Brady Aiken is a bronze-tanned, wide-shouldered 17-year-old who grew up on the beach in San Diego, looks you straight in the eye and throws a baseball as if every pitch is a referendum on his worth as a human being. He's a grown man trapped in a young man's body, which in his case means he pitches with a violent, controlled aggression while still understanding that every pitch he throws as a high school senior is nothing more than an audition for greater and more lucrative days ahead.
From the time Aiken was in eighth or ninth grade, baseball scouts and college coaches have known about his singular talent for throwing a ball, so the idea of being judged pitch-by-pitch is something he views with shrugging acceptance. He is the rarest of species, a 6-foot-3 left-hander with a fastball that can reach 97 mph, an even better curveball, great command, phenomenal composure, precocious ambition and the work ethic of a Depression-era railroad worker.
He has goals -- lofty, end-game goals -- and the most immediate is to be taken by the Houston Astros with the first pick of Thursday's draft. Last fall, after striking out 10 to beat Japan in the gold-medal game of the 18U World Baseball Cup in Taiwan, Aiken called a meeting whose participants alone -- his parents, trainer and adviser -- speak to the highly calibrated nature of his ecosystem.
"This is what I want to happen," Aiken told them. "I want to be the best player in the draft. I want to be the No. 1 guy."
With that proclamation, everyone got right on it. Before this spring, his velocity was seen as the only underwhelming aspect of his resume, so his training -- often before school at 5:30 a.m. -- focused on acquiring a 3-4 mph uptick on his fastball. Mission accomplished: On Friday, in his final high school start before the draft, he sat at 91-93 mph and twice touched 96. His curveball, with its tight spin and considerable depth, is considered his best pitch.
Aiken's repertoire and track record -- he's widely considered the most talented player in the draft -- makes the goal attainable, even likely. However, he and the other top high school pitcher in this draft, Texas triple-digit right-hander Tyler Kolek, are fighting a strange and perhaps random bit of baseball calculus: High school pitchers, for a variety of reasons, few of which have a direct correlation to Aiken, are almost never chosen with the top pick in the draft.
Fear of prep pitching
Just two high school pitchers, both left-handers, have been taken at the top of the draft: David Clyde in 1975 and Brien Taylor in 1991. Both became known for failure: Clyde for failing to live up to preposterous, before-its-time hype; Taylor for getting into a bar fight that destroyed his shoulder and his career.
Even in years when a high school pitcher was universally acknowledged as a can't-miss prospect -- consider 2006, when Luke Hochevar was No. 1 and Clayton Kershaw No. 7 -- teams picking first have done what baseball does best: Stay in their lane and take the conservative, well-worn path of least resistance.