Three years, one $4 million signing bonus reduction, one Tommy John surgery and one hijacking of 10 mph off his fastball later, Brady Aiken continues to trudge to the mound.
In ballparks you’ve never heard of, in a minor league you barely know, he’s out there, every fifth day, searching for the stardom that was once supposed to be his.
It’s Brady Aiken searching for Brady Aiken.
Two years ago, the Indians took a flyer on Aiken, whose career was supposed to soar, but instead has yet to leave the ground.
“It’s frustrating. It would be for anyone. But he’s very level-headed. He’s handled the pressure of who he is very well. There’s still a lot of promise there.”
For that, we’ll have to take the word of Matt Blake, the Indians’ assistant director of player development for pitchers.
Because the promise may be there, but the numbers are not.
On Wednesday, Aiken made his sixth start of the season for the Class A Lake County Captains, and it looked a lot like his first five. In a 9-1 loss to Beloit, Aiken pitched 4 1⁄3 innings, giving up four runs on five hits with four walks and five strikeouts.
He’s 0-6, with a 4.66 ERA. He’s averaging 7.8 walks per nine innings. On multiple pitches in Wednesday’s game, he missed the strike zone by feet, not inches.
But what stood out most was what hitters feared least: Aiken’s fastball.
In 2014, as a senior at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, when he was the best amateur player in the country, Aiken’s fastball topped out at 97 mph.
This year for Lake County, Aiken’s fastball has yet to climb out of the 80s.
What happened in between was Tommy John surgery, which Aiken underwent on March 26, 2015.
It’s a surgery that requires an extended period of rehab, but has an excellent success rate, with the added benefit that many pitchers throw harder after the surgery than they did before.
To date, however, Aiken’s case recalls the famous line by Yankees Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez, who in the twilight of his career said, “I’m throwing just as hard as I ever did, the ball’s just not getting there as fast.”
For pitchers, velocity is not the end-all, be-all. But it is the nice to have-all, because it’s harder to hit-all.
“We’re not concerned about his velocity,” Blake said. “He’s obviously not where he was, but it takes time. Everybody’s different.”
That may be, but with Aiken now more than two years removed from a surgery from which it typically takes 12 to 15 months to recover, Indians officials must be privately wondering how much longer it will be before they see some progress by a pitcher to whom they gave a $2.5 million signing bonus.
Only twice in the last 37 years have the Indians used their first pick in the June draft on a left-handed high school pitcher. In 1998, they took CC Sabathia with the 20th pick in the first round, and in 2015 they took Aiken 17th overall.
As a high school senior, Aiken was the first overall pick, by Houston, in the 2014 draft. But when the Astros didn’t like what they saw in Aiken’s left elbow during a post-draft physical, they lowered their signing bonus offer from $6.5 million to a reported $5 million.
Aiken rejected the offer, and enrolled in the IMG Academy in Florida. But in his first start for IMG the following spring, he blew out his elbow.
Three months after he was wheeled out of the operating room, the Indians took that flyer on Aiken, and two years later, this is where he’s at: In 20 games in the Indians’ minor league system, Aiken is 2-11 with a 5.38 ERA. He’s averaging 5.5 walks and nine strikeouts per nine innings.
We must presume that Aiken isn’t aching, because he’s starting every fifth day for Lake County. When Houston drafted him in 2014 he was projected to be a future No.1 starter.
Three years later he’d be happy just to win a game in the Midwest League. Indians officials say Aiken’s makeup is off the charts. Unfortunately, his stats are on the charts — and not in a flattering way.
It could be that the high-octane fastball and electric stuff Aiken possessed in high school is still in there. It’s just going to require more patience.
In the meantime, Aiken is a marquee name without marquee stats, which can produce a pressure all its own.
“All that external noise is not a big deal to us internally,” Blake said. “We just want to see Brady become more efficient with his strike-throwing and pitch counts. He’s a great teammate and a hard worker. You’d have no idea who he was if you watched how he goes about his work.”
Which is: searching for Brady Aiken.