Harlan on recruiting: West Allegheny freshman baseball player already turning heads
Imagine the black-and-white films of Babe Ruth swinging a baseball bat, said West Allegheny coach Bryan Cornell, and then you'll know how Austin Hendrick looks at the plate.
“He has a swing that I wouldn't teach,” Cornell said. “He coils back. It's really crazy.”
And it works. Hendrick is only a freshman, but his prolific bat already has a national profile.
PerfectGame.com ranked the left-handed outfielder and pitcher as its No. 1 player in the 2020 class. Consider, the second-ranked freshman on the list already committed to Miami and the fourth to Mississippi State. Hendrick also has a number of early college options, including West Virginia, Louisville, Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt.
“He has incredible ability, and the bat speed is ridiculous,” Cornell said. “His potential is through the roof.”
WPIAL baseball has produced elite talents in recent years, including Louisville star Brendan McKay of Blackhawk and Twins prospect Alex Kirilloff of Plum. Hendrick could follow them, but for now, he's focused on himself and high school.
In fact, he doesn't plan to commit until at least his junior year.
“I try not to let that affect me,” Hendrick said. “I've seen kids commit and think that they've got it all. I try to avoid that. I just want to keep working. We've still got a long four years to go. We'll figure that out when time comes.”
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound center fielder leads West Allegheny in home runs with three and RBIs with 17, but he's not a swing-and-miss slugger. He also ranks first in on-base percentage (.514) and walks (15). He has struck out only eight times in 70 plate appearances and maintains a .370 batting average.
“I told him, I'm not going to mess with your swing,” Cornell said. “You don't need my help, obviously. You've gotten this far on your own. It's God-given talent. His exit speed on his bat is 108 mph. You just can't teach that.”
Rather than film of the Great Bambino, the 15-year-old prefers videos of Ken Griffey Jr. and Bryce Harper. He has tried to combine Harper's lower-body torque with Griffey's hands and added his own distinct toe tap to start.
His national ranking was earned with standout performances last summer and fall at Perfect Game events in Georgia.
With Hendrick playing a key role this season, West Allegheny (18-1) could draw the No. 1 seed in Class 5A when the WPIAL releases playoff brackets Friday. But Hendrick's season hasn't been stress-free. As a teenager with a lofty reputation, most teams won't throw him fastballs.
“Nothing but junk and everything outside,” Hendrick said. “But you can't get anxious, can't be going out of the zone. That's one thing we've worked on a lot. Just be patient, stay back and don't be afraid to take the ball to left field.”
Cornell saw a West Allegheny player drafted in 2008, when the Boston Red Sox took then-senior Zak Sinclair in the 34th round. Sinclair attended N.C. State instead. Hendrick could face a similar choice, but that's still three years away.
Hendrick lived in Crafton Heights and was home schooled before his parents, Dan and Gina, moved into the West Allegheny district last summer. His mother, formerly Gina Venezia, was a star gymnast for Pitt from 1989-92 and a member of the program's 1,000-point club.
Cornell didn't know much about Hendrick initially, but it became clear that the freshman was special when West A's coaches visited WVU last winter.
“We walked in with West Allegheny hats on, and (the WVU coaches) immediately knew of him and said: ‘Austin Hendrick, how is he?' ” Cornell said, laughing. “... They said, ‘If we put him in a West Virginia uniform right now and put him in the outfield amongst our outfielders, he would standout for the good.
“This is a freshman, and WVU is no slouch right now. I thought that was a pretty awesome compliment.”
A month away
Butler lineman Jake Kradel's scholarship collection swelled to nearly two dozen schools, but he's whittling the list. The 6-foot-4, 285-pound junior guard and defensive tackle announced a short-list that includes Ohio State, Pitt, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, UCLA, Rutgers and Maryland. He also set a June 10 commitment date.
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.