PEORIA, Ariz. – The official program at this weekend’s Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) lists Hard 9 shortstop Tristan Hildebrandt at 5-feet, 10-inches tall while weighing in at a solid 170 pounds. That looks about right, even as his height and weight have jumped around from PG event to event over the last two summer seasons.
A minor detail, to be sure. All that needs to be known about Hildebrandt – while staying away from such easy clichés as “dynamite comes in small packages” – is that he is one of the most intriguing prospects at this weekend’s PG/EvoShield Upperclass national championship event.
And when asked what he tells critics who mistakenly imply that his size might work against at him at the next level, he has a direct and to-the-point reply at the ready:
“Just watch me play, that’s what I tell them,” Hildebrandt said Friday afternoon, flashing a determined smile. “I’m not playing basketball; I don’t need to be 6-(foot)-4. I like it – I like being short because then I can go out there and I get to shut everybody up.”
Hildebrandt has shut up his fair share of detractors as this summer progressed. While continuing to show improvement on the field and noticeable increases in strength, he has climbed to No. 207 in the class of 2014 national prospect rankings (No. 33 in California), and is looking to climb higher as the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft approaches in June. Hildebrandt has committed to NCAA Division-I powerhouse Cal State Fullerton and continues to impress the scouting community.
He is out here this weekend with the Hard 9 at the PG/EvoShield Upperclass, and he and his teammates got off to a nice start by beating Iowa Select Red, 4-1, in their tournament opener Friday afternoon at the Peoria Sports Complex. Hildebrandt was 1-for-4 with a double and a run scored while hitting from the leadoff spot in the Hard 9’s batting order.
“Anytime you get a chance to play baseball, it’s better than being in a classroom,” Hildebrandt said when asked if he was looking forward to the weekend. “It’s nice weather, good fields, so it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Hard 9 head coach Marcus Jones brought this team here to compete against many of the best teams in the country, but primarily those from California and Arizona.
“These are always great events that (Perfect Game) puts on,” said Jones, who entered a young Hard 9 team in last weekend’s PG/EvoShield Underclass event. “We use it as a place to showcase our kids and get them seen by as many schools as possible; we look forward to it every time we come to one of (PG’s) events.”
This Hard 9 roster consists of eight prospects from the class of 2014, including Hildebrandt, complemented by five from the 2015 class. They come from eight Southern California high schools – most prominently Esperanza High School in Anaheim and Los Alamitos (Calif.) High School – and the group has played together most of the summer.
“We want to make sure we can bring those juniors back the year after so we have some kind of knowledge of the tournament and how hard it is, and they can tell the other guys what to look for,” Jones said. “It’s better for the guys to explain it than the coaching staff; we put the teams together and we help them as much as possible but they’re the ones out there playing the game. They know what they’re up against.”
Hard 9 right-hander Darren McCaughan, a senior at Los Alamitos from Downey, Calif., joins Hildebrandt as the only other player on the roster that has made a college commitment, his to Long Beach State.
The other guys are still looking, but Jones is sure his two 2014 commits will be joined by several of their Hard 9 commits before all is said and done. In the meantime, they’re just going to continue to love playing the game while they continue to grow and feed off one another.
“They’ve played in enough of these events together and they’re good baseball players,” he said. “We’ll probably have five or six guys that will commit to D-I’s off this team – we’ve got two already – but they’re baseball players and baseball players in general, when you throw them in the mix for a little while they’ll give it to each other and they’re having fun by the end of the day.
“It’s a great group of kids; they’re fun to be around,” he added. “They have fun on the field and they play the game right; it’s fun to watch.”
According to Jones, Hildebrandt and infielder Brian DeJesse – both from Yorba Linda and classmates and teammates at Esperanza High School – provided the backbone to the Hard 9 program when they were only 12 years old.
