About 10 scouts showed up last fall for the Academy of Art University baseball team’s pro day. They munched on powdered donuts and sipped the gratis Sunny D and figured this was like any other small-college showcase: a waste of a morning. The position players finished running the 60-yard dash when up walked one more kid, a pitcher for the tiny San Francisco school, who asked the scouts if he could try.
They looked up and nodded. Brandon Poulson stood 6-foot-7 and weighed 240 pounds with 8 percent body fat. “He’s like Ivan Drago,” said Elliott Strankman, a Minnesota Twins scout there that day. “You know that scene in Rocky IV – ‘Whatever he hits … he destroys.’ That’s what he reminds me of.”
Poulson slipped off his spikes and stood in his socks. He wanted to run without shoes. The scouts cast weird looks to one another. He took off. The scouts clicked their stopwatches. He crossed 60 yards, the standard measurement for baseball players. The scouts didn’t believe the numbers on their watches. One said 6.59. Another said 6.61. And another 6.60. That wasn’t just fast. It was speed for a middle-of-the-diamond player, not a pitcher.
Intrigued, the scouts flocked to see the right-hander throw. It was ugly. Bad mechanics. Fastball topped out at 91 mph. Didn’t have a breaking ball. Turned out he would be 24 years old when the season started. Strankman knew it was too good to be true. And when he checked in during the Academy’s season and Poulson’s stats were brutal, Strankman didn’t bother with a follow-up.
Then came the phone call 17 days ago. Strankman was in Sacramento. A friend had a tip. There was a kid pitching for a team called the Healdsburg Prune Packers of the Golden State Collegiate Baseball League. He was throwing hard. Really hard. He went to some art school. The New York Mets were scouting him. Might be worth a look-see.
“Drago,” Strankman thought.
Poulson pitched for the Healdsburg Prune Packers. (Courtesy of Brandon Poulson)
He found a phone number for Poulson, called him up, told him not to sign with anyone, not until Strankman could see him. On July 15, Strankman drove to Healdsburg, Calif., about 70 miles northwest of San Francisco. The Prune Packers play at Recreation Park, an old field with wooden stands. One of the regulars comes to games with a parrot perched on his left shoulder.
Strankman wasn’t the only scout there. The A’s, the Braves, the Giants – all of them heard the stories about the kid. They sat behind the plate, waited eight innings, watched the Prune Packers take a 9-0 lead, before Poulson came in to pitch the ninth. The scouts sat shoulder to shoulder. They poised their radar guns. In stepped a kid named Evan Ramirez, an outfielder for the Nevada Big Horns. He dug in. Poulson fired a fastball. And like the stopwatches at pro day almost a year earlier, the radar guns flashed different numbers.
Most of them were 99. One read 100.
Every few years, a legendary scouting story hits baseball. Thirteen years ago, a kid named Gregory “Toe” Nash signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He was a high school dropout from the sticks of Louisiana who earned his nickname from size-18 feet. The Rays found him hitting 500-foot home runs in semipro ball and signed him for $30,000 after he went undrafted. He flamed out amid legal troubles and ended up in jail. And yet scouts who saw him still talk about Toe Nash like he’s some myth.
For the rest of his life, Elliott Strankman will tell the story of Brandon Poulson. Perhaps 100 people in the world can throw a baseball 100 mph, and here he was, the art-school kid who reached triple digits, the former football player who took up semipro baseball on a lark, the construction worker and workout freak, the raw clay who molded himself into something incredible. He went undrafted, too, and it was a good thing for the Twins, because the story got even better on Tuesday, when they signed Poulson for $250,000.
He was always an athlete. Brandon Poulson never played basketball, and he can do a 360-degree spinning dunk. He’s the size of an NFL tight end, and he can almost do the splits thanks to hours spent in Bikram yoga classes. Poulson dabbled with baseball at Piner High in Santa Rosa, Calif., and played football for a couple years at Santa Rosa Junior College before decamping to the real world.
His father owned John’s Excavating, and Poulson wanted to learn the family business, maybe take it over some day, so he toiled away driving 18-wheelers and heavy equipment. One day, Poulson’s father pulled him aside and told him he had the rest of his life to work. If he wanted to pursue something more, now was the time.
Baseball wasn’t going to leave him with long-term injuries, so Poulson joined a Sunday-night men’s league, Wine Country Baseball. He touched the upper 80s with his fastball, popped a 91 or 92 now and again. He didn’t know where the ball was going, either, though his arm strength impressed an umpire enough that he tipped off Brian Gwinn, the coach of the Academy. Poulson threw a bullpen session. Gwinn offered him a scholarship.
Word traveled quickly in the small baseball community. Poulson ran into the GM of the Wine Country league, Riley Sullivan, at a grocery store, and Sullivan introduced him to Joey Gomes, brother of Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes and the Prune Packers’ manager. Gomes hooked Poulson up with Caleb Balbuena, a former minor leaguer and pitching coach as intrigued as everyone else about the monster athlete who didn’t know what he was doing.
“He was the Tin Man from the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ ” Balbuena said. “Very stiff and methodical. I didn’t even know there was a baseball team at the art school when I first met Brandon. I’m thinking of Step Up. And then I meet this 6-7, 240 guy, and I don’t think he’s a dancer.”
On Dec. 30, 2013, Poulson threw his first bullpen with Balbuena. He needed to rebuild Poulson’s delivery. He stressed the three planes of motion – frontal, transverse and sagittal – and how, when linked together, the kinetic energy created would jump his velocity almost immediately. Out of the 40 or so pitches Poulson threw that day, about three felt right. He went back to school in mid-January and returned in late March.
