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.
"I think it's a little bit of a fluke, to be honest," Oakland Athletics assistant general manager Farhan Zaidi said. "The rest and the need for short-term dividends is part of it, but I think if the most talented guy is a high school pitcher, he'd get taken."
The thinking goes like this: College players are more proven commodities, with a deeper body of work both on the field and off. They're closer to making an impact at the big-league level, which is often a factor when poor teams -- the Astros are drafting No. 1 for a record third straight year -- feel pressure to get a player who can provide a quicker payoff and a bigger PR hit. High school pitchers have proven to take the longest to develop. For the most part, it's safer to project a three-year college pitcher such as Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg reaching the majors quickly and having an easier adjustment to a life with money and freedom.
"It's safer with a college guy, less of a risk, and there's more information available on him," said a scout who asked not to be identified because he's not authorized by his team to discuss particulars of the draft. "There are more unknowns with the high school kids, and baseball is a sport that has always been afraid of change. People don't want to be the first. You've got to hit on the first pick, and it's easier to hit with a college guy."
Not your typical high school arm
And here's where Aiken might be able to turn baseball's calculus on its old-school ear. His career path -- and yes, it has been a calculated path for some time -- is more in line with Bryce Harper's than Brien Taylor's. He did not progress through the analog world of neighborhood and high school baseball. He has been trained -- some might say programmed -- for this moment since his family hired his first personal trainer when he was 12. He exists in a world where advisors -- he and Kolek are both being advised by Casey Close's Excel Sports Management -- keep a raptor's eye on pitch counts, to the point of walking into the dugout to tell the high school coach when it's time to go to the bullpen.
Now, more than three months shy of his 18th birthday, he is polished both on the mound and off and speaks with reporters with the earnestness and image-consciousness of a 30-year-old looking to market his personal brand. He says the onslaught of scouts at each of his games has been beneficial to his Cathedral Catholic High School teammates because "they're getting to be seen too." He says, in slightly Harperesque fashion, "Later on, my goals are to help a team win a championship and, hopefully, make it into the Hall of Fame one day." The Making of Brady Aiken appears to have been both comprehensive and successful.
"Teams have probably seen him 100 times," said John Manuel, who has covered amateur baseball for Baseball America for 17 years. "They've had national crosscheckers and area scouts and even international scouts on him. There's an extensive track record, more in line with a college player."
During a time of heightened injury concerns, big league teams might be more open to taking a high school pitcher, especially one whose career has been as highly controlled as Aiken's, with the top pick.
"To be honest, I'm a little surprised teams are more comfortable with a college pitcher at No. 1," said A's pitcher Scott Kazmir, who was taken directly out of high school by the New York Mets with the 15th pick of the 2002 draft. "We all know how much they can tax their arms at Division I. You see a lot of guys getting overworked, and that's obviously a major concern."
On Friday, a handful of scouts jammed themselves into the space between the snack shack and the backstop behind home plate at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, California, to watch Aiken's final start before the draft. The top five teams were represented, and Aiken didn't offer any surprises. He dominated the way they -- and he -- have come to expect.
Asked to make his case for becoming the first high school pitcher to be taken first in 23 years, Aiken said, "I worked harder than everyone. I did everything I could in my power. I love the game. I'm a gamer. I did everything I can to win."
Will it be enough? In the end, will the Astros go the presumably safer route and take North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon, the consensus best player before an inconsistent season lowered his stock ever so slightly?
"It very well could be Aiken this year," the scout said. "He could be the safest high school guy in a while. It could also be Kolek. If you like 6-foot-5, 275 pounds and 100 mph, he's your guy. But Aiken is probably more advanced."
As the scouts elbowed for the minuscule space on Friday at Granite Hills, one scout from a team drafting far below the expected Aiken zone was met with some good-natured, inside-the-establishment razzing.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he was asked.
The scout shrugged and said, "Hey, you never know -- you guys might screw up, and he might fall to us."