Tyler Kolek's high school career ended on May Day, as his Shepherd High team lost 4-1 against Silsbee High in a Texas 3-A playoff game.
Kolek's defense did him few favors, committing five errors behind him, and he struck out 10. As usual, his fastball hit 100 mph, as it had routinely all spring.
Someone who knows something about velocity was there to comfort Kolek when it was over. Nolan Ryan, now a special adviser to Astros owner Jim Crane, had made the three-hour drive up from Houston to see Kolek. Houston's big league manager, Bo Porter, and bench coach Dave Trembley joined the contingent. As BA correspondent Jose de Jesus Ortiz reported in the Houston Chronicle, fans and scouts alike made room in the crowded Jasper Baseball Park to accommodate Ryan, the archetype of the Texas fireballer.
Kolek is the latest to inherit the mantle of Texas' Next Great Arm, a lineage that includes 1973 No. 1 overall pick David Clyde, who was also the rare fireballing lefthander. Clyde was followed by Roger Clemens, who begat Kerry Wood, who begat Josh Beckett and Homer Bailey and Shelby Miller.
But Kolek is bigger than any of them, a mammoth young man who stands 6-foot-5 and checks in at 250 pounds. As one crosschecker put it, “Power comes from a combination of arm speed and arm strength. This is a big guy with a quick arm.
“Big pitchers can fool you, because they're so big sometimes you don't pick up on it as much as you do with a little guy with a quick arm. But you can't throw 102 mph without arm speed."
In a draft defined by velocity, Kolek is the hardest of the hard throwers. According to scouts we talked to, he is the hardest-throwing high schooler of the draft era.
Again And Again
Kolek didn't just start throwing hard this year. He broke his left arm in a March 2013 game while playing first base and missed the rest of his junior season. The Texas Christian signee hit 90 mph the first time he got back on a mound last May, according to Horned Frogs pitching coach Kirk Saarloos.
“I was thinking, 'This is good, he's healthy, this will be good,' " Saarloos said. “Then I saw him at Area Code (Games) tryouts, and he hit 97 with his first pitch, and I thought, 'Uh-oh.' I saw 102 that day. It was ridiculous."
Kolek has been reaching 100 mph with regularity ever since.
His biggest competition for hardest-throwing prep ever likely would come from Ryan, whom the Mets selected in the 12th round in 1965, the first year of the draft. As a senior at Alvin (Texas) High, Ryan started 27 games and struck out 211. Radar guns weren't part of a scout's equipment bag, but he was throwing plenty hard then, and he topped 100 mph in his big league career on early radar guns. So it's reasonable to think Ryan touched 100 in high school, but it's impossible to know for sure.
Has it really taken nearly 50 years to find a pitcher throwing harder, or at least as hard? Scouts didn't want to talk on the record for this piece, but they all had Kolek stories, such as a scouting director confirming he has never seen an amateur generate a higher radar-gun reading than Kolek.
One area scout said he had seen Kolek eight times this spring, and he hit 100 every time out. This veteran Texas scout called Kolek the hardest-throwing amateur he'd ever seen over a 30-year career, while another longtime evaluator said Kolek was the hardest-throwing amateur he had seen, “without a doubt."
Another veteran Texas area scout invoked Colt Griffin, the Royals' 2001 first-round pick who was hailed as the hardest-throwing prep ever at the time. The scout said he saw Griffin at least six times and never saw more than 98 mph, though BA wrote in 2001 that he was the first high school pitcher ever clocked at 100 mph. Lucas Giolito, the Nationals' first-rounder in 2012, also threw 100, though he soon thereafter had Tommy John surgery and didn't hit 100 with Kolek's consistency.
A third area scout said the game this spring for scouts has been to guess the velocity on Kolek's first warmup pitch. This scout had seen 95 mph, while one crosschecker said he saw 97. So at times, Kolek warms up at almost the same velocity that made Griffin a come-from-nowhere first-rounder who was acclaimed at the time as the hardest-throwing prep pitcher of all time, if not since Ryan.
“I've never seen anything like it in 20 years," another crosschecker said. “I've seen a lot, but it's something special when that '00' comes up on the radar gun. Several guys had 102 at one game I saw, and in the seventh inning he was still throwing 97."
Another area scout countered, “It's not a light 97 either. He's up there throwing bricks at 97, and it comes out easy. It's just wow stuff, and his delivery is cleaner than it was last summer. He's such an outlier."
Unique, In A Good Way
That makes it hard to project what Kolek will be eventually, which matters more at the top of the draft than how hard he throws in high school. Who do scouts compare him to? Will he be better than Griffin, who never advanced past Double-A?
Kolek might be easier to compare to the hardest-throwing college pitchers of recent draft history. Rice righthander Matt Anderson, a regular 100 mph thrower who went No. 1 overall in 1997 to the Tigers, was strictly a reliever. Anderson pitched 256 big league innings, a small return for a No. 1 pick. Billy Koch, the No. 4 overall pick in 1996 out of Clemson, had four productive seasons as a closer before the A's pitched him into the ground in 2002 (he led the majors with 84 appearances and pitched 94 relief innings).
Verlander has been an ace virtually from the start of his big league career in 2006 and remains one of the game's best pitchers, but he's also lithe and more athletic than Kolek. Strasburg resembles Verlander physically and ranks as the draft's hardest thrower, as a starter, sitting 98-99 mph at times and hitting 101 during his junior season in 2009.
Strasburg is the only pitcher scouts can remember hitting 100 mph as frequently as a starter as Kolek has, but the current Nats ace did it as a 21-year-old. Kolek is a massive, coordinated 18-year-old who maintains his delivery enough to produce consistent velocity readings, both over the course of a seven-inning high school game and throughout the spring.
After the May 1 game that ended his season, Kolek got to meet Ryan, who had been his idol growing up, and he could follow Ryan and Clemens into Astros orange. Clemens had the most similar career to Ryan's and even exceeded him, but obviously his ties to PEDs have clouded his legacy. Injuries kept Wood from reaching similar heights, though his 20-strikeout one-hitter in 1998 against the Astros registers as the most dominant start in major league history. Beckett served as the ace of two World Series championship teams (2003 Marlins and 2007 Red Sox) but has left clubs and fans wanting a bit more as he winds down his career with the Dodgers. Bailey has registered a pair of no-hitters but hasn't quite reached ace status.
Kolek is the next Texas fireballer, but he wants to be more. With his amateur career over, he has established himself as the hardest-throwing prep pitcher in draft history. What that means for his long-term success remains to be seen.