They kept working, kept smoothing out his mechanics, until one day, Poulson said, “I felt like my hips threw the ball.” Balbuena brought out a radar gun. Poulson threw a pitch. It popped the catcher’s glove at 94 mph. Poulson couldn’t stop smiling. He started thinking of what he could do in a real game, with adrenaline, with a batter in the box, with this arm that finally worked.
“Dude,” he said to Balbuena, “I want to learn how to do that.”
Poulson thinks he can eventually throw 102 mph. (Courtesy of Brandon Poulson)
The Academy of Art University Urban Knights finished 12-36 this season. Brandon Poulson, multimedia communications major, pitched in 14 games. He threw 19 1/3 innings and walked 24 batters. His ERA was 8.38. The Major League Baseball draft lasted 40 rounds and 1,215 picks. There was a good reason his name wasn’t called.
“I’ve always been the most dedicated person off the field,” Poulson said. “I do yoga. I never cheat my diet. I read books on sleep and nutrition and workout plans. I’m always in the gym. Then it comes time to go to the field and I struggle. That part hurt me the most. I’m working harder than everyone. They’re all out partying. I’m here doing everything I should be doing, and come time to pitch I can’t even throw a strike.”
The Urban Knights’ season finale came May 3, a seven-inning game against Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Poulson came on in the sixth inning. He threw two innings and struck out all six batters he faced. Balbuena’s lessons were taking. He felt like a pitcher. Though nobody, not even Poulson, knew how good he was getting.
The velocity kept jumping. The 94s turned into 95s, then 96s and 97s, and oh my that one was 98, and then he was sitting 99, and nobody in the Golden State league ever had seen 100.
“Once I get a little more dialed in,” Poulson said, “I’m gonna hit 101 or 102 or maybe harder.”
He can get better. The Twins are banking on it. Never has Poulson been in a baseball-rich environment with top-level talent, a place where pitchers teach each other grips and fiddle with finger pressures. Strankman recognized all this – that Poulson’s nascent slider can grow into a weapon, that when asked to try a changeup in a recent bullpen he unfurled one with unfair diving action on his second try – and realized this was a once-in-a-scouting-lifetime opportunity.
“It’s one of those moments as a scout where you look at each other because it doesn’t happen,” Strankman said. “It’s fun. We’re looking at each other like come on. Guys are taking pictures of the radar guns. And the thing I like about him is he just doesn’t know how good he can be. He doesn’t have that appreciation of what he can be, so he’s working to get better. He’s not just resting on the fact that he’s throwing hard and is a good athlete.”
Strankman sped back home the night he saw Poulson pitched and called his bosses, scouting director Deron Johnson and west coast supervisor Sean Johnson, and told them the Twins needed to sign him now. It didn’t matter Poulson had walked 15 hitters in 12 1/3 innings. He also struck out 31, and the walks were abating, and the 18 pitches Poulson threw that night were all Strankman needed to see.
The Twins had leftover money from their draft bonus pool, enough for a competitive offer. They started at $225,000. Poulson slept on it. He went back and told the Twins he thought he could do better. Strankman bumped the offer to $250,000 and told him he had 30 minutes to accept. Poulson said yes, and six weeks after going undrafted, he agreed to a bonus at the same level allotted to a mid-sixth-round pick.
When asked by Twins brass what he was going to do with the money, Poulson said he wanted to make sure he could stay in good shape and keep eating organic food.
Poulson went to Minnesota last week to see what the major leagues were like. He went to Target Field ran the typical gauntlet – physical to make sure his arm was OK, drug test to make sure he was clean – before meeting a few of the players. When Twins starter Mike Pelfrey saw Poulson for the first time, he turned toward Sean Johnson, the scout who he knew because they both went to Wichita State.
And with the same sort of incredulity people everywhere feel the first time they see Poulson, Pelfrey said: “Who the [expletive] is that guy?”
Poulson has his sights set on the big leagues. (Academy of Art University)
This is just the beginning. Brandon Poulson wants to be in the major leagues, wants to be there soon, joining a list of undrafted players who made good. He wants to be like Dan Quisenberry and Darren O’Day, like Kevin Mitchell and Daniel Nava, like Frank White and Larry Walker – like dozens of those who were overlooked or didn’t fit the scouting archetype or simply needed a little more time to learn how to play the game.
“He’s so close,” Balbuena said. “He’s so close where you can wrap him up in a bow and hand-deliver him as that dude that’s gonna be in the big leagues for a long time.”
None of those players did it like Poulson, which is what excites Balbuena and Gomes and Strankman and everyone in the Twins organization, all the men who spend their lives dedicated to this game and who understand that an art-school kid throwing 100 shouldn’t be real.
“I probably don’t realize what this means yet,” Poulson said, “but I’m starting to.”
On Wednesday morning, Poulson will go to the airport with a ticket to Elizabethton, Tenn., where he will join the Twins’ Appalachian League affiliate. He will play with Nick Gordon, the 18-year-old chosen with the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft, and Michael Cederoth, another triple-digit-throwing right-hander. He will look just like everyone else, in a uniform, with a baseball in his hand, trying to get to the big leagues. To those perusing the program or following the game casually, he will be another name, another arm, another kid.
Those in the know will see something else: They’ll see art school and 18-wheelers and Prune Packers and 100-mph fastballs and the sort of scouting story that will live forever.