June 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tigers draft profile: Shane Zeile is new to catching, but not baseball, which runs deep in family

Shane Zeile's hitting suffered when he made the transition to catcher, but he rebounded and hit .324 in 2014. (UCLA Athletics)

Editor’s note: Third in a series profiling the Tigers’ top-10-round draft picks for 2014.

Detroit — Most early draft picks have at least an inkling who might pick them. They’ve seen the scouts, talked to front-office folks, taken part in private workouts.

But catcher Shane Zeile, the nephew of long-time major-league Todd Zeile, had no clue the Tigers were after him. So it was a pleasant surprise when he went in the fifth round, 160th overall, to Detroit.

After all, Zeile used to spend the holidays in Marysville, Mich., at his grandmother’s, and figures he has a dozen or so cousins, either in West Michigan or the Upper Peninsula.

“They kind of laid low through everything,” Zeile said of the Tigers, during a recent phone conversation. “It was kind of unexpected. I’m glad they called my name.”

Hearing “Detroit” brought back some great memories from his days as a kid.

Zeile, who turns 21 later this week, is busy wrapping up his junior year at UCLA, with three finals — two in sociology, one in biology. Give him some credit for still taking his studies seriously, even though he’s still likely to skip his senior year, and sign with the Tigers for somewhere around $300,000.

Then it’ll likely be off to Lakeland for Zeile, who is expected to continue to catch as a professional.

He is one of six catchers the Tigers drafted among their 40 picks, though few can likely claim to be as new to the position as Zeile.

In fact, like the Tigers’ current starter, Alex Avila, Zeile didn’t start catching until he arrived in college. He remembers being with his travel team in Walla Walla, Wash., between his freshman and sophomore seasons when his coach, John Savage, called him up.

“Hey,” said Savage, “we’re going to send you a catcher’s mitt.”

It was a matter of circumstance. UCLA had just had two catchers, Tyler Heineman and Trevor Brown, drafted, and both were planning to sign. So UCLA needed a catcher, and Zeile, a utility infielder much of his freshman season, was the choice — even though he hadn’t really put on catching gear since his days in youth baseball.

What a blessing it was. The decision made Zeile an instant starter — he started all 61 games, 57 of them at catcher — and at the end of 2013, there he was, leaping into a pile of Bruins in Omaha, Neb., as UCLA celebrated its first championship in baseball.

“It ended up working out,” Zeile said, with a laugh.

“I was a little bit nervous,” Zeile conceded. “I wasn’t sure how difficult it would be to make the transition. But it ended up being really good. I really enjoy catching. I think it’s my position.”

That’s not to say it didn’t take some work. There were some growing pains. For starters, learning a new position really took up the bulk of Zeile’s time, so his hitting suffered. He went from batting .371 as a freshman to hitting only .226 as a sophomore.

He also only threw out 23 percent of would-be base stealers (15 of 57). But that number jumped to 58 percent (18 of 25) in 2014, and his hitting roared back, too.

As a junior, Zeile batted .324 with a .401 on-base percentage and a career-high 28 RBIs. His 70 hits — including a pair in a 5-0 victory over Michigan on March 2 — were tied for seventh in the Pac-12.

“I’d like to think that the position transition kind of took over and I had to focus on developing as a catcher as a sophomore,” Zeile said of that year’s offensive struggles. “That’s what the team needed, so I had to focus a little more time on that. When I kind of learned the position and got batter, it became more second nature, so I got to focus a little more on my offense.”

The UCLA brass always kept the faith. Zeile, who again started all the games (48 of 56 at catcher). served primarily as UCLA’s No. 3 hitter, and ended up earning All-Pac 12 honors.

Along the way, the Tigers certainly took notice — and now are giving Zeile a chance to follow in his uncle’s footsteps.

Todd Zeile played 16 seasons in the major leagues, mostly with the Cardinals, finishing with 253 homers. Having him as an uncle certainly was beneficial to Shane Zeile, who was best friends with Todd’s son, Garrett, growing up. They’d go to their share of games. Shane also said Todd always was there if he needed him – and he texted him a few times during his time at UCLA.

“He would come to a couple of my college games, and told me what he saw,” Shane Zeile said. “It’s always good to have a family member who played a long time in the bigs.”

Now it’s Shane’s turn to make his own name.

And if that happens in Detroit, well, even better.

“I love the snow,” said Zeile, the lifelong California resident. “I used to ski and snowboard a lot before my baseball career took precedence over everything else. But we used to go up there. My grandma had a big backyard and we’d go sledding. That’s something I looked forward to every year. Michigan kind of gets the seasons we don’t have in Southern California.”

Fortunately, they both have the most important season: Baseball season.

Getting to know ... Shane Zeile

Position: Catcher

Age: 20 (June 14, 1993)

High school: Valencia (Calif.)

College: UCLA

Height/weight: 6-foot-1/191

Bats/throws: Right/right

Career statistics: As a freshman, batted .371 with 10 RBIs in 30 games. … As a sophomore, batted .226 with two homers and 20 RBIs in 61 games, helping UCLA to a national championship. … As a junior, batted .324 with two homers and 28 RBIs in 56 games.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984