Jarred Kelenic stands out in the 2018 high school draft class for his power, but he's athletic and has the potential for at least average tools, if not better, across the board. He enhances his tools with a strong work ethic, including morning workouts at the same indoor facility that NFL all-pro lineman J.J. Watt uses for offseason training. (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
There's a hint of purple in Jarred Kelenic's white batting gloves.
Playing at Blair Field in early August, being in Long Beach for the third straight year, seeing the palm trees, feeling the warmth of the Southern California rays—Kelenic can't help but think of him. The Area Code Games was Bob Leibhan's favorite event to watch his grandson play in, a sunny excursion away from North Dakota. Purple was his favorite color.
Leibhan died last May while watching his beloved Minnesota Twins on TV. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. His death was believed to have been caused by an aneurysm.
Kelenic, a rising high school senior from Waukesha, Wis., still carries his grandfather with him—and not just in the form of his purple-and-white batting gloves. It's in his countenance, the way he approaches the game of baseball and life. Kelenic is one of the top prep hitters in the 2018 class, a physical, toned 6-foot-1, 195-pound outfield prospect with five-tool potential. But talk to coaches, evaluators, teammates or anyone around Kelenic and they'll talk about his edge, his world-beating competitiveness, his insatiable hunger.
"I don't like to lose," he said, flatly, following a win for his White Sox team at Area Codes. "If I'm playing you in checkers or chess, I'm going to beat you. Bad. I'm going to bury you. That's something to take pride in. Just this last game, we're up by one. Do we really need one more run in the last inning? Well, I'm gonna score because I want to bury you."
Kelenic's grandfather was the same way. A former fast-pitch softball player and an umpire for many years, Leibhan instilled in young Jarred a love for baseball—and, more importantly, a love for competing.
"He was somebody who taught me how to compete in anything that we did," Kelenic said. "When I played basketball and baseball and football with him, he never let me win, and that was the right way to handle it. Because now that I'm here, I'm not going to let you win."
For Kelenic, that approach begins off the field, at home, every morning at 4:45. He'll wake up, report to his personal trainer at 5:15, work out until 7:30, shower, go to school, go home, eat a quick meal, hit for two hours in a batting cage, go home again, do homework, sleep, rinse, wash, repeat.
Kelenic's father, Tom, a general contractor, has built two multi-million dollar training facilities in Waukesha within the last three years, and Jarred takes full advantage of them—especially given that the weather in Wisconsin is often too cold to play outdoors. One of the facilities includes an all-turf infield with 12 batting cages upstairs and four downstairs. The other, a 43,000 square-foot facility owned by training company NX Level, routinely hosts 30 to 40 NFL players and many MLB players, as well.
The most prominent presence at NX Level is Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, a Waukesha native and widely considered one of—if not the best—defensive players in football. The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Watt works with a different trainer than Kelenic does, but Kelenic has gotten to know Watt and has seen firsthand the kind of work ethic required to excel in professional sports.
In some ways, Kelenic looks like a younger, smaller Watt in terms of his strength and muscle tone.
"To see a guy like that who's the best defensive player in the league and to see how hard he works and where he's at, it's just another person to motivate yourself," Kelenic said. "It's a blessing to have, and I don't take it for granted, either. Because there are a lot of kids who don't have that.
Added Tom Kelenic: "I think (Watt) drives everybody in there. Even as old as I am, to get to see him pushing different things—it's inspiring."
Inspiration isn't hard to come by for Kelenic. There's always something revving his motor.
Something To Prove
He's heard the criticism already. They all have.
Any player who hails from the Midwest, and particularly from Wisconsin, has an automatic knock against him in scouting circles. The competition isn't as strong, they can't play as much in the cool weather, there's little track record for success—Kelenic has heard it all.
"A lot of people look down at us. Like, 'They don't have the weather,' or, 'They don't have the facilities.' That's not true," Kelenic said from sunny Long Beach. "Guys out here, they can come out and play 365 days a year when it's sunny out. Where I'm from, (by) October you can't play outside anymore. But I look at it as another opportunity. I have the facilities. I'm just as prepared if not better than the guys down south."
There's recent precedent in Kelenic's favor; the tide may be turning for Midwest players. In this year's draft, Jeren Kendall, a native of Holmen, Wis., was drafted with the 23rd overall pick by the Dodgers out of Vanderbilt. In 2016, Louisville outfielder Corey Ray became the first Chicago-based player taken in the first five picks of the draft since 1989. In that same draft, the Dodgers took Wisconsin prep shortstop Gavin Lux with the 20th overall pick, and the Twins drafted Wisconsin prep catcher Ben Rortvedt in the second round.
Kelenic wants to be the next in line.
"He wants to be drafted higher than Gavin Lux or Corey Ray," said John Sarna, a coach in the greater Chicago area and a board member of the Chicago Scouts Association. "We constantly talk about the Corey Rays and Gavin Luxes, and we keep striving. That's what we need. We don't want to be content."
Though the draft remains many months away and there's still a spring season to play, Kelenic, a Louisville commit, has shown top-of-the-draft promise with one of the best pure bats in the class. His powerful lefthanded stroke was on display throughout the Area Code Games and in the Perfect Game All-American Classic in San Diego.
"He's got everything," Sarna said. "Plus arm. Plus speed. He's gonna hit for power. The thing that some people might knock is the average, but he's tooled out. He's got a high ceiling. He's got the motor. He wants it."
And that motor is what could ultimately set him apart. Sarna compared him to a Chase Utley kind of player. He doesn't just want to excel. He wants to be the best player on the field. He gets that from his grandfather.
Leibhan's impact wasn't lost on Kelenic as he competed at Area Codes; he was very mindful of it. And in late August, Kelenic will have the opportunity to play with USA Baseball's 18U National Team at Target Field—home of the Twins.
His grandfather's favorite team.
"It'll be pretty special," Kelenic said. "Though he can't physically be there, he'll still be there."
He's always there.