Photo: Perfect Game

So Cal lefty projects at No. 1

Jeff Dahn

Published: Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Also see: Todd Gold Brady Aiken game report from April 16 in the PG scout blogs

As the moment unwrapped in front of him at Petco Park in downtown San Diego during the early evening of August 11, Brady Aiken could not have imagined a more perfect place to be.

A star left-handed pitcher from nearby Cardiff by the Sea, Calif., Aiken had been selected to be the starting pitcher for the West team at the 11th annual Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings. A crowd of more than 7,000 was on hand and television cameras from the MLB Network zoomed in on the action.

“That was definitely one of the highlights of my life,” Aiken told Perfect Game during a telephone conversation this week. “Just getting picked to play in that game is a complete honor, and then getting the start in my hometown in front of a bunch of family and friends meant a whole lot to me.

“It was really cool and I appreciate Perfect Game for everything they’ve done. Getting chosen for that game was an honor and getting to pitch in that game was an honor; it was a great experience.”

Getting the start at the All-American Classic in front of his hometown family, friends and fans was indeed an honor for the 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego. But it will pale in comparison to a distinction Aiken could potentially earn on June 5 as the No. 1 overall pick in the first round at the 2014 MLB June Amateur First-Year Player Draft.

When Aiken last threw in front of radar guns in late summer, his fastball generally ranged from 88-92 miles-per-hour and topped out 93 mph; he hit 92 at both the All-American Classic and the Perfect Game National Showcase in mid-June.

He was generally included in the same conversations with the other top 2014 high school left-handers, including Hawaii’s Kodi Medeiros, Florida’s Foster Griffin, Georgia’s Mac Marshall, Arizona’s Alex Verdugo, and Tennessee’s Justus Sheffield.

This spring after six starts for Cathedral Catholic in which that same fastball was reportedly sitting 93-95 and topping out at 97, Aiken has risen to the lead role in that conversation, while his draft stock skyrocketed.

Perfect Game director of crosschecker Allan Simpson projects the Houston Astros will select Aiken with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft in front of Texas prep right-hander Tyler Kolek, North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon and East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman.

Simpson wrote he was told by an American League crosschecker that said, “Aiken really separated himself with the way he performed in a couple of outings (this spring). He had great stuff with his fastball touching 96-97 to go with an even more dominant breaking ball. He really stood out with his ability to command all his pitches, along with his excellent feel for pitching. Right now, he’s a pretty clear No. 1 for me.”

When Perfect Game scouting supervisor/director of high school coverage Todd Gold crafted his 2014 Draft Focus analysis of Aiken, he wrote: “Aiken checks every box that evaluators look for in a pitching prospect with a clean arm action, a well controlled delivery, ideal size, advanced command, prospect-grade velocity, the ability to manipulate spin on the baseball, a consistently improving changeup and a feel for pitching.”

All the additional attention and scrutiny can sometimes be overwhelming for a high school prospect, but Aiken exudes a unique maturity and understanding of the situation – especially considering that the UCLA signee won’t celebrate his 18th birthday until mid-August, or two months after the draft takes place.

“I try not to focus on what’s going on outside of the field,” he said this week. “I’ve talked to my advisor and I know there have been a couple of (scouts) at the games, but it really doesn’t affect me. I just try to go out there and do what I do and focus on the task at hand.”

It might seem like the spike in velocity Aiken has experienced this spring happened in the blink of eye, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth. The young southpaw has spent months developing a proper workout regimen while also learning to pace himself.

Aiken was a dominant performer on the Team USA 18u National Team that won the 2013 IBAF ‘AAA’/18u World Cup Championship last September in Taiwan. He went 2-1 with a 1.13 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 16 innings over three appearances, including allowing only one run on five hits and striking out 10 in seven innings of work in a 3-2, nine-inning win over Japan in the championship game.

When Aiken returned home from that thrilling but exhausting, once-in-a-lifetime experience, he basically shut himself down.

“When I came back from Taiwan I took a long break; I didn’t throw at all until December,” he said. “I then started getting back into throwing and working my way back onto the mound, and when I got out on the field for the first time I was very impressed with my results. It was a lot of hard work and I’m just glad that everything is going well this spring.”

