It’s a Friday evening, and the Shepherd High Pirates are getting ready to play an away game against the Coldspring-Oakhurst Trojans. Over at the bullpen, about a half-dozen pro baseball scouts and a growing number of fans watch as Shepherd’s Tyler Kolek takes his warm-up pitches. The hard-packed dirt crunches as he walks over the mound, which is shaped like a D, its rear side bounded by a chain-link fence and cinder blocks. The whole scene lasts just a few minutes, then Kolek grabs his jersey off the fence and heads to the dugout. But as everyone shuffles back to the bleachers, they’re satisfied that what they’ve heard is true: this big country boy is the best high school right-hander in America.
The crowds (and the number of scouts in the stands, radar guns in hand) have been growing all season, following Kolek’s transformation from a solid prospect to what Shepherd coach Joshua Jackson said could be “a once-in-a-generation-type player.” The 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pound Kolek has signed to play at TCU next year, but all that could change after the Major League Baseball amateur draft, in June, in which he’s projected to be among the top five players chosen.
Kolek shot up the amateur rankings last summer after an eye-popping performance at the Area Code Games, a competition held in Long Beach, California, among the top players in the country, grouped into eight regional teams. At a tryout for the Texas team, in Grand Prairie, organizers pulled together a group of pitchers with the intent of watching them each throw about ten pitches. Kolek needed just two. The coaches stopped the throwing session and put him in the lineup for that night’s scrimmage game, where some reports had him throwing as fast as 102 mph.
That was a good 5 to 10 mph faster than he had thrown in competition before. So what had changed? As an answer, Kolek sticks out a beefy left forearm with a four-inch scar along the inside. “I broke my arm,” he says.
In early 2013 he collided with a base runner while playing first base and snapped a bone in his non-pitching arm. The injury forced him to take a break from sports for the first time in years. He had been a varsity starter in football, basketball, and baseball since his freshman seasons, but now, with some time off, he threw all his energy into getting back in shape for baseball. A few months later, Tyler and his younger brother, Stephen, who is one of the top pitching prospects in the class of 2015, began making regular trips to Texas Sports Medicine Center, in Tomball, to work out with other top players.
Those trips have paid off. In addition to the Area Code Games, he participated in all-star games in San Diego and Chicago last summer, and he’s been dominating the field so far this season. He didn’t allow a single hit in his first three games, and he’s struck out 62 batters in 27 1/3 innings.
Even with those stats, what’s really caught people’s attention is his velocity. There are only a handful of players who can throw more than 100 mph in the major leagues, and it’s nearly unheard of for a high school player. One of the pioneers of that century club was Nolan Ryan, whose 100.9 mph fastball put him in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1974. He also just happens to be Kolek’s favorite player.
So why Ryan, who’s old enough to be Kolek’s grandfather and threw his last major league pitch two years before Kolek was born?
“He’s a Texan. He throws hard. And he’s in the cattle business,” says Kolek, succinctly describing both his idol and himself. Growing up, Kolek raised Red Angus cattle to compete at stock shows and county fairs. His family lives on a 10,000-acre ranch about an hour north of Houston, where his dad manages Trinity River Land & Cattle Company. Ryan is in the same business, running ranches at four locations across Texas and lending his name to a line of all-natural beef.
“I’ve never met him,” says Kolek, who wore Ryan’s No. 34 during some of his all-star appearances. “The best thing would be to have a steak with him. Oh, man, that’d be a dream.”
And it may not be completely out of the question. Ryan is a special adviser to the Houston Astros, who hold the first pick in the upcoming amateur draft. Kolek will be among the players they consider—although the draft is still two months away, and a lot could happen between now and then.
Of course, drafting high school players, especially pitchers, with the top pick carries a lot of risk. A high school star could take five years or more to develop into a legitimate major-league prospect, and a large percentage never make it to that level. That’s one reason why the Astros have had their sights set on a college standout: North Carolina State University left-hander Carlos Rodon. But Rodon has shown trouble with his control recently, and some draft projections no longer rank him as the best player available. If Rodon continues to struggle—and if Kolek continues to hit 100 mph on the radar gun and strike out two out of every three batters he faces—it could make it tough for the Astros to pass on a big-time prospect who grew up nearby.
And if Kolek does get drafted by the Astros, what are the chances that he’ll turn his back on TCU? Pretty good, considering that it’s been more than twenty years since a high school pitcher drafted in the top five picks has decided in favor of college ball. Among the most persuasive reasons for going pro are the signing bonuses, which are mandated by baseball’s collective bargaining agreement and range from $3.5 million to $7 million for top picks. Last year another Houston-area pitcher, Kohl Stewart, passed up a football scholarship at Texas A&M after he was chosen by the Minnesota Twins with the fourth pick. His contract included a signing bonus of $4.5 million.
In Kolek’s case, perhaps the Astros could see fit to throw in a steak dinner with their team’s special adviser. Something prime grade that a pair of hard-throwing Texas cattlemen would appreciate.