A first round draft pick is an individual who appears to have it all. The ability, fame, fortune, and opportunity to achieve greatness. Every accomplishment becomes lauded or scrutinized from the time they attend high school until the end of their career. Forgotten in the fray is the human element of the game and the makeup of each player. Following a famed career at UCLA, New York Yankees first round draft pick James Kaprielian has overcome the adversity of losing his mother to emerge as one of the top prospects in baseball, both on and off the field.
A two sport athlete at Beckham High School in Irvine, California, Kaprielian was a three-time letterman as a wide receiver on the football team, while also seeing time as a safety and a linebacker. As Kaprielian advanced in age, his path gravitated towards the sandlots of the baseball diamond, where he starred as a pitcher. Under the tutelage of Kevin Levelle, Kaprielian became one of the most celebrated pitchers in the school during his three year career, compiling a 33-3 record, with a 0.96 earned run average, an eye-popping 250 strikeouts and 23 complete games. During his senior season he threw two no-hitters and began to garner some modest attention from scouts.
Kaprielian’s high school dominance prompted the Seattle Mariners to take a flier on him at the end of the 2012 draft in the 40th round. By then he had committed to UCLA and chose to pursue an education, while also studying the nuances of pitching. Attending the same alma mater as major league standouts Gerrit Cole, Brandon Crawford, and Chase Utley, Kaprielian began as a reliever. Relying on three quality pitches, Kaprielian held opposing batters to a .141 average, striking out 53 hitters in 40.2 innings pitched. After earning All-American honors as a freshman from Louisville Slugger, Kaprielian moved to the starting rotation for his next two seasons where he became the ace of the pitching staff. In those two years, Kaprielian led the Pac-12 in strikeouts and earned All Pac-12 honors.
Everything appeared to be going swimmingly until the end of his junior season when his mother, Barbara Kaprielian lost a 14 year battle with cancer and passed away. Kaprielian forged an unbreakable bond with her and chose to dedicate his career to her memory. Just eighteen days later his mother’s death he took the mound for the USA Collegiate National Team, striking out twelve in six shutout innings. In his senior season, Kaprielian pitched to a 10-4 record and on May 15th of this year he became immortalized in the history books of UCLA forever, combining with David Berg to throw first ever no-hitter in school history.
Heavily scouted for some time by the New York Yankees, the organization made things official, selecting him with their sixteenth overall pick in the June draft. Represented by Scott Boras and possessing impeccable accolades, Kaprielian agreed to $2.65 million dollar signing bonus above the recommended slot level. After two appearances out of the bullpen in the Gulf Coast League, Kaprielian earned an assignment to the Staten Island Yankees, where he once again displayed glimpses of no-hit magic, pitching three scoreless innings in his New York-Penn League debut against the Lowell Spinners. Baseball Essential caught up with Kaprielian after his professional start and discussed the challenges he has faced along with the process of becoming a Yankees farmhand.
BASEBALL ESSENTIAL: At Beckham High School in Ivrine, California, you went 33-3 with a 0.96 earned run average. Your coach Kevin Lavalle said he had never coached a pitcher with better stuff. How gratifying is that to hear from somebody of his caliber?
JAMES KAPRIELIAN: “It means a lot. Obviously he has seen a lot of baseball players and it means a lot to be put in that category, but it could not be done without the guys behind me. Great defense. Great catchers. All I had to do was give my team a chance to win and they took care of the rest for the numbers right there”.
BBE: After being drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 40th round of the 2012 draft, you attended UCLA and pitched your freshman season out of the bullpen. What does a pitcher do to prepare to pitch in relief as opposed to taking the ball every fifth day?
JK: “It’s a little bit different. It was my first time actually being in relief, so I was trying to learn from the guys who had been doing it before. You have to be ready to go at any time. That was the biggest thing. Trying to keep my arm and body ready any time I got the opportunity to jump on the mound.”
BBE: In 2014 your mom Barbara passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. What type of relationship did you have with her and did you ever contemplate giving up baseball?
JK: “She was definitely my biggest inspiration. She had been there for every step of the way. Always supported me. Always been the one, just like everybody would say their mom is, but I think she did it more over the top. She has always been my support. At this point, she is the one I strive to be like every single day, just giving to people. Cancer is something that was definitely affected me and my family, so keeping my mom in mind is something big for me. I never really thought of quitting baseball because of it. Baseball is a big part of my life and she would have wanted me to pursue it and I am glad I am able to do this.”
BBE: Eighteen days later you pitched for Team USA against Chinese Taipei. What emotions were going through your mind, given everything you went through?
JK: “It was very emotional. There was a lot of pressure at the time. I felt a little bit of anxiety on the mound, but I decided to be out there with those guys and everybody knew what I was going through so there was so much support throughout the coaching staff and all of USA baseball and the teammates, so they knew what was going through my mind and go out there to represent myself and my family. I think I did that and had a good time doing that.”
BBE: During your senior season you went 10-4 with a 2.03 ERA, earning All-Pac 12 first team honors and were named a second team All-American and combined to pitch the first no-hitter in UCLA history. What did it mean for you to be forever remembered as part of the school’s illustrious history?
JK: “It was special. I got through a no-hitter with David Berg. He is one of the best relievers in the game in college baseball and in my opinion he will be one of the best relievers in the game at the major league level as well. There is a great group of guys and athletes who have been through UCLA. Maybe my name will be one day in those books, but it is not for me to determine. I don’t really make a legacy, so I try to do the best I can be and see where it takes me”.
BBE:The no-hit magic continued in your first professional start with the Staten Island Yankees. Did having a few days after being promoted allow you to adjust quickly and what did you take out of that start?
JK: “Absolutely. I watched a little bit of the game in Aberdeen until got rained out. Just trying to get accompanied with the team and learn some faces and watch these guys play. I am just out here to do my job and give these guys an opportunity to win and do whatever I can to try to improve every single day.”
BBE:The Yankees scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said the club had been scouting you for some time. Did you have any indication that the Yankees would be the team to eventually draft you?
JK: “You never really know who is interested and who is not. Obviously there are mock drafts and stuff and I had friends sending me stuff saying, “Hey, the Yankees have you in their mock draft”, but you never really know. I wouldn’t say I already knew, but the fact that I am here now is special and I am blessed to be a part of it”.
BBE: As a kid you stepped foot in the old Yankee Stadium but never in the new stadium. What recollections do you have of the old stadium and do you intend on visiting the new house before you reach the Bronx as a player?
JK: “One thing I remember would be the lights. The fans, the lights. Everybody seemed locked in and you get that vibe in New York. It is definitely a special organization. I am really excited and honored to be a part of. With the new stadium, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that if I want to check it out or not first. It is definitely something I should talk about with my friends and family first and see what we can do about it, but hopefully one day I can be able to put the pinstriped uniform on there.”
In a farm system suddenly blossoming with talent, James Kaprielian finds himself as the Yankees fifth-rated prospect on the most recent MLB.com list. His fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup combination brings to mind the rapid ascension of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha, whom the club selected nineteenth overall after a successful college career at Texas A&M. For those who follow the Yankees, Kaprielian is apt to evoke memories of one highly touted prospect, Ian Kennedy, who attended rival USC and reached the big leagues fourteen months after being drafted. Like those comparable hurlers, Kaprielian posses excellent control and a fastball which reaches the strike zone at a maximum of 94 miles per hour. He primarily uses the changeup and curveball to offset the fastball, but has equal trust in each of his offerings.