Local baseball phenoms Riley Pint and Nonie Williams have committed to LSU — but they'll also hear their names called at the MLB Draft on June 9.
Riley Pint loves the 30 for 30 series of sports documentaries on ESPN, the kind of programming you can see a thousand times and not get tired of it. One such 30 for 30 he willfully roped himself into watching again recently was Four Days in October, which documented the miraculous comeback from a 3-0 deficit by the Boston Red Sox against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.
It's a safe bet that Pint, the star pitcher for St. Thomas Aquinas' baseball team, has pictured himself in that same arena where the Kansas City Royals just thrived. Coinciding with the Royals' two World Series appearances is the development of exceptional local baseball talent, and much of the focus is on Pint and Turner High School shortstop Nonie Williams, two good friends from the class of 2016 who have major-league aspirations.
Pint and Williams have played with and against each other since they were 8 or 9 years old, and they have both signed on to play in college at tradition-rich Louisiana State University. And they both have incredible potential as scouts salivate over their performances.
Pint is not your average prospect, a right-handed power pitcher who has such electric stuff that he's been known to throw triple-digit heat. He has been projected as the second-best prospect in this month's MLB Draft behind only New Jersey prep star Jason Groome, according to mlb.com. Pint threw a fastball at Kansas City's Premier Baseball Pro Day showcase that was clocked at an absurd 102 mph on the radar gun and has been overwhelming high school hitters with velocity that really started to kick in during his sophomore year at Aquinas.
The first thing you notice is Pint cuts a fairly imposing figure on the mound before he evens starts his windup. At 6 feet 4 inches tall and 210 pounds, he can intimidate hitters with fastballs up in the zone and then fool them with pitches he's been working on like his curveball and changeup, which he considers his best secondary pitch.
Despite the occasional wild fastball, Pint's control has improved as he's gotten older.
"I think I've just been a little more mentally focused," Pint says. "When I was younger, if it was a 3-1 count, it was pretty much just a walk, you know. That was my mindset. But now, 3-0, 3-1, I feel like I can come back and pump some strikes in there and get the hitter out. I feel like mentally I'm in a better place that I know I'm trying to get outs — and I'm gonna get you out."
The number of major-league scouts that watch Pint are the next thing you notice, jotting things down in chicken scratch and doing a radar-gun version of the wave as they train them squarely on Pint before he releases every pitch.
All the attention from these scouts — and there can be dozens of them whenever he starts — hasn't seemed to faze him.
"I feel like there's just going to be pressure with the territory you're in right now," Pint says. "I try not to let it bother me; I've just got to go out there and do my thing. You're going to get a little bit of attention just by playing around here, just because there are so many good players around here [Shawnee Mission East draft prospect Joey Wentz, among others] and everybody wants to come watch guys play."
Pint has inherited quite the athletic genes from both parents, who played sports at Big 12 universities: His father, Neil, pitched in Iowa State's now-defunct baseball program, while his mother, Missy, was a volleyball and basketball player at Kansas State. And while they have experience competing at the college level, they never pushed their son to do anything he didn't want to. It was all up to him, and not being pressured to play just taught him to love the game more.
"It's actually kind of funny just because we were looking at old pictures from back in the day. I remember writing something in second grade that had a picture of me playing baseball, and it said, I want to play in the major leagues one day," he says. "I always wanted to pitch when I was a kid, always wanted to go outside and throw the baseball around."
For Williams, whose given name is Nolan, there were two things he wanted to be when he was little: a baseball player or a Navy SEAL. His grandfather was a Marine, and Williams has always been one of those physical guys who embraces a challenge.
Instead of an M4 carbine, though, Williams' weapon of choice is a bat he swings from both sides of the plate, and that switch-hitting ability is only part of his allure for scouts. His right side is more dominant, but mechanically his left-handed swing is just as smooth and solid. The consensus has been that Williams, a projected second-round pick, is the best position prospect in the Kansas City area since Bubba Starling was selected by the Royals in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft.
Because of his athleticism, the 6-foot-2-inch, 200-pound Williams is definite five-tool material. He possesses a strong arm, has some pop in the bat and can turn on the jets by stretching a single to a double or a double to a triple.
"I think something that I can control is my base-running, my speed," Williams says. "Errors happen. You can't always hit it where you want, but I can control that, and I feel like that's my strong point over the spring, because I always try to take the extra base whenever it's available."
Although he played for Turner, Williams was home-schooled with the exception of a second-semester technology class, and in order to reclassify for the class of 2016, Williams crammed two years of school into one. It's tough enough to be a high school athlete and carve out enough time to do one year's worth of schoolwork. But two? That's nothing short of a Herculean effort.
"It was very difficult. I had to take advantage of my Christmas and spring break, because once school comes first, it's hard to get all your batting practice and your baseball workouts in," he says. "But now that it's over, I could start focusing on baseball again, which is nice."
And that should mean more trips to his batting cage at the Williams' home in KCK. Even though it's in his own backyard, doubling the workload at school restricted his practice time a bit, but he liked to use it in the morning and then after school with his friends and his father, Marty. He also works out at Premier Baseball in Lenexa, the same facility as Pint, where they help push each other and try to make each other better players.
That has to be music to the ears of the coaching staff at LSU, a program that is the purple-and-gold standard for success in college baseball. The Tigers have won the second most national championships in history (six) and have appeared in 17 College World Series. Despite the very real possibility of being a top-5 draft pick, Pint has remained fully committed to LSU and says for now, he has nothing else on his mind. He loved watching the Bayou Bengals play in the College World Series growing up, and wearing the LSU uniform has been a dream of his.
Besides an opportunity to play in college with a friend, LSU appealed to Williams as he played with his summer team, Marucci Elite, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
"I went down there to live with the coach [Chad Raley] and met a lot of awesome people through Marucci Elite and LSU and got to see a couple regional games at LSU," Williams says. "I took a look at the whole campus, actually got to set foot on the field while LSU practiced, and met the whole coaching staff and just fell in love with LSU baseball."
Ask Williams and Pint who their baseball heroes are, and the first person they both named is Derek Jeter, who had played every year since they were born until his retirement last season. Williams looks up to him as one of the great gentlemen of the game who always hustled and played the game the right way. And the mutual admiration these two young stars have for each other sounds much the same.
"He's just a special kid," Pint says of Williams. "He's always upbeat. I've never seen that kid in a bad mood, even when he's playing baseball. He'd be going through a slump or something, and he's always up and happy. He's just a really cool guy. I feel like we're both just really competitive, and we don't like to lose. For sure. I think we both have a really nice, easy-going attitude that serves us well with everybody."
Williams is just as complimentary about Pint's attitude and work ethic.
"Him being so humble and seeing how hard he works is encouraging for me, because I'm not quite in his position, but we both have the same goals," Williams says. "If you ever see him on a baseball field, you never would know he's a baseball player. He treats everyone awesome. He's just a great friend, and it would be awesome to be his roommate at LSU."