West Allegheny’s Austin Hendrick next WPIAL standout who could join MLB ranks

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Wednesday, January 15, 2020 | 3:19 PM


West Allegheny’s Austin Hendrick tells a story about hitting baseballs two years ago with Neil Walker, the former Pine-Richland player and first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“It was a really cool experience meeting him and talking to him a little bit,” said Hendrick, describing himself as a sponge trying to absorb all the baseball knowledge he can.

The two WPIAL stars, representing past and present, could soon have more in common.

Hendrick knows that from now until summer, he’ll probably hear Walker’s name mentioned often. The West A senior is considered the top high school hitter in the country, according to Baseball America, and projected to be a first-round pick in the MLB Draft in June.

Here’s where the Walker comparison come in: Baseball America released a mock draft Monday that predicted the left-handed hitting outfielder would be chosen seventh overall by his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates haven’t selected a WPIAL baseball player in the first round since Walker went 11th overall in 2004.

“That would be pretty cool, following in Neil Walker’s steps,” said Bryan Cornell, Hendrick’s baseball coach at West A. “I think that’s something that would give a little hope to the Pirates, that a homegrown kid could come through the system and potentially help them win.”

Western Pennsylvania is known more for its football than its baseball, but Hendrick would be the third WPIAL player taken in the first round in the past five years, joining Plum’s Alex Kirilloff and Blackhawk’s Brendan McKay. The Minnesota Twins drafted Kirilloff as a high school senior with the 15th overall pick in 2016. McKay, who starred as a two-way player at Louisville, was taken fourth overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2017.

Hendrick saw Monday’s mock draft but didn’t immediately picture himself roaming PNC Park’s outfield. The draft is still six months away, scheduled for June 10-12 in Omaha, Neb. He’s talked with scouts from pretty much every MLB team but said he doesn’t put much stock into January predictions.

“I try not to read into all of the mock drafts and stuff,” he said. “There’s a lot that can happen. I try not to think about it too much until it happens.”

Seventh overall, Hendrick admits, is elite territory. But he’s not overwhelmed by the attention. Go back three years and Perfect Game named him the top freshman in the country. He said he’s humbled by the MLB draft prediction, but also quickly points out that means a half-dozen teams would’ve passed on him.

“In my mind, I want to keep pushing to be the best,” he said. “I’m not satisfied at all. There are six spots I can do better. There’s always room for improvement.”

Baseball America predicted Hendrick would be the first high school player chosen in the draft. Six college prospects were projected to go ahead of him: Vanderbilt shortstop Austin Martin, Georgia right-hander Emerson Hancock, Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson, New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales, Texas A&M left-hander Asa Lacy and UCLA outfielder Garrett Mitchell.

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Mississippi State commit became a star on the AAU circuit and built a national reputation with USA Baseball last fall. He was the only Pennsylvania player chosen for the U18 Baseball World Cup in Gijang, South Korea.

Before heading overseas, he traveled around this country, making stops in Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Alabama. He played at both Progressive Field in Cleveland and Wrigley Field in Chicago, where he won the Under Armour home run derby.

“Many teams believe Hendrick is the best pure hitter in the high school class and he brings jaw-dropping raw power and elite bat speed to the table as well,” writes Baseball America.

His coach agrees.

“The exit speed on his bat, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Cornell said. “He’s just a big, strong kid and he looks like a grown man. He lives, eats and sleeps baseball.”

Hendrick’s travels included three weeks last summer at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where he interacted with former MLB stars Derek Jeter and Ryan Howard. IMG is a private, sports-based high school and the coaches made it clear they’d support Hendrick transferring there.

“Very much,” he said. “It was an everyday thing. Me and my family talked. It’s been like that since freshman year really.”

He chose to stay at West Allegheny.

Hendrick lived in Crafton Heights and was home schooled before his parents, Dan and Gina, moved into the West Allegheny district before his freshman year. His mother, formerly Gina Venezia, was a star gymnast at Pitt.

“Junior year already going into senior year, there’s no reason (to transfer),” Hendrick said. “I stayed with the boys I’ve been playing with since freshman year. Plus, I just wanted to stay home around family and friends. It’s not always the best weather but it’s home.”

Once WPIAL season starts in March, he’ll have a lot of eyes on him. His performance this spring could impact his draft stock, and his coach already has started to prep his teammates for the added hoopla that comes with having a first-round talent on the roster.

But Hendrick said his day-to-day focus isn’t on the draft. If for some reason that didn’t work out, he’d be happy to play baseball at Mississippi State.

“My biggest focus is to focus on my senior year,” Hendrick said. “High school goes so fast. It’s your last time playing with the boys, so I just want to focus on going out, having a good time and leaving a good memory. Hopefully, we’ll win a WPIAL championship and have a lot of fun this year.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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