During the three-plus months Aiken went without picking up a baseball, he wasn’t just sitting on the beach watching the tide roll in. He has been working with trainer Paul Flores at CrossFit East County in La Mesa, Calif., since he was 12 years old and simply intensified his workouts with Flores.

From September into December, he visited CrossFit East County three times a week and worked on developing strength in his core and the lower half of his body while “fine tuning” the upper body strength in his shoulders.

“We were focusing on hips, core and all lower body,” Aiken said. “We worked on basically that for three or four months, strictly trying to get bigger and stronger … and it’s paying off right now; it’s been a big help.” So where, exactly, does that increased velocity really come from?

“Honestly, I think it’s just maturity and strength; I really haven’t done anything different with my mechanics,” he said. “I’m just trying to focus a little more on tuning my mechanics up, getting them a little better, but I’m not making any major changes. I think what’s helped my velocity has been the (added) strength and everything I’ve done in the offseason.”

Or, perhaps more accurately, everything Aiken didn’t do during the offseason, like throwing a baseball. It’s been his experience that teenage pitchers are doing too much, foolishly trying to throw 12 months a year. By taking a little time off a pitcher is able to come back stronger and more refreshed, or as he put it, “really ready to get after it.”

Aiken pointed to the summer of 2011 – before the start of his sophomore year in high school that fall – when he moved to Georgia and played in five PG WWBA National Championship tournaments with the East Cobb Astros and his hometown San Diego Show. He was at two other PG tournaments that year and also participated in the PG National Games Showcase – Class of 2013.

“I could feel toward the end of that summer that I was definitely getting very tired and my arm was getting fatigued,” he recalled. “I learned from that and I started taking time off last summer and two summers ago, and that time off helped, as well.”

There has been much discussion this spring about a perceived “epidemic” of elbow ligament replacement surgeries (Tommy John surgery) particularly at the major league level. The injury issue has come to the fore with hard-throwing teenagers, as well, and has resulted in many top prospects like Aiken to take a proactive approach.

He has met in the past with a physical therapist and participated in a “pre-hab” program that works toward preventing arm injuries. The treatment, according to Aiken, involves a lot of forearm movement with a pulley system and the use of 3- and 4-pound weights to strengthen the forearm. The pre-hab alone, however, won’t prevent injuries from occurring.

“I think that helps a lot, but really taking time off (is the key),” Aiken said, returning to his favorite chorus. “… What I’ve been doing is taking time off after the summer is over and doing workouts with my arm, and then getting back into throwing at a nice and easy pace.”

Whatever it is he’s doing to keep his arm healthy and his fastballs buzzing along at 97 miles per hour, it is certainly working. Aiken and fellow 2013 Perfect Game All-American and UCLA recruit Sean Bouchard helped the Cathedral Catholic Dons to 16 wins in their first 19 games and a No. 19 Perfect Game National High School Top 50 ranking. The Dons’ roster also includes highly ranked juniors Jonathan Pendergast (Pepperdine) and John Cresto (uncommitted).

After six starts, Aiken was 5-0 with a 0.68 ERA, having allowed three earned runs on 13 hits while striking out 59 and walking six in 30 2/3 innings.

“This year has flown by but it’s been a blast,” Aiken said. “It’s been fun and I’ve been excited, and hopefully we can make it all the way and win a CIF title this year for the team and just go from there. It’s been a fun season and I know all of our guys are looking forward to closing it out in a good way, especially the seniors.”

The scouting community is all abuzz with the talk that Aiken could become the first high school left-handed pitcher selected No. 1 overall since the Yankees took North Carolina prep Brien Taylor with the top pick in 1991. Aiken takes a remarkably mature approach when answering any questions in regard to being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

“It’s cool knowing there’s a possibility of that but the draft’s in June and we’re still only in April, so there’s still plenty of time left,” said. “It’s cool but I put it in the back of my mind and don’t really focus on it too much because I know there’s still a lot of time left and anything can happen.”

That starting assignment in the 2013 PG All-American Classic remains a lifetime achievement for now but, as Aiken so astutely points out, anything can happen.

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