“He’s like Ivan Drago...‘Whatever he hits ... he destroys.’”
Such were the words of Elliott Strankman, the Minnesota Twins scout who discovered a dormant giant in the unlikeliest of places.
Strankman’s Drago remark, as told to Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan, centered on Brandon Poulson, a 6’7”, 240-pound student he discovered playing baseball at a San Francisco art school not known for its athletic programs. Passan's feature story, which published Wednesday morning, focused on Poulson and his implausible journey to a pro baseball contract.
Poulson’s trip into the orbit of Major League Baseball began in the fall of 2013, when a handful of bored MLB scouts gathered around for what promised to be a fruitless pro day at the Academy of Art University.
Scouts watched as the unheralded baseball team’s position players ran middling 60-yard dashes, ostensibly scribbling notes from time to time in order to look busy.
The only curiosity of the day was Poulson. The towering pitcher stepped up, asked if he could run and proceeded to astound the scouts by blazing a 60-yard streak in nothing but socks. Strankman and his cohorts clocked the run between 6.59 and 6.61 seconds—a time more typical of shortstops.
