By John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Longtime high school coach Rex Berryman calls 16-year-old Bryce Harper an exception.
Two weekends ago, the Nevada high school sophomore made headlines with his decision to forgo his final two years of high school so that he could be eligible for the 2010 Major League Baseball draft.
Harper, a catcher and a pitcher, will earn his GED this summer and enroll in a junior college, where one season of junior college ball could solidify him as a top 5 pick in next year’s MLB draft.
Sports Illustrated recently explored the possible career path for the Las Vegas native and quoted two MLB scouting directors as saying that Harper could have been a top 5 pick in this year’s draft.
Graduating from high school two years earlier than originally anticipated and then being drafted by a professional baseball organization the following year is not common in the United States.
“I’ve coached high school baseball for 38 years and I didn’t see anyone who could skip stages (of their development) and be successful enough to make it to the top of baseball,” said Berryman, who still coaches at Mooreville High.
But graduating from high school and signing with a Major League team at a young age is nothing new in Latin American countries.
“In Latin American you can sign at 16, so it’s kind of the same thing,” said Amory native Brian Reed, a former major leaguer. “In the Sports Illustrated article, the possibility of him (Harper) moving to the Dominican Republic was mentioned.”
With Harper making his move towards Major League Baseball, Northeast Mississippi coaches, players and scouts all had an opinion on Harper’s decision and how he developed into such an exceptional player at an early age.
The Sports Illustrated article highlighted some of the feats Harper has pulled off on the diamond: mashing a 570-foot home run or throwing a 96 mile-per-hour fastball.
“Obviously, he’s a stud,” Reed said after reading the SI article. “He has two more years of high school baseball not to be pitched to at all.”
Because of that very reason, it is probably best for Harper to graduate early from high school.
“I think they had reports out on how good this kid is when he was 12-years-old,” said Nettleton native Shawn Hairald, who scouts for the Kansas City Royals and was previously with the Colorado Rockies. “He’s one of those once in the century kind of guys.”
As a scout, Hairald said he tries “to get a feel” for players as early as their freshman and sophomore years of high school. He first looks to see if a player has the ability to play college baseball and what position(s) the player could excel at on a higher level.
“That gives you enough time to see,” said Hairald, who has been a MLB scout for 11 years. “You got some kids that peak – that’s as good as they are going to get maybe. They don’t keep going forward.
“If you tab the kid early you can see that.”
Harper is such an exceptional talent because, as Hairald says, “A lot of times now you don’t just find a guy with five tools. You try to perfect the ones (tools) you have.
“A lot of the reason why a kid is drafted is because he may be an athlete. You try to project a kid. For example, you look at his bone structure to see how much more weight he can carry comfortably.”
Harper is 6-foot-3, weighs 205 pounds and has enough quickness “to score on wild pitches six times this season from second base,” according to Sports Illustrated.
The scouting and drafting of players is “all based on projection,” Hairald said. “But sometimes it’s a crapshoot.”
A lot of what made Harper into the phenom he is is from all the games he played during his childhood. Yes, he is blessed with extraordinary skills, but for his skills and playing ability to be so far developed at the age of 16, he would certainly have to play a lot.
Sports Illustrated wrote that Harper “has played between 80 and 130 baseball games a year each year for the past seven years.” Not to mention, Harper has traveled throughout the country to play in tournaments.
“The more live pitches he sees the better he’ll become,” said Kirk Presley, who was drafted eighth overall by the New York Mets in the 1993 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
But by playing all those games at an early age will Harper have anything left in the tank? Will he peak too soon? Those are the concerns for young players, such as Harper, who play too many games at an early age.
The great debate
“Dillon Payne played travel ball. Hunter Hill and Matt Herrin have played travel ball. Cole Morse played some,” said Saltillo High baseball coach Johnny Bolen. “You can tell the ones I’m naming are some of the best players I have. Kyle Young, too.
“Some of those guys played a lot of travel baseball.”
That goes to show how much of a role travel baseball plays in a player’s development.
“I think right now, to be honest with you, if these kids don’t play on a tournament team or travel team, they’re so far behind (other players) and can’t catch up,” said Drew Clayton, 45, of Tupelo, who coaches his 10-year-old son Tate’s travel team. “Coaches seem to want you year round.”
However, both Hairald and Reed are in favor of playing other sports during their respective seasons.
“Football really got me ready for baseball,” Reed said. “You get that toughness from playing football.
“I played on the offensive line in football and then afterwards, standing 60 feet, six inches from home plate became nothing.”
As far as travel baseball teams go, Lex Rutledge played on a local travel team that would never go further than seven to eight hours away from Tupelo. This month the Tupelo High pitcher was drafted in the 26th round by the Milwaukee Brewers.
“I think playing 80 games at age 12 would burn you out,” Rutledge said. “It would burn me out. You would be missing out on those summer activities like going to the lake, swimming, and just hanging out.
“I always looked forward to downtime.”
