Zac Veen was in the sixth grade when he first caught the attention of Johnny Goodrich — the man who later became his high school coach, mentor and close friend.
Then a 12-year-old baseball fanatic, Veen would often hop off the school bus, gobble down a snack and pedal his bike 20 minutes to the Spruce Creek High practice fields in Port Orange, Fla.
And when his time came, he’d slip into the batting cage and try to match up with the big kids.
“I remember looking into the cage and thinking, ‘Who is this little runt taking swings?” Goodrich recalled with a laugh.
Wednesday, the Rockies selected the left-handed-hitting outfielder in the first round of the MLB draft.
At age 18, Veen was the ninth overall selection in a draft dominated by collegiate players. Hard work, desire and a growth spurt left the “little runt” in the dust.
“I put in the work and I thought I had the skills,” Veen said, “but I had to wait for my body to get bigger and stronger.”
This spring, Veen hit .500 with 15 runs, four doubles, three home runs, 10 RBIs and 17 stolen bases for Spruce Creek prior to the season’s cancelation due the coronavirus. Florida’s 2019-20 Gatorade baseball player of the year, he is now widely viewed as the best high school player in the country.
A silky-smooth swing, strong throwing arm and speed are Veen’s calling cards, but for Goodrich, there’s always been something else at play.
“It wasn’t the skills so much as his pure determination,” Goodrich said. “That’s what I noticed. It was his overwhelming will to be successful.”
Two years ago, however, Veen’s body didn’t match his willpower.
Even after he shot past 6-feet by the end of his sophomore year in 2018, Veen weighed only 145 pounds and was considered too small to make the “A” squad for a traveling summer team. But he never quit.
“I wanted to prove people wrong that didn’t think I was as good as the other kids,” Veen recalled. “I always believed I could be one of the better players in the country and I just really wanted to show everybody what I believed.”
That summer, the “little runt” began to morph into a big dog.
As Veen dedicated himself to the weight room and built up his maturing body, he blossomed as a baseball player, too. He played for the Orlando Scorpions, a prestigious travel baseball club, in the fall. When the Scorpions played in a Perfect Game event in Fort Meyers, Fla., he ranked as Perfect Game’s No. 478 player nationally.
That changed in a heartbeat. The Scorpions reached the semifinals when Veen launched a walk-off home run. He was named the tournament MVP award and climbed nearly 400 spots in the national rankings.
“Vic started to feel like he was one of the best players in the nation and he started to act like it, too,” Goodrich said. “It was a cool transition to witness. I really started to think he might be the best baseball player in the 2020 class.”
Once Veen put himself on the baseball map, he didn’t stop working. In the spring of 2019, he hit .414 as a Spruce Creek junior, with 29 extra-base hits, 26 walks and 32 stolen bases.
All the while, the Rockies were watching.
John Cedarburg, the Rockies’ Central and South Florida area scouting supervisor, had been tracking Veen’s progress for years. The club began to seriously focus on Veen last June. Now the Rockies believe they have snagged a great talent with room to improve, especially as a power hitter.
“He has a fluid, slightly rising swing with the ability to impact the baseball,” said Bill Schmidt, Colorado’s vice president of scouting. “He uses his hands really well. He’s got good, raw power. He’s got good balance, rhythm and timing to his swing.”
The Rockies invested a lot of time talking to those who know Veen best, making sure they knew what makes him tick. They came away impressed and decided to pull the trigger on the high school outfielder. In doing so, Veen became only the third outfielder ever selected by the Rockies with their first draft pick, joining Kyle Parker in 2010 and David Dahl in 2012. He is the 15th high school player ever selected by the Rockies with their first pick.
“I’m a big believer that, if you believe in me, I’m going to give you everything I’ve got,” Veen said. “That’s what I’m going to give Colorado.”
When Veen was a little kid, hitting a plastic ball off the plastic tee, everyone could see he was special. The hand-eye coordination and smile on his face when he sent the ball flying across the living room brought joy to anyone who witnessed it.
But there was something else — something more — that eventually set Veen apart from the other South Florida phenoms.
“He always worked so hard,” said Veen’s mom, Christine Franks. “But it wasn’t just that he worked, he wanted to work hard. He loved it. He thrived on it.”
As a result, Veen has grown into 6-foot-4, 195-pound workhorse.
He has drawn comparisons to MVP winners Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich, as well as Rockies right fielder Charlie Blackmon. And he doesn’t shy away from the challenge.
“I definitely embrace it,” Veen said. “I know I’ll put in the work to try and be one of those players.”
But now comes the grown-up stuff. Assuming Veen signs with the Rockies and forgoes his commitment to the University of Florida, he will be an 18-year-old professional baseball player facing sky-high expectations. He’ll also have to meet failure for the first time, because all baseball players, no matter how talented, take their lumps in the minors.
“Knowing Zac as I do, I really don’t think that part of it is going to be a problem for him,” Goodrich said.
Veen knew that scouts had been watching his every move on the baseball field once he was once of the top-rated prep players in the nation. But rather than dodge any of that, he welcomed it.
“Some kids can get too pressured by all of that, but I thought I handled it really well,” he said. “It almost feels like I don’t have the pressure. I think taking that attitude into pro ball will be really good for me.”