A yearslong journey through different levels of professional baseball finally paid off for Jared Koenig, who made his major league debut June 8. Though he is just starting to live out his dream, that high comes with a very different perspective. “You’re at the top now, there’s nowhere else to go,” said Koenig.
In each class of Major League Baseball’s annual draft, there are some high school or college players who draw crowds rarely seen at that level of play. Hordes of scouts gather around the backstop to get a look at the phenom, hoping that their organization can scoop him from the lot of prospects before some other 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 Santa Cruz area’s top pitchers, no MLB organization paid much 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 out of 40 and the team did not offer him a contract. What followed was a nonstop grind through different teams, leagues and even continents in pursuit of “the show.” On June 8, Koenig’s crawl to the top through cities like Monterey; San Rafael; Salina, Kansas; Utica, Michigan; and Avon, Ohio, reached its apex with his major league debut in Atlanta as a starting pitcher for the Oakland Athletics.
Since his days as an ace of the Aptos High pitching staff, the 6-foot-5, left-handed starting pitcher has come far — literally and figuratively. Since the 2014 draft, Koenig has floated through two college teams and a slew of independent teams from Kansas to Michigan to San Rafael, where he was named 2018 Pacific Association Pitcher of the Year.
Finally, he signed with the Auckland Tuatara, the lone New Zealand team in the Australian Baseball League, where an international scout for the Athletics gave him the chance he’d been looking for.
One COVID-canceled season and two successful minor league years later, at long last, he got the call while with the A’s Triple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas Aviators. Veteran catcher Stephen Vogt broke the news during an Aviators team meeting while on a rehab assignment.
“I just put my head down and started crying,” said Koenig. “It was really special and I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.”
Koenig, 28, was immediately thrown some difficult assignments. He debuted against the defending world champion Atlanta Braves, and had to follow it up with a start against the 2018 champions, the Boston Red Sox.
After those tough two road starts, he bounced back Sunday in Oakland to secure his first major league win, blanking the Kansas City Royals over a little more than five innings of work.
The win had to feel good for Koenig after his winding, improbable road to the big leagues. Still, being in the majors comes with its own daunting set of anxieties.
“There’s a little more pressure, because there’s nowhere else to go,” he said. “I think that’s a factor people tend to ignore.”
Ahead of a six-game homestand, Koenig spoke with Lookout about what it’s like to finally arrive in the MLB, maintaining balance with constant changes of scenery, and looking back at the many stops he made along his journey.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Lookout: I’m sure you’ve done this plenty already, but walk me through the moment you got the call.
Jared Koenig: So, it was Saturday, June 4. We got done with BP [batting practice] and on our board, I saw we had a team meeting, and I thought it would just be some kind of random talk or whatever. We’d been playing well, so who knows? I went and snagged a bit of food and moseyed on into the locker room. While we’re all sitting there, [Stephen] Vogt got up and thanked everyone for allowing him in and letting him be a part of the team while he was rehabbing.
While he’s talking, [fellow pitcher] Zach Logue is sitting next to me and says he thinks someone’s getting called up and that it’s probably me. I just said, “No, no, he’s just talking,” but then I saw someone recording and thought maybe there was a possibility that someone gets called up, but I know Vogt wants to be a manager in the future so maybe he just wanted to have something to look back on.
So he finishes up a little later and we start to clap and he says he forgot to mention one thing, and that is that it’s so cool to go to the big leagues, and everyone’s got a different path. Then he just says my name and says, “You’re going to the big leagues,” and then I just 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.
Lookout: Of course, after this long road to the majors, you have to face the defending world champs [Atlanta Braves] in your debut, and then the 2018 world champs [Boston Red Sox] right after. How do you stay calm?
Koenig: To be honest, I didn’t really process the defending champions part until after. I kind of just went about it and knew I needed to go out there and do what I can. It’s a tough lineup all the way through, but I kind of just went about it. I mean, I was as nervous as could be and I tried to be as stoked as possible out there, but it was definitely hard to think on the mound and do what I normally do when I’m pitching.
Still, it was so much fun. You know, you only get that first outing opportunity once, and it was special. It’s also definitely fun to do it against a good team so that it tells me, and hopefully others, that I can get out there and I can do this. Just gotta get a little deeper into the games right now.