Mooreville High baseball coach Rex Berryman sees the value in playing a lot of travel baseball as a youth, but sees a need to take some time off every once in a while.
“I think it helps them the more you play,” Berryman said. “Also, you get to the point where you need to take some time off.
“We practice three to four weeks in a row then take a day off. There comes a point where you need to take a break.”
As for Berryman’s take on whether Harper will burn out: “With the talent he has, I don’t see him burning out. He probably has God’s gifts that a lot of people don’t have.
“He probably has a lot of drive, too.”
Armful of trouble
Kirk Presley was a phenomenal pitcher out of Tupelo High School. The two-time Daily Journal Player of the Year could hit 96 miles per hour on the radar gun.
The Mets took him with the eighth overall pick in the 1993 draft; the same draft that Alex Rodriguez went No. 1 overall. Two other pitchers taken after Presley that year, however, were the ones that starred in the major leagues.
Presley never made it to “The Show.” In fact, he never made it past Single A.
“Unfortunately, I had some arm injuries early that forced me to retire early,” said Presley, who now at 34 remains involved in the game by coaching an American Legion team.
Presley was the victim of bad luck. As a young adult, his career would come to an end due to arm injuries.
That happens on a regular basis to professional players. Now, severe arm injuries are even starting to happen on a regular basis to kids.
“We didn’t have this kind of travel ball when I was coming around,” Presley said. “I think you’re seeing a lot of injuries in younger kids playing too much.”
Presley recently read an article about renown orthopedic surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, seeing injuries in 12-year-old kids that he used to only see in major league baseball players.
Houston High baseball coach John Ellison said he heard not too long ago of a 13-year-old player having Tommy John (ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction) surgery.
Presley said what has likely caused these arm injuries to kids is that they are throwing too many pitches at one time and are pitching too often.
“These kids are pitching nine to 10 months out of the year and are pitching for too many teams,” Presley said. “With these kids pitching too much, it takes a toll on their arms that are still growing.”
As the coach of his son’s travel team, Clayton said he keeps his pitchers on a 55-65 pitch count for each game and will not throw them in the next game.
Ingomar High pitcher and 2009 Florida Marlins draft selection Josh Hodges said he has played a lot baseball in his lifetime, but his coaches have been careful with how they used him.
“They kept me fresh a lot because I was one of the hardest throwers around for my age,” said Hodges, whose fastball tops off at 94 mph. “I was used enough but I wasn’t overused.”
Tupelo High coach Gary Enis can attest to how Hodges was used during a season. Enis had two stellar senior pitchers this season, Chris Stratton and Rutledge. Together, they combined to throw more than half of the innings the Golden Wave played as a team.
“Some kids mature faster than others,” Enis said. “It’s just something players and coaches need to monitor as they mature as players.”
Of course a lot of what goes into the durability of a pitcher’s arm is just plain luck. Brian Reed made it as far Double A with the Blue Jays’ and Phillies’ organizations before realizing that he “didn’t have many more bullets left” in his arm.
“I never had any arm surgery,” Reed said. “I threw an excessive amount in high school and college. I think the Good Lord put my arm together pretty well.
“It’s kind of a miracle nothing did happen to my arm.”
Stay or go?
For the most part, those interviewed for this story were not in favor of a player forgoing their final two seasons of high school ball to turn pro early.
In fact, Bolen said he would like to see the majority of amateur players play in college through their junior seasons before signing with a pro club.
But as Bolen and others are aware of, each situation for a player is different.
“It becomes a business when you receive a paycheck to play,” said Presley, who signed his first pro contract nearly three months after his high school graduation. “I felt like I made the right decision. I was a top 10 pick in the first round.
“For being drafted in the top couple of rounds, there’s a lot of life-changing money that’s hard for anybody to turn down.”
While Presley opted not to play college baseball, Reed didn’t think he was ready for the big leagues when he was drafted out of Amory High School in the 25th round by the New York Yankees in 1999.
“Being from a small town, it’s a lot harder to go somewhere like that at 18,” Reed said.
Instead, the Amory native played two seasons at Meridian Community College and then two more at the University of Alabama before being drafted in the 27th round by the Blue Jays in 2003.
“The experience I got from college and the friends I met was really worthwhile,” said Reed, who was converted to a reliever at Alabama. “Over those four years, I wouldn’t have made those types of friendships if I had gone straight to the minor leagues.
“If I had to do it again 100 times, I would go to school again 100 times.”
Meanwhile, Hodges recently signed with the Marlins and reported to the club’s spring training facility in Jupiter, Fla. Rutledge, on the other hand, will have a wait-and-see approach before deciding on whether to sign with the Brewers or to play in college.
As a scout, Hairald is often sought after for advice by young players having to choose between signing a pro contract or first playing in college. The advice Hairald would give to Harper is simple.
“Just stay clean,” joked Hairald. “Keep it clean so you don’t end up on the ticker on ESPN one of these days.”