Friday afternoon, I hopped in my family's old Prius, stopped for a Dr. Pepper and set course for Shepherd, TX. The hour-long trip northeast was a quiet one- there was little traffic on the smooth, two-lane asphalt roads that led from Conroe to Shepherd, and the landscape was heavy on dry, sad-looking fauna and light on civilization.
I made great time, getting to my destination almost two hours before the game was scheduled to start, and took the opportunity to poke around the charming small town that is Shepherd. I popped into a gas station to pick up a bag of sunflower seeds, noting a crudely-written, hand-drawn sign posted on the front of the building advertising a pitching machine for sale.
Inside I heard a middle-aged couple trying to recall which brand of mouth tobacco their son had requested and heard the 8-bit bleeps of video slot machines coming from the back of the store. Shepherd is a quintessential Texas town, just like the little burgs such as Fairfield and Buffalo that litter I-45. Navigating it felt like a journey through an episode of Friday Night Lights, symbolizing just how much charm rural Texas has, and reminding me why I'll never stop visiting my home state.
Once I made my way to Shepherd's athletic complex, I sat down in the bleachers behind home plate, surrounded by scouts' bags and notebooks marked with MLB and team insignia. As I sat nervously munching on salt and vinegar seeds and sipping water, the baseball men greeted each other and congregated in little groups talking about the games and players they'd seen recently, occasionally gesturing swings and throwing motions to demonstrate their analysis.
The two teams warmed up, seemingly unfazed by their intimidating company. The players fit the bill of what you'd expect at a Class 3A contest- on the smaller side, but disciplined, reminding me of the scene before the games at my high school when I was a student. I scanned the field for Tyler Kolek, and his 6-foot-5 frame stuck out like a sore thumb. By high level pitching standards he was big, but nothing out of the ordinary. On the field in Shepherd, though, he was nothing short of hulking.
He looked collected, calmly stretching and jogging the outfield before pulling on his jersey and warming up. His demeanor was different from the assassin-like intensity that I saw on Kohl Stewart's game tape- when he took the mound he looked like he felt like the only player on the field. I overheard two scouts chatter next to me, making guesses on what his first warm up pitch would come in at.
The man sitting directly next to me guessed 96 initially before backing off just before Kolek took the hill and changing his estimate to 93. Kolek nonchalantly went into his rapid-fire windup, and in the blink of an eye the ball popped into the catcher's mitt. I peeked at one of the radar guns that surrounded me on all sides- it read 94. He showed little emotion, even as he rared back and shotgunned fastballs that continued to register in the mid 90s on scouts' guns. Even before the bullets were live in the game between Shepherd and Tarkington, I was thoroughly impressed by the young man who had become the pride of his town with his major league-quality performance on the mound.
Right on schedule, the game started officially at 6:30 p.m. After peppering the catcher with pitches in the low-to-mid 90s in warmups, Kolek turned up the heat in the top of the first. My eyes darted back and forth from the mound to the sea of radar guns, and the hype surrounding Kolek was completely validated. The Tarkington hitters stood in tough but could not touch the 6-5 right-hander's heat. The guns were registering pitches at 97 and 98 repeatedly, with one fireball coming in at a round 100 mph.
The triple-digit heater led to a chorus of hushed wows and I saw one scout rush to send a text to document the event. The first two hitters for Tarkington went down on strikes, and I began to wonder if anyone would put the ball in play against Kolek as he continued to hang in the high 90s. That question was quickly answered by Tarkington's No. 3 hitter, who managed to smack a routine grounder to second base that was handled with ease to end the inning.
In the second and third innings, Kolek continued to look utterly dominant. He rarely strayed from his fastball, and struck out all six batters that came to the plate in the two frames. His mammoth fastball continued to hang between 95 and 97, with few pitches coming in at less than 94 mph. He worked quickly and confidently, pounding the zone relentlessly with heat like an 18-year-old Jonathan Gray.
As the game wore on he had some slight command wobbles and ended up hitting three batters, the first drilling a wiry infielder on the arm at a scorching 96 mph. The other two plunks came on offspeed pitches that seemed to get away from Tyler, but he managed smiles as he met with the catcher in attempts to settle down. He did just that, and by the end of his outing he had racked up a ridiculous thirteen punchouts in just five innings, allowing no baserunners outside of the players hit by pitches. Not a single ball left the infield. Tyler had put on an absolute show, and when he left the mound, the scouts funneled out of the ballpark, no doubt thoroughly impressed with the young fireballer's performance- I certainly was.
I came in to the game viewing Kolek as the second best prospect in the 2014 class, and I left with that feeling solidified. Though he's just 18 years old, his 6-5 muscle-bound frame is one that most big league pitchers would envy. His fastball is one of the best you will ever see. He hangs in the mid-90s with ease and pounds the zone when he's in a rhythm. His mechanics are quick, but not violent.
Though he rarely strayed from his heater against Tarkington, his slider has shown significant promise, and in the low 80s it has the potential to make hitters look silly in contrast to his high-90s fastball. His secondary stuff is raw, but no weaker than Jonathan Gray's was last year, and his frame and delivery appeal more to me than Gray's did.
While Gray carried bad weight and relied on lightning fast arm speed, Kolek uses sheer strength and extension to propel his formidable fastball. Though I can't see him surpassing Carlos Rodon on draft boards, he's a hell of a consolation prize for the clubs picking after the Astros, and he could soften the blow to Houston if Rodon blows out his arm. He's just on the same level that Kohl Stewart was last year, and has the potential to be even better if he rounds out his arsenal.