Lookout: Going from the minor leagues to the majors is such a huge change — what are some of the biggest differences for you?
Koenig: Well, for starters, 42,000 fans in Atlanta is a big difference! But otherwise, I think the hitters just understand the strike zone and the plate a bit more. They don’t swing and miss as much, their pitch recognition is better so they react quicker and can hold their swing up at the last minute much more effectively.
Another thing is that up here, you’re at the top now. There’s a little more pressure because there’s nowhere else to go. That’s actually something that Vogt mentioned, and I think that’s a factor that people tend to ignore when they talk about things in the majors.
I’m just trying to adjust quickly. I don’t think I’ve felt quite fully comfortable just yet, which I know I’m not expected to, but I just want myself to be as comfortable as possible as soon as possible.
Lookout: Having played all over the place, how are you able to keep your approach and routine steady when you have different teammates on different teams so frequently?
Koenig: It’s definitely tough to create rhythm with the catchers each time, especially those who haven’t caught me. Even when I came up to the A’s, I hadn’t had Murph [Oakland A’s catcher Sean Murphy] catch me before, so that’s a situation where he and I just have to continue to figure each other out and understand what we’re doing. But really, it’s always been continuously working to figure things out and lay out for myself what I have to do to get to that next level.
I wasn’t a big reach-out-to-people kind of person, and kind of tried to let my game speak for itself. I wasn’t trying to go bug people, I kind of wanted people to recognize it, if that makes sense. So, it wasn’t even in an arrogant manner, I just felt that I’m here to do my job and if I’m doing my job, then someone has to notice.
Lookout: Is there any place that you thought was the hardest to play? Do you have a favorite?
Koenig: The hardest to play, I would say, was Salina [Salina Stockade, an independent league team in Salina, Kansas]. I was 23 at the time and was only there for like, five weeks, and this was my first year of professional baseball. So going up there and learning what I’m supposed to do and adjusting to the professional baseball aspect was a challenge. You’re up there facing former Triple-A players, and I think even a couple of big leaguers were there, too.
I had two good starts, and that was pretty much it. It was tough because I was trying to figure it out since I hadn’t been that bad in a long time. I had also thrown a lot that season already and had traveled a lot compared to what I was used to, so my body wasn’t quite adjusted, either. That, to me, was the toughest part, but I also think that’s just part of the growing experience.
Australia was great, but New Zealand was freakin’ awesome. I really enjoyed my time there. Baseball is a learning sport over there, and there’s some good, talented athletes there for baseball and it’s just continuing to grow as a sport. You’ll definitely be seeing more people coming from New Zealand and Australia. While I was pitching there, from Week 1 to Week 5, the fan base grew tenfold. That experience was amazing, it’s cool to see the culture and how baseball is evolving and growing out there. Just going to see a different country was something I wanted to do, and I don’t think I could have picked a better one for my first time out of the U.S.
Lookout: Bringing it back to Santa Cruz County, did you have a favorite or least favorite field to play at while at Aptos High?
Koenig: I think Harbor’s field, which is turf now but wasn’t then, was always wet and if it rained, there was no chance we were playing. But I think all of the fields were pretty reasonable given they were public school fields, and I feel that people were invested in them. Coaches that were running the teams cared about the field and did what they could to keep them up. I think the whole community did a great job with it, because none of the fields were like, terrible.
Lookout: When I played at Santa Cruz High, we definitely fixed our field up over the years. Finally got decent batting cages and a nicer bullpen.
Koenig: I will say, the visitors’ bullpen there was probably one of the worst.
Lookout: I think it had to have been. So as you make the most of your time in the bigs, what do you miss about home?
Koenig: The biggest thing is just my family and our dog. Santa Cruz is great and all, but it is very expensive so it’s tough to miss that part of it. But it’s great being next to the beach and having that temperate weather. Even though it’s been really warm lately, that nice, consistent weather is something you definitely enjoy when you’re in the middle of a season.
Lookout: What’s your main focus as you continue adjusting to major league play?
Koenig: Just keep building confidence, to know that I belong up here, and that I can be successful here. I just have to stay within myself and continue to be a pitcher because that’s what got me here. I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing and build off of that.