I’m realizing now that it might be easier to just write about the high school pitchers that aren’t wild cards. I’ll still get to those wild cards later this week, but let’s first talk about the two clear cut top names on just about everybody’s HS pitching list.
First we have Brady Aiken, the polished yet still ascending lefthander drawing heady yet not totally undeserved comps to a young Clayton Kershaw. Those comps, by the way, are fascinating to me because, while I acknowledge the danger in hyping up any HS arm to that degree, it is a pretty damn good reference point. Per Baseball America’s pre-draft scouting report, Kershaw went from a second/third round pick to the consensus number one high school prospect after emerging as a senior. That doesn’t sound entirely dissimilar to Aiken’s last six months developmentally. The frames are really similar (6-4, 200ish pounds with weight distributed similarly), deliveries both smooth, performances equally dominating, and, most importantly, the two have/had stuff that matches up well (Kershaw’s 90-96 FB and plus CB are both cited in the BA report). Both were/are also considered exceptional athletes with above-average or better deception and command, not to mention potentially decent hitting pitchers. They also both share the strong chance for a third above-average pitch in a changeup, though Aiken’s experimental mid- to upper-80s cutter gives him one extra pitch to play with than a young Kershaw. I’ve tried to get somebody to go on the record and say that the Aiken/Kershaw comparison is ridiculous, but nobody is willing to go that far. Doesn’t make them clones, of course, but it’s not as outlandish as comparing any 17-year old to the best American pitcher alive seems at first.
Looking back at things I’ve done for the site over the years reveals some some similarities between Aiken and Matt Krook (Oregon), Max Fried (Padres), James Paxton (Mariners), and Henry Owens (Red Sox). One comp that I’ve heard that I like is a young, pre-cutter Andy Pettitte. I could see that. I think a more physical Matt Moore is the comp I’m going with. Aiken is a little bigger, little stronger, and a little more advanced as a pitcher at the same age, but I think that’s a pretty good match.
We also have Tyler Kolek. So much is made every year about how amateur coaches mistreat star pitchers, selfishly preferring to extract as much present value from the gifted arms handed to them rather than doing whatever possible to ensure long, healthy, and well-paid careers for the young men with the actual talent and big league dreams. I don’t personally harp on it too much because I find the moralizing — and, yeah, I just re-read my previous sentence and can see the hypocrisy, thanks — positively draining after a while. Blowing up Twitter with virtual disappointed finger wags at coaches who run guys out for 130+ pitch outings doesn’t do a damn bit of good, so just stick with mentioning what happened, why it’s not good, how it could impact the prospect’s draft stock, and save the morally superior routine for something that really matters. ANYWAY, with so much focus on the coaching staffs that chew arms up and spit them out, it’s only right to highlight a school doing right by its star player. By all accounts, the staff at Shepherd HS in Texas has taken every measure to keep Tyler Kolek happy, healthy, and throwing gas. It’s a win-win-win situation (team, player, sport) that deserves more recognition than it has received.
Kolek’s most popular comp is Jonathan Gray. Again, like the Aiken/Kershaw comp, there is a reason why this particular comp has picked up steam. Man strength, plus-plus heat, plus hard breaking ball, usable change, and a better idea on how to pitch than most young power arms are all qualities that the two young pitchers share. Many of Gray’s comps from last year — think of a continuum moving from Garrett Richards to Gerrit Cole to Roger Clemens — apply to Kolek this year. A pre-injury Dustin McGowan goes down as one of the most interesting comps I have heard for Kolek. You could also add on any other big Texan to his comp list; my preferences are the very obvious Josh Beckett and the slightly less obvious but no less applicable Homer Bailey. Another fun one I’ve heard: the decidedly un-Texan RHP Andy Benes. As with any high school pitcher there is a wide range of outcomes, but the kind of present stuff that Kolek shows has made me a believer that whatever path he winds up on will be a good one.
There really aren’t a lot of recent draft comps for a 6-6, 250+ pound prep righty capable of hitting triple digits, so any name you read here is admittedly a stretch. Fifteen minutes through the archives and all I’ve got are Archie Bradley, Chris Jenkins, and Lucas Giolito. I’d say that’s two shining beacons of light sandwiched between a cautionary tale. Like everybody, I liked Bradley a ton and LOVED Giolito, so I think a spot in between them in terms of amateur draft stock is fair (i.e. I’d rank them Giolito, Kolek, Bradley). You could make a case for Kolek being behind Bradley as a draft prospect (better athlete), but I prefer each of Kolek’s most often used pitches (FB/breaking ball/CU) better at this point than Bradley’s at a similar stage of development. If you’re telling me that I can get Kolek’s current repertoire and give him Bradley’s developmental track as a pitcher, then I’m thinking long and hard about using a top three pick on him. It’s certainly possible.
I’ve gotten over most of my worries about Kolek’s maxed out frame and limited athleticism, and learned to appreciate his explosive fastball (nothing below 94 much of the spring, easy upper-90s peak), nasty mid- to upper-80s cut-slider, and super firm changeup as being a blend of pro-ball ready stuff that will give him the rare high HS pitcher floor. The upside is obvious and tantalizing, but when your worst case scenario (injuries excepted) is becoming a dominant closer, you’re a pretty good prospect.