MONTPELIER, Vt. — It’s not quite the cornfields of Iowa, but U-32 High School in Central Vermont offers an improbable setting in which to find a potential big league talent.
Spectators at U-32 make themselves comfortable in folding chairs down the left-field line, a reflection of the fact that the bleachers behind the backstop are an impossibility given the steep grassy incline that spills into the woods just beyond the field.
“That hill could serve as a giant slalom course,” says one American League scout.
Yet that scout and many others, armed with radar guns and slow-motion Edgertronic cameras, steadily tested their calves to hike to U-32 this spring to see 18-year-old righthander Owen Kellington, a pitching prospect who put his state on the map of talent evaluators for the first time in decades.
It’s hard to scout Vermont. The cold weather compresses the high school regular season to roughly five weeks, at a time of year when scouting departments are bearing down on top-priority players. And the level of competition makes it hard to evaluate one standout against peers; a player has to be special to attract scouts.
Kellington qualified. It became common this spring to see 10 to 20 scouts at his outings.
Several evaluators — with 15, 20, 30, or almost 40 years of experience covering high schools and colleges — noted that Kellington had given them their first reason to visit Vermont. Two proudly observed that with a game at U-32, they had scouted in 49 states (one had yet to see a game in North Dakota, the other in Alaska).
“I’d never seen a major league scout at a game,” said U-32 coach Geoff Green. “To have 20 of them — I think that’s part of why this is particularly significant.”
This isn’t part of the standard coverage area for New England scouts, but regional and national cross-checkers came to the region to see a pitcher who has a commitment to the University of Connecticut, but who is likely a Day 2 consideration (Rounds 3 through 10) in this year’s draft.
“He is a prospect,” affirmed one regional cross-checker.
In recent decades, Vermont’s amateur baseball culture commanded its greatest attention not for a player but a policy. In 2008, the state became the first in the country to implement a pitch-count limit in high school games.
‘“I’d never seen a major league scout at a game. To have 20 of them — I think that’s part of why this is particularly significant.”’
Geoff Green, U-32 coach
As for prospects? Just one player drafted out of a school (high school or college) in Vermont — righthander Kirk McCaskill, who was taken in the fourth round in 1982 out of the University of Vermont — has reached the big leagues. No high school player has been drafted and signed out of the state since 2002, when the Red Sox took lefthander Tyler Pelland in the ninth round.
Kellington, who said he is undecided about whether he’ll head to college or pursue a professional career, is aiming to be the next.
“I think the first person who scouted me was a Mets scout,” he said. “He said I’m forever going to be known as ‘The Vermont Kid’ because not many kids come out of Vermont at all. That’s a big part of what I’m trying to do.
“It’s great to represent a state, especially when it hasn’t happened [since McCaskill]. That’s super cool to me. I would love to represent Vermont.”
Kellington already has distinguished himself from any other player in Central Vermont’s high school ranks in recent years — a fact that became clear in a recent outing against Harwood High School.
Harwood’s dugout erupted with excitement when the team’s leadoff hitter fouled off a fastball on the first pitch of the game. The enthusiasm was understandable, given that top starters in Central Vermont typically feature fastballs in the 70s and 80s.
“Anything more than 83-84, you think, ‘All right, this is different,’ ” said Green. “And then to have Owen throwing 90-92 is just a whole other category. This is unique in my experience . . . I haven’t seen a pitcher throwing this hard in Vermont in my life.”
There would be other foul balls against Kellington’s fastball but no balls in play, on a day when he struck out the first 18 hitters he faced. That performance was very much in line with his back-to-back five-inning no-hitters at the start of the season, in which he recorded all 15 outs by strikeout.
Later in the outing, Kellington spun a curveball that froze a Harwood hitter who briefly feared for his life before watching the pitch break over the plate. The hitter stepped out of the box and, as color returned to his face, patted his racing heart with a grin — a mix of bewilderment and amusement.
“I could chart the swing-and-miss rates on his pitches, but what’s the point?” noted one evaluator, on a day when Kellington got 34 whiffs among his 94 pitches.
That day, Kellington allowed his first — and, as it turned out, only — earned run of the season. In the seventh inning, he left a slider over the plate (the only pitch type on which he allowed a hit in at least his first 30 innings of the season) that resulted in an opposite-field double, much to the pitcher’s chagrin.
“I always put a high standard for myself, especially in Vermont baseball,” he said. “I don’t ever want to give up a hit or a walk. It will happen. It’s frustrating, but it will happen.”
A sacrifice bunt and a wild pitch on a swing-and-miss breaking ball resulted in that lone run, on a day when Kellington struck out 20 and allowed one hit in seven innings.
Kellington’s success this year wasn’t measured simply in the presence of scouts. U-32 won its first state championship in school history, with Kellington coming on in relief (three days after he struck out 17 over seven innings) to fire three innings with seven punchouts to close it out.
With that outing, Kellington concluded a season in which he threw 49 innings (regular and postseason) with a 0.18 ERA, 133 strikeouts, 7 hits, and 11 walks.
With his senior season concluded, the future awaits. After his graduation last Friday, Kellington the next day threw two innings (no hits, two walks, three strikeouts) for the Burlington Lake Monsters of the Futures League — a wood-bat league featuring mostly college players that provided a higher level of competition for him in advance of next month’s draft.
According to a major league source, multiple teams have invited the righthander to predraft workouts in front of a full complement of their evaluators. Kellington is intrigued by the growing pro possibilities, though still excited about how he might develop at UConn.
“I haven’t made a decision either way,” he said. “I think I’ll probably decide closer to the draft. Either way, I’m in a good spot. I’m confident that I can keep getting better, keep improving.”
If he does, “The Vermont Kid” may push a new pin into the baseball map.