More than 25 pro baseball scouts are crowded around the bullpen at Westlake Village Oaks Christian to catch a glimpse of senior right-hander Phil Bickford warming up.
Some are holding stopwatches; others are carrying video cameras. It’s an all-out study session that will repeat itself each time Bickford steps on the mound. Whether he smiles or frowns, whether he winks or sighs, every reaction is being watched and evaluated.
The reason: Bickford has put himself in position to be a possible first-round pick in the June amateur draft. And Major League Baseball teams must be convinced he has the physical and mental capacity to be worthy of the lucrative investment that comes with being a high draft pick.
By all accounts, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Bickford has been answering any and all questions with a maturity and confidence that bode well for the future.
“I kind of thrive off it,” he said. “I’m highly appreciative they all come out, but when I’m out there I get into a zone and don’t really realize it until the feedback afterward. When I’m on that mound, everything is blocked out.”
In talent-rich Southern California, it’s almost a yearly rite to observe how a teenager handles the scrutiny and distractions when scouts begin to come out en masse.
One of my most vivid memories goes back to 1997, when two highly touted pro prospects, Jon Garland of Granada Hills Kennedy and Sean Douglass of Antelope Valley, faced off at Pierce College. There were more than 70 scouts in attendance. If you didn’t have a radar gun, you stood out in the crowd.
Garland struck out the side on 10 pitches in the first inning. Douglass struck out the first two batters he faced. By June, Garland was a first-round pick of the Chicago Cubs. Douglass went in the second round to the Baltimore Orioles. Each pitched in the major leagues, and Garland is still pitching for the Colorado Rockies.
In recent years, Henry Owens from Huntington Beach Edison and Tyler Matzek from Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley were the focus of flash mobs of scouts whenever they pitched.
Pro scouts know what they’re looking for from pitchers, and when it comes to money, they pay big bucks for velocity.
That’s how Lucas Giolito, who was clocked at 100 mph by a radar gun, earned himself a $2.925-million signing bonus last year out of Studio City Harvard-Westlake despite an injured arm.
Bickford has been clocked at 97 mph. But it’s his ability to throw strikes while throwing so hard that makes him very valuable. Growing up, he used to practice hitting a target low and away 10 consecutive times before he could move on.
He has 85 strikeouts in 53 innings with only eight walks. He has given up 24 hits, has an earned-run average of 0.79 and is 6-1 for the Lions.
“He’s really got a gift,” Oaks Christian Coach Tim Penprase said.
Bickford saw a jump in his fastball in the summer before his junior year. He committed to Cal State Fullerton, then took another jump after taking three months off following the Area Code Games last summer. He worked on strength and shaping his body.
“Everybody always told me, ‘Oh, Phil, it’s going to happen,’” he said. “One day, it kind of happened. The velocity ticked up a lot.”
Another impressive Bickford quality is his engaging personality. Teammates and opponents enjoy being around him. He’s a teenager who seems comfortable adapting to the situation. He credits his parents with passing along important lessons that he intends to remember.
“I feel being a good person is healthy,” he said. “Growing up, we don’t realize the effects parents have on us, and my parents taught me discipline and how to treat people right. I feel it’s part of my life. It’s fun to see people smile when they talk to you.”
The pressure is going to increase in the coming weeks as the draft nears and Bickford tries to help Oaks Christian win a Southern Section Division 4 championship. He’s scheduled to pitch Saturday at 7 p.m. in the championship game of the Redondo tournament at Redondo High against La Verne Bonita. He understands the challenges ahead.
“I kind of thrive off pressure,” he said. “I’ve gotten used to it through the years. It’s weird. In the moment, you don’t realize what you’ve done until you think about it after. I feel that’s a good way to approach it.”