“Tristan has been with us forever, so he’s the guy; he’s our guy,” said Jones, noting that Hildebrandt can bench-press 300 pounds. “You look at him and he’s kind of a smaller-statured guy but it’s one of those things where you tell people how hard a kid works, and this kid is the hardest worker ever. I’ve never been around a kid that’s worked harder than this guy, and I watch it every day.”
Hildebrandt had what he described at one point as a “long” summer which really got kick-started when he attended the Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis in mid-June. He took part in the USA Baseball Tournament of Stars in Cary, N.C., in late June and also played in a high school league and in other tournaments with the Hard 9.
He had attended the PG Junior National Showcase in 2012, also in Minneapolis, and walked away impressed with PG’s two premier showcase events.
“Just being able to play in the Metrodome is awesome, and the amount of scouts there, the people there, the talent there – it’s second to none; it’s a blessing just being able to be invited there,” Hildebrandt said. “Last year when I was there I had never really seen talent like that, so I worked hard in the offseason and I went back there a little more used to it and I did a little bit better. It’s always the top competition there.”
Hildebrandt considered himself an “average” player when he was a freshman in high school but decided to put in the work necessary to rise in the national rankings. He worked hard to add weight and strength, and took ground balls and hit every day.
He prides himself on his strong work ethic, something he said was instilled in him by his father, Vern Hildebrandt. Vern played two seasons of minor league ball in the Minnesota Twins organization in the 1986 and ‘87.
“He’s the one that got me started playing baseball so I guess you kind of give (all the credit) to him,” Hildebrandt said. “He’s been my coach ever since I can remember; he taught me how to hit, how to field, throw – everything. I’m lucky to have somebody who’s been through it all to kind of help me out.
“I started playing with my brother (Tyler) who is two years older, and when he started, I started,” he continued. “I was playing ‘up’ with him my whole life and I fell in love with it at a young age.”
Hildebrandt is fun to watch. In his second at-bat in the top of the third in Friday’s opener, he drove a 2-1 pitch to left for a double, stole third on the first pitch to McCaughan, and eventually scored when McCaughan singled.
“Skill set-wise, he can flat out pick-it from the infield; he’s got a great arm,” Jones said. “Hitting-wise, even for a little guy, he’s got gap-to-gap power (and) he can leave the yard. He’s just a solid player and when he’s locked in he’s as good as anybody out there.
“He’s not a 4.5 student or anything like that, but he gets his work done. He’s a baseball player and his focus his whole life has been that he wants to play professional baseball.”
Hildebrandt originally committed to Oklahoma but switched course and decided to stay a little closer to home. The Cal State Fullerton main campus is only about 10 minutes from his family’s home in Yorba Linda.
“It was kind of weird how that all fall into place, but I’m happy with it and I can’t wait to go there,” he said. “It will be nice weather all the time, great fans, playing on a nice field. And, I’ll have a chance to go to the College World Series the next couple of years.”
Jones, who pitched in one big league game for the Oakland Athletics in 2000 and pitched a total of six seasons in the A’s minor league system before retiring in 2002, called Hildebrandt’s decision to attend CS Fullerton a “great fit.”
“With (head coach Rick) Vanderhook and those guys over there, Tristan’s that type of player,” he said. “It’s tough for me … because I’m a Long Beach State grad.”
The job at hand this weekend is to win Hard 9’s first Perfect Game national championship.
“They’re all about the competition,” Jones said of his squad. “They want to play against the best guys, they want to see the best guys; they want to see how good these guys are. We have a couple of real good guys as well, and it’s ‘Strap it on, let’s see what they got.
“We want to be here on Monday; that’s plan. We’ve got a tough (pool) … but you’ve got to play the best to get to the end, so let’s do it.”
If comes down to team chemistry, Hildebrand believes the Hard 9 should be the favorites.
“We actually just started playing together a couple of months ago so we’re just starting to get familiar with each other,” he said. “Everybody likes each other so it’s always fun. Obviously, we want to win, but you’ve got to have fun and put everything together at the right time.”