Kolek grown from same blue-collar Texas roots as Ryan
Hall of Famer sees a lot of his young self in Marlins' top pick, only with more polish
Tyler Kolek never saw Nolan Ryan pitch. He wasn't born until after Ryan retired. But like any right-minded Texan with the ability to throw a baseball through a bale of hay, Kolek grew up idolizing Ryan.
These days, however, it's Ryan who sounds in awe of Kolek.
In his role as executive advisor with the Astros, Ryan was in the stands when Kolek's Shepherd High School team lost a playoff game a month ago. He met with Kolek and his family afterward and came away from that experience convinced that Kolek is going to be a special pitcher.
"Who he reminds me of in some ways is Jim Thome -- his demeanor, his values," Ryan said on Thursday, before the Astros bypassed Kolek to select Brady Aiken with the first overall pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. "The thing about Tyler is he's very unique, from the standpoint he's so big that he controls his body as well as he does on the mound and he has such good arm speed."
Most mock drafts had the Marlins taking North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon with the second pick. As an advanced college arm, there was some thought he could even help surprising Miami chase a playoff spot this year. But an arm like Kolek's demands a little patience.
After weighing the two options, the Marlins decided they couldn't pass on the next Nolan Ryan.
The original Ryan doesn't think they'll have to wait that long for Kolek to complete his development. If Ryan is right, he could be working alongside Jose Fernandez shortly after Fernandez returns from Tommy John surgery.
"The thing I like about him is when you watch him pitch, he's around the plate," Ryan said. "He's not bouncing balls, throwing stuff up on the backstop and things of that nature. I predict he's going to come quicker than people think."
Ryan, of course, might be biased a little toward Kolek. They're cut from the same cloth, and Kolek was thrilled when Ryan took the time to get to talk to him after the playoff game last month.
"It meant the entire world to me," Kolek told MLB Network. "It was something I've always dreamed about but I never knew if it would actually happen."
Kolek has the kind of arm that scouts see in their wildest dreams. He has been billed as the hardest thrower ever coming out of high school, with his fastball clocked at 102-mph earlier this season. Kolek was consistently 95-96 with a high of 98 the night that Ryan drove Astros manager Bo Porter and bench coach Dave Trembley to watch him.
At 6-foot-5 and somewhere around 250 pounds, Kolek is starting his career with a markedly thicker body than Ryan and Roger Clemens had when they signed with the Mets and Red Sox, respectively. But he's not just a big country kid who pumps gas. Kolek has worked privately with pitching coach Reese Smith since his freshman year of high school, and in the last few years, he has participated in showcases with the best teenage players in the country.
Kolek is equipped with the full Nolan Ryan starter kit, yes, but he's also a lot more polished and poised.
"What I see in him vs. where I was at 18 years old in high school is he has a better delivery, better command, better feel for a breaking ball and a changeup," Ryan said. "When I look at Tyler, he's around the plate. I think his slider is better than people give him credit for. I think when he gets [into pro ball], he's going to develop a better slider and be more consistent with it. But he's around the plate where he doesn't get swings and misses at balls way out of the strike zone."
Kolek's father runs a cattle ranch about an hour northeast of Houston. He has always done chores to help out, working outside in freezing weather and the long, relentless 100-degree days of summer.
"It's always better to have rougher hands than [skin soft ones]," Kolek told MLB Network. "I believe it makes you tougher when you have to grow up and go outside and do hard labor."
There's a parallel here to Ryan, who would help his father on a second job delivering the Houston Post before going to class at Alvin High School. But the last couple of years, Kolek has added a piece Ryan didn't have growing up. He has been making a round-trip drive of two hours a few times a week to tackle workouts at the Texas Sports Medicine Center, and he appears to be in phenomenal shape.
"His accountability is really phenomenal," said Dennis Fay, his conditioning coach. "His work ethic, if you ask him to do something he'll do it twice as hard as you want him to do it."
Ryan never scouted Aiken in person.
"Only on video," he said.
Ryan knew the Astros' scouts were leaning toward Aiken as the Draft approached even if selecting a Ryan clone from outside of Houston might have been the more popular choice.
"When you compare, he's just more advanced at this time," Ryan said of Aiken, who draws comparisons to Cliff Lee. "He really is under control -- controls his body, has a breaking ball and fastball, but not to the level Tyler has. From the development standpoint, he's further down the road, but you don't know if that's going to equate on the Major League level."
There probably wasn't a wrong answer in the question of Aiken vs. Kolek. The years ahead will tell, but we're calling it a win-win.
Factor in how happy the White Sox are to get Rodon with the third pick and this might be the rarest of situations -- the win-win-win.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.