MINNEAPOLIS–The lineage of country-strong, big-bodied Texas righthanders with overpowering fastballs runs deep. Every few years, a Kerry Wood, Josh Beckett, Jameson Taillon or Kohl Stewart adds to the mystique of Texas heat.
After his performances in the first big showcase events of the summer, rising senior Tyler Kolek might be the next in line. Kolek showed 96-99 mph velocity at an Area Code Games tryout in early June, touched 97 at the Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis, then showed the same velocity at USA Baseball’s Tournament of Stars in North Carolina last week. His summer will continue with more showcases and playing for his travel team, the Houston Heat.
“I knew I would get a little attention, but I didn’t think I would get this much,” Kolek said. “My phone hasn’t stopped ringing.”
The past four months have been a whirlwind for the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder, who draws physical comparisons to Oklahoma righthander Jonathan Gray, the third overall pick in the 2013 draft. After emerging as a sophomore at Shepherd (Texas) High, when he hit 91 mph, Kolek had a strong start to his junior year this spring. In his first 18 innings, he netted 42 strikeouts (78 percent of outs) against 13 walks and only six hits. His fastball sat in the low 90s and touched 94.
On March 12, Kolek dominated eventual district champion Hargrave High of Huffman, Texas, for six innings, with 13 strikeouts against one hit. He moved to first base for the seventh inning, when an errant throw sent him across first base, causing a collision with the baserunner. His left arm was broken.
“The bone was an eyelash away from sticking out of the skin,” Shepherd athletic director Chip Keel said.
For the next seven weeks, Kolek’s arm was in a cast.
“As soon as I got out of my cast I was throwing again,” he said. “I couldn’t wait.”
Kolek, 17, resumed his 6 a.m. workout regimen, which includes a rigorous long toss schedule, in early May. After a few weeks, he got back on the mound in his barn and said he hit 95 mph. But that wasn’t the transformational experience.
“He sent me a text saying he threw 95 and that was the hardest ever,” said his pitching coach, Reese Smith. “I asked, ‘How hard did you try to throw that?’ He said, ‘I tried to knock the wall down.’ So he shows up for a workout. I had to remind him to play catch with a purpose and don’t try to put so much effort into it.
“I told him to get on the mound and throw 60 percent. He threw 90 (mph). By the end of the night he touched 97. He said, ‘I don’t feel like I could have thrown 97 even if I was trying. I didn’t even feel like I was even throwing 77 percent.’ That was the point. He realized that he doesn’t have to try his hardest on every pitch and he bought in hook, line and sinker.”
A week later, Kolek attended the Texas Rangers Area Code tryouts to face hitters for just the second time since his injury. His fastball sat on the higher end of the 96-99 mph range against his five hitters, according to scouts.
Afterward he returned home to do his chores on the ranch, like bailing hay, before getting back to pitching at PG National just five days later.
The Metrodome buzzed as if Adrian Peterson were on the verge of breaking the NFL rushing record. Kolek did not disappoint. His fastball sat 93-96 mph with good plane and heavy boring action in his first inning of work.
“Actually, I felt I wasn’t throwing very well,” Kolek said. “I figured that if I am not throwing too well then I will try to strike someone out with some breaking pitches. It worked.”
Kolek struck out the second inning’s first hitter on three straight breaking balls, mixing a 78-81 mph slider with good tilt and tight rotation with a mid-70s curveball. He went on to strike out the side, featuring his curveball with good shape. “I have a curveball and a slider, and it always seems like one is working better than the other,” Kolek said. “That day my curveball was working pretty well.”
His fastball never fell below 95 mph and hit 97. “It takes a little while for me to get warm,” Kolek said. “Honestly I think if I had gone another inning I might have gone a little higher.”
Aside from the premium velocity, the way Kolek did it was more impressive. His delivery was athletic, fluid and repeatable.
“He is a plus athlete for how big he is because he has control of his entire body, which is rare for a high school guy his size,” a National League scout said.
Kolek uses a high leg kick, which is uncommon for someone his size, and loads his hips well. He gets over his front side and generates downhill plane with a quick arm from a high three-quarters arm slot. His arm action is clean, his head is quiet and his delivery has good pace. He is filling out his extra-large frame and has strength through his core and muscular legs, developed by work in the weight room and years of strenuous farm labor. His legs and arms are long, even for his height, which helps his stride length and extension.
Smith, who was also Taillon’s pitching coach, said he has never seen a pitcher of the same size have such body control and athleticism in his delivery. They have been working together since Kolek’s freshman year.
“He just didn’t throw athletically in the beginning,” Smith said. “He was just a big boy that was trying to throw hard. He was so big and tall, and had grown so fast. So he was going to be a little bit uncoordinated.”
Kolek grew two inches that year and was 6-foot-4, 225 pounds by baseball season. He has grown another inch in each of the last two years.
“I honestly think I am just now starting to grow into my body,” Kolek said. “I was always growing a lot and it’s always hard to do things when your body is changing. I might have stopped growing now, so I am starting to get into my groove.”
Increased coordination has greatly improved his offspeed pitches. He threw the curveball first but has worked to develop his slider.
“The curveball has good shape but is lacking power right now, which will come,” an American League scout said. “The slider is the better pitch. I wouldn’t have a hard time throwing a future 70 on the slider and a 60 on the curveball (on the 20-80 scouting scale).”
Kolek will have considerably more time to focus on baseball after dropping basketball and football. He had lettered in both sports since his freshman year. A tight end and defensive end in football, he runs a 4.80-second 40-yard-dash and generated interest as a tight end from Division I programs including Utah and Texas Tech. He has committed to Texas Christian for baseball, but if he continues his summer ascent then pro teams will be looking at him at the top of the draft.
Kolek would be the first player ever drafted from Shepherd High, the only high school in a town of about 2,000 people an hour northeast of Houston. And his brother could be the second in 2015. Stephen, an athletic 6-foot-3, 190-pound righthander, sat in the 90-94 mph range with his fastball at the Area Code tryouts and touched the low 90s with a low-80s slider at PG National.
In his free time, Kolek, whose favorite player is Nolan Ryan, loves the outdoors.
“I love hunting, fishing and going swimming in the lake,” Kolek said. “I like to ride around and shoot stuff.”