If you’re a high school pitcher in the great state of Texas who recently threw 99 MPH, chances are I saw you. Actually, there is no “chance” about it. Last week, I was treated to seeing elite velocity.

My baseball adventures included a trip to nearby Round Rock High School and a day spent at two places – Boerne High School and Marion High School – in different parts of the San Antonio area. And in the process, I put eyes on the No. 2 player in the 2023 Five Tool 55, an infielder who could be in the mix for the top spot in 2024, a right-handed pitcher who is now my top 2022 pitcher, and the No. 4 and No. 11 rated players in the 2022 Five Tool 55. Plus, I watched at least one intriguing unsigned senior, intriguing non-seniors and more. Let’s get to it.

Westlake at Round Rock

ROUND ROCK HIGH SCHOOL – There has been a lot of hype building around 2023 right-handed pitcher and shortstop Travis Sykora for a while. The hype is warranted. At 6-6 and maybe 6-7, Sykora is blessed with a unique combination of athleticism, size and length. He toes the rubber with a presence and a hint of mean, yet under control, competitiveness. Basically, the Texas commitment means business and he’s not there to fool around. Ask fellow 2023 Texas commitment and Westlake outfielder Blake Peterson, who fouled off a heater that came buzzing in up-and-in just inches from his chin.

Unafraid to attack and include a little effort through his finish, Sykora touched 99 MPH in the first of two innings of work on the mound and touched 97 MPH in the second inning. There were unconfirmed reports on the Citizen app of gunshot sounds from the nearby neighborhood. Okay, so I made that last part up but it wouldn’t surprise me. Unfortunately for the teams on Round Rock’s schedule, Sykora’s slider has improved. He threw a few with conviction at 87-88 MPH with true slider shape and some late bite. But make no mistake, one of the nation’s best juniors walks to the mound with a purpose and that purpose is to fire heaters by hitters early and often.

Sykora showed some ability to command the fastball up in the zone and his slider surprised a left-handed hitter because everyone has to gear up for the gas and the slider spin didn’t tip the pitch’s hand early. He moves with surprising smoothness and athleticism – because of his height… we hardly ever see shortstops with his build – defensively. Obviously, the arm is plus-plus on the dirt and Sykora packs some plus raw power into his bat. If he can tap into that more, he could lead the area in homers this season.

There aren’t many high school coaches who are faced with this question, which is actually a blessing: who can catch that kind of stuff and velocity? I don’t know if Round Rock has that answer in Sharpie somewhere, but I know my vote would be for 2023 right-handed hitter Braeden Best. Best moved athletically and energetically behind the dish, offered quiet and confident targets to Sykora and his demeanor partnered with Sykora’s fiery competitiveness well. It’s not easy to catch the lively fastballs a pitcher like Sykora throws even at the college level. I was impressed with Best and he was able to pop out of his stance quickly in the run game and I think his swing has a chance to translate well.

Andrew Hardin, a right-handed pitcher committed to Southwestern, touched 89 MPH from the right side and when he stayed on top of his curveball, it flashed as a futre above-average offering, although the consistency must improve. His velocity dipped in his second inning of work, but he looked like an impact starter for Round Rock. St. Edward’s signee Kyle Cox swung the bat well with developing power in the middle of the Round Rock lineup. Round Rock has the luxury of playing unsigned senior Landon Schroeder at shortstop when Sykora pitches. Schroeder made a backhand play on a tough hop look easy and then in the same inning, he fearlessly and instinctively ranged into shallow left field to snag a pop up. There was a hint of raw power in his swing, too.

Speaking of unsigned seniors, Westlake right-handed pitcher DJ Johnson is someone coaches should get some eyes on. With physical projection remaining and standing around 6-0 or 6-1, Johnson’s skinny right arm fired fastballs up to 87 MPH. His delivery hides the baseball from hitters naturally, allowing his fastball to play up and helping his 69-71 MPH curveball generate some uncomfortable swings and takes; the pitch could certainly tighten up and can be a little loose, but hitters had trouble with it. Regardless, he appeared talented enough to continue pitching after high school and should play a key role for Westlake this season.

From the left side, 2024 Houston commitment Sage Sanders was one of the few Westlake hitters able to get on time against Sykora, and recorded the only hit against the flame-throwing junior – a single up the middle. Later, he bounced back after a strikeout to smack a hard liner up the middle for another single. For a sophomore, he has an advanced feel for hitting. He and teammates like Peterson, who drilled a hard liner into right field for a base hit and has some feel for the barrel, 2023 Aiden Bennett and 2024 Theo Gillen should help create one of the best lineups in the area.

As for Gillen, the athletic left-handed hitting shortstop struggled some to find his timing early, but ended his start with a liner the opposite way that stayed fair and turned into a double. Gillen looks like a plus runner in addition to having plus athleticism and the type of physical build and projection that suggests the sky’s the limit. Although there was some early swing-and-miss present, Gillen’s athleticism shows up in his swing and suggests he’s the type of hitter who can get in the cage and repeat whatever type of swing anyone asks him too. Defensively, Gillen made throws from multiple arm angles and the game came easy to him on the dirt. In terms of the most exciting packages of physical projection, athleticism and tools, Gillen is going to be hard to top in the 2024 class.

Marble Falls at Boerne

BOERNE HIGH SCHOOL – Well, when you see one right-handed pitcher throwing 99 MPH you might as well go see another, right? Only in Texas. On Tuesday, my first stop took me to Boerne High School to see the Cole Phillips experience. Remember a little while back when I wrote about a senior pitcher making a big step and catching MLB Draft helium? Well, it’s obvious who that pitcher is and we weren’t even required to wait until the actual games count. Phillips is that guy.

In the first inning, Phillips, whose work in the weight room adding good muscle showed on the mound, touched 99 MPH and sat relatively comfortably in the 96-99 MPH range. Phillips struck out five-straight batters at one point and finished with seven punchouts across 3.0 no-hit innings. In the third inning, he touched 96 MPH and fired strikes routinely at 93-95 MPH. But Phillips’ velocity wasn’t the thing that impressed me the most.

To begin his outing, the Boerne standout walked one batter and hit another with a fastball that went riding up and in. With some help from junior catcher and Texas State commitment Rashawn Galloway, who picked off a runner at first base with a quick and strong throw, behind the dish, Phillips left the inning unscathed. In the second inning, Phillips started pitching backwards and began spinning 77-83 MPH sliders for strikes; in particular, the righty landed the pitch to his glove side consistently and there were some uncomfortable takes because hitters were gearing up for the heater.

What the usage of his slider allowed Phillips to do was regain his timing and feel for his fastball. It wasn’t a coincidence his fastball control and command immediately improved after Phillips’ arm and hand began spinning breaking balls for strikes. Typically, Phillips throws his slider much harder, often in the mid to upper-80s. However, he purposely took some velocity off to manipulate the shape and quickly used it as an adjustment to get his fastball back on track. That’s heady stuff for a young pitcher and showed Phillips is more than just a guy who can light up the radar gun. He never needed to use it, but Phillips showed a changeup around 86 MPH in warmups with visual two-seam spin and hard tailing action down and away to his armside.

It’s February 17th and the season hasn’t even truly started. So, we, obviously, haven’t seen all the top senior arms in Texas. That said, Phillips would now be my top-rated pitcher in the Lone Star State and while some other arms have emerged a bit slow out of the gates, Phillips has transformed himself physically and his work to become more efficient and easy on the mound has translated, too. A view from the side of Phillips reveals the type of quick arm and easy delivery the home plate view also produces.

Phillips wasn’t the only Boerne standout, though. I’m looking forward to getting a full look at these guys in the future because junior shortstop and Wichita State commitment Cam Johnson looks like a really solid ballplayer with a line drive, high contact approach from the left side. Galloway, a standout football player, showed some raw juice in the batter’s box and some ability behind the dish. Also, keep an eye on junior outfielder Riley Pechecek, who led off and played center field. Coming back from injury after missing last season, the standout football player is an explosive athlete with an intriguing run tool and showed some raw power when he smashed a laser for a double.

Smithson Valley vs. Brandeis

MARION HIGH SCHOOL – Just over an hour away, thanks to Google Maps avoiding I-35 chaos and directing me through a quite pleasant trip of two-lane roads bordered by pretty rolling hills, from Boerne is Marion High School. A couple of programs who know each other well challenged each other during the most competitive, energetic scrimmage I’ve seen to date. Brandeis and Smithson Valley are both led by stud senior position players and senior right-handed starters, but also both feature some intriguing young talent, too.

Since I’ve started at Five Tool, I’ve been trying to get an in-person game look at Brandeis shortstop and Texas signee Jalin Flores. He was out sick during Dodgers Scout Team games in the fall, but the Baseball Gods then delivered a scheduling gift with perfect weather and a start time three hours after Cole Phillips threw in Boerne. I gladly took advantage and was not disappointed.

Was it an extremely loud performance by Flores? No. He’ll have better games at the plate many times throughout the season. That said, I felt very good about ranking Flores as the No. 4 player in the state when I walked back to my car and headed home to Austin. At around 6-3, 190 pounds, Flores is a smooth operator on the diamond. He’s filled out some through his lower half and there is more physical projection remaining.

But the added muscle and mass won’t impact his ability to stick at shortstop, where he should be an average defender at worst with upside for more. Flores played the position with good, clean actions; fluidity; quick, soft hands, and he showed some athleticism, too. The Texas signee also showed a strong arm as he made a couple low-effort throws across the diamond with ease and carry.

At the plate, Flores put the ball in play all five times – hard liner at the center fielder; ground out; jammed and grounded out; fly out to deep right field; line drive single into left field. Against Wichita State signee Tim Arguello, who was up to 90 MPH and attacked hitters with confidence, Flores jumped all over a first-pitch curve during his first at-bat and lined it very hard right at the center fielder, Texas A&M signee Kasen Wells. It was an example of something it appeared like Flores does very well – pitch recognition. He put his bat in motion a lot, and didn’t swing and miss a single time and didn’t chase, either.

Flores’ raw power is interesting and could be even more interesting as he matures, but his swing does tend to create more topspin liners than majestic blasts. That said, the 2022 shortstop does seem to possess some promising hand-eye coordination and contact ability with the possibility of more in the future. Whether that future is at Texas or in professional baseball remains to be seen. Plus, he posted a 4.24-second home-to-first time showcasing better than expected speed. Maybe it was the shoes. Flores had on some Air Jordan 1-themed kicks.

In addition to Flores, Brandeis will also be led by Paris JUCO signee and two-way standout John Michael Ramirez. It doesn’t take long to watch and listen to Ramirez on the field to understand he has an infectious love for competing and playing the game. At one point, the right-handed starting pitcher, who was up to 90 MPH with a 76-79 MPH slider that routinely recorded swings and misses, silenced a loud and boisterous Smithson Valley dugout by striking out a hitter swinging and signaling, “one, two, three,” the dugout’s direction as he confidently bounced off the mound. Ramirez showed his good athleticism by occasionally messing with hitters’ timing by using two leg kicks and utilized a strong lead leg well in his delivery.

Also, keep an eye on sophomore Christian Hallmark. The son of UTSA head coach Pat Hallmark, Christian caught my eye during the fall because of his instincts, competitiveness, skill and focus. The lefty pitched well in relief, punching out Wells in one at-bat, and also swung the bat well, too. With long arms and a wide chest, Hallmark should continue to fill out and is among my favorite players to watch because he never takes a pitch off. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume UTSA is recruiting him. Eric Jupe, head coach at Brandeis, said Hallmark is in the 6.8-6.9 60-yard dash range. I think Hallmark plays faster than the stopwatch. I bet he’d score well in a S2 Cognition test. Sophomore lefty Lance Gorman is throwing the ball very hard for Brandeis, but he didn’t pitch Tuesday.

While we’re on the subject of stopwatches, anytime Kasen Wells is at the plate you better have yours ready. Wells beat out a potential double play with a 3.90-second time down the line showing once again he’s one of the fastest players in the state. From the left side, the Texas A&M signee is unafraid to work counts and spoil pitches as he searches for one to line somewhere in the gap. When he was on base twice, he was a menace on the bases and should end up on second base each time he reaches first, which adds more value to his willingness to take a walk. Wells’ swing wasn’t quite as natural and athletic as it was when he raked during the AABC Don Mattingly World Series, but he remains a strong bet to be one of the best hitters in Texas.

Defensively, Wells uncharacteristically dropped a fly ball, but it’s obvious he could develop into an above-average defender in a premium spot. The right-handed thrower glided around center field with ease and was able to camp under a few deep fly balls without even sprinting. His arm is better since I last saw it in the summer with a little more carry to his throws.

Texas Tech commitment and 2023 prospect David De Hoyos should help Wells provide some punch near the top of the Smithson Valley lineup. A utility player who played first base last season and has some catching in his background, De Hoyos started at shortstop and didn’t see much action. A physical junior who is a standout football player, De Hoyos’ swing looks like it should provide some extra-base thump and lift when he finds a barrel. Another Texas Tech 2023 commitment, Ethan Gonzalez, is out right now, but should return soon. He hit cleanup last season. Texas 2025 commitment Dylan Wells (no relation to Kasen) is the catcher of the future, but his athleticism is allowing him to play some second base to keep his bat in the lineup once Gonzalez returns.

Random Thoughts From the Road

Can you imagine a life of driving hours across major cities without Google Maps? I can’t. Because it would be hell on Earth.

Dustin McComas
Senior Editor
Five Tool Baseball

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