going to see a different country was something I wanted to do, and I don’t think I could have chosen a better one for my first time outside the United States.
Lookout: To bring it back to Santa Cruz County, did you have a favorite or least favorite court to play at Aptos High?
Koenig: I think the Harbor pitch, which is grass now but wasn’t then, was always wet and if it rained there was no way we would play. But I think all the land was pretty reasonable considering it was public school land, and I feel like people were invested in it. The coaches who ran the teams cared about the pitch and did what they could to maintain it. I think the whole community did a great job with it, as none of the fields were terrible.
Lookout: When I played at Santa Cruz High, we definitely improved our court over the years. Finally got some decent batting cages and a nicer bullpen.
Koenig: I will say the visitor enclosure was probably one of the worst.
Lookout: I think it had to be. So while you’re making the most of your time in the greats, what are you missing at home?
Koenig: The most important thing is just my family and our dog. Santa Cruz is great and all, but it’s very expensive so it’s hard to miss that part. But it’s great to be next to the beach and have this temperate weather. Even though it’s been really hot lately, that consistent good weather is something you really appreciate when you’re in the middle of a season.
Lookout: What is your primary goal as you continue to adjust to major league play?
Koenig: Just keep building the trust, to know that I belong here and can be successful here. I just have to stay inside and keep being a pitcher because that’s what got me here. I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing and build on that.