Intrigue around top prospect Tyler Kolek recalls legend of Colt Griffin
Tyler Kolek will almost certainly be a top five pick in this week's MLB draft, but regardless of where the 6-foot-5, 250-pound righthander ultimately lands, the following will be noted with his selection: high school pitchers are a crapshoot. No one will care, though, because Kolek possesses the rare gift and irresistible appeal of a 100 mph fastball.
The warning signs will not deter a team from drafting Kolek, a native of Shepherd, Texas. They certainly have not prevented major league teams from rolling out a high volume of high velocity arms. All that power may be coming with a price, however, as injuries to pitchers have been one of the dominant storylines of the young major league season. Since the start of spring training in mid-February, 19 major league pitchers have required Tommy John surgery, equaling the mark from all of last year.
Kolek's most serious injury to date was a broken arm that cost him most of his junior season at Shepherd High. He had always thrown hard, but when he returned to the mound at a showcase last summer, he suddenly reached triple digits -- and gained a lot more admirers. As he put it in a text message to his coach, Joshua Jackson, after that showcase: "I hit 103 on one gun and now I know half the MLB."
This spring, Kolek has been a spectacle around Shepherd (population: 2,393) and at road games. Scoreboards did not display pitch speed readings, so fans attending his starts began crowding around the two dozen scouts who had their radar guns raised behind home plate. Opposing crowds cheered when batters merely foul-tipped one of Kolek's pitches. He proved he could do more than just throw hard by not allowing a hit in his first three starts, and by the end of May he had a 0.36 ERA, 126 strikeouts and just eight walks allowed in 60⅓ innings.
The teenager who herds cattle and mows hay on his family's ranch and who had planned to accept a scholarship to Texas Christian University started telling people he hoped to see Nolan Ryan scouting him from the stands.
Ryan, a Hall of Famer from Alvin, Texas who is now an adviser with the Astros, is one of the original members of the fraternity of Lone Star State flamethrowers. That impressive group has since grown to include Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Josh Beckett.
Of course, there have been dozens of other pitchers from the state whose names have been forgotten simply because they didn't make it to the major leagues. There is one man, though, who is often still remembered even though he never threw a pitch in the Show: Colt Griffin, purportedly the first high school player ever to throw 100 mph. It was that velocity that created Griffin's career. It may also have been what destroyed it before it ever really began.
Jonathan Colt Griffin is 31 now and back in Texas instead of in the major leagues alongside fellow members of his draft class like Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira and David Wright. The fact that he didn't make it is still hard for some to believe. "I ran into a guy at work the other day and he knew about me," Griffin says in his soft Texas accent with a matter-of-fact tone. "He was just in awe. He was like, 'How'd that happen?'"
"I'm still trying to figure that out," he says, his voice rising to a fever pitch. "It's 13 years later, and it is still just kind of, 'What happened?'"
All those who watched Griffin over his unforgettable 10-week span in the spring of 2001 are likely wondering the same thing. Scouts, agents and executives first heard about Griffin, who had a name perfect for east Texas and a fastball made for the majors, when he was 18 years old. He had begun his senior season at Marshall High as an irrelevant first baseman who had committed to Louisiana Tech and ended it as a high school legend.
It began on a 42-degree night in Natchitoches, La.. Scouts in attendance had gone to watch the opposing pitcher and left in awe of Griffin's mid-90s heat.
"It was a circus from that night on," his coach, Jackie Lloyd, remembers. Lloyd got home that night to see he had missed around 50 phone calls, including one from a stockbroker in Chicago interested in handling Griffin.
A few starts later, pitching on the road in Lufkin, Texas, in front of approximately 100 scouts, Griffin reached 100 mph. "Nowadays, you see more guys throwing 100 mph than I ever have and this is my 29th year in baseball," says Deric Ladnier, Royals scouting director from 2001 to '08. "It was such a novelty back then, kind of like a sideshow."
Legend has it that at one point that season a Henderson, Texas, cop pulled over a man for speeding. The driver told him, "Well, sir, I'm going to watch Colt Griffin pitch." The cop let him off with a warning.
In a tournament game that March, Griffin fired a ball that nicked the bill of the batter's helmet. Lloyd's first thought was, "Shoot, he's killed somebody!" Turns out the batter was just laying on the ground in shock. The boy's mother got the ball and had Colt autograph it.
Griffin reportedly went 8-2 with 110 strikeouts in 63 innings that year, and the Royals drafted him ninth overall. At the time, Kansas City's general manager, Allard Baird, said the team never clocked Griffin at higher than 98 mph, but Ladnier says area scout Gerald Turner did in fact have Griffin in triple digits.
"When you think of a high school kid throwing 100 for the first time," Ladnier says now, "you have these visions of, "OK, wow, we've got the next Nolan Ryan here."
Griffin knew he was far from that level. "Most pitchers [have] been pitching their whole life," he says. "They've got a concept of how to pitch. I didn't. I just knew how to throw 100 mph."
Indeed, Griffin had hardly watched baseball on TV growing up and never seriously contemplated playing professionally. His favorite activity, which he discovered around 11 years old without the help of an adult, was disassembling broken lawnmowers, repairing them and then putting them back together. But when it came to fixing his own mechanics, he left it all up to his new coaches, who wanted him to lower his arm angle to three-quarters to increase the movement on his fastball and add a changeup. Griffin's command, which was never great, and velocity diminished immediately after starting his professional career at low Class A Spokane. To this day, he regrets not trusting his own instincts more and even thinks he should have been a reliever rather than the starter Kansas City wanted him to be.
Though he still threw in the mid-90s, Griffin never managed to reach 100 mph again after that game in Lufkin. "A one-time wonder I guess," he figures. That one pitch set the expectations for every one that followed. Chasing after 100 mph, Griffin tore his shoulder labrum at the end of the 2005 season. After five years in the minors in which he went 19-25 with a 4.79 ERA, he hurt his shoulder again at spring training in 2006 and went home to rehab it. His relationship with the Royals, he says, "just kind of faded away" and he retired at age 22. He was happy it was all over.
"Literally, after surgery, it was to the point that I felt like I forgot how to throw a baseball," he remembers. "It wasn't fun anymore."
This was the first time Griffin had spoken about his career in nine years. In that span, he says he never wondered what would have happened had he thrown 99 mph. "We wouldn't be having this conversation," he says and chuckles. "That one mile an hour, it made everything."
Griffin started a family and eventually became an engineer, fixing parts for an oil company in San Antonio. He still lives partly off the money he made playing baseball, though he doesn't know exactly how much that was. His signing bonus with Kansas City was worth $2.4 million, and it was negotiated by his parents.
Griffin used some of that money to put his older brother Chris through college. Chris went on to become the head coach at Klein Collins High in Spring, Texas. One day this spring he called Colt and told him about another high school righty from Texas who could throw 100 mph named Tyler Kolek. Griffin had never heard of him.
For his part, Kolek has never heard of Colt Griffin, either. The mystery now is whether a dozen years from now anyone will have remembered hearing about him.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Griffin's agent as being Scott Boras. Boras never represented or advised Griffin. SI.com regrets the error.
Hunter Atkins is a freelancer based in New York City who has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, ESPN The Magazine and Rolling Stone. Follow him on Twitter.