Gatorade Player of the Year Jared Kelley continues Texas pitching tradition

RHP Jared Kelley of Refugio High School is the 2020 Gatorade National Player of the Year and will be a top pick in June’s MLB Draft.

The town of Refugio, Texas (population 2,800) lies 150 miles southwest of Houston. Its claim to fame is as the birthplace of Nolan Ryan, the strikeout king and the greatest fireball throwing right-hander of all-time. But now in 2020, there is another right-hander looking to continue Ryan’s legacy.

Jared Kelley, an 18-year-old from Refugio High School, is considered one of the top prospects going into the MLB Draft on June 10. He’s ranked as the 12th-best prospect in the draft by, second among high school pitchers. ESPN, The Athletic and all have him going in the first round of their latest mock drafts.

And on Thursday, he was presented with the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award as the nation’s top high school baseball player in a surprise call from the Phillies’ Bryce Harper.

“I was shocked,” Kelley said. “I didn’t know. I was talking about this interview, and I was asking, what is it? What is it going to be? I didn’t really know what was going on. So then Bryce Harper gets on the phone call, I thought he was just going to talk about some advice…I was speechless, I didn’t know what to say.”

Kelley is arguably the best pitching prospect to come out of Texas since Jameson Taillon in 2010. Limited to just 12 innings in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the rest of the season, he struck out 34 of the 36 batters he faced without giving up a hit. He went 32-3 with a 0.43 ERA in his high school career. Six-foot-three and 215-lbs, Kelley’s fastball consistently sits in the mid-90s and can reach as high as 98 mph. He also mixes in a changeup and is working on adding a slider as his third pitch.

Working out and staying in form hasn’t been a problem for Kelley during the pandemic, and he insists he’s ready for whatever happens in the draft.

“I had a good summer last year and started off the season good. So I feel confident for this coming draft,” he said. “Recently, I’ve been throwing bullpens, working out, staying in shape. Just anything that I could do to stay in shape and kill some time. Because baseball is what killed that time and now we don’t have it no more.”

High school pitchers are traditionally a riskier choice than a more polished college player. In the past 10 drafts, 13 high school pitchers taken in the first round have won 25 games in the big leagues, none in the past five years. Twenty first-round choices between 2010-13 have yet to throw a pitch in the big leagues. Refugio High School, despite being in Ryan’s hometown, has never had a player selected in the draft.

Kelley, though, wants the club that drafts him to know they’re getting a player who’s willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. “Just a player that just loves to compete and do anything I can to win. Anytime I’m on the mound my mentality is to win,” he says.

He’s only met his hometown’s most famous resident once, at a local banquet. Kelley even got the chance to talk with Ryan, an up-and-coming prospect and a legend of the game just talking baseball. “Definitely want to just go out there and be like him one day,” Kelley says.

The Gatorade Player of the Year has been awarded annually since 1986. Past winners include Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Alex Rodriguez. Kelley’s name is now on that prestigious list, but he’s not going to let it change who he is. “Continue to be humble. No matter what happens or what awards, always find a way to get better,” he says.

Kelley has committed to the University of Texas, but he likely won’t play there. He’s a certain first-round pick and a prospect well on his way to doing what another pitcher from Refugio managed to do more than 50 years ago: not only reach the big leagues but become an ace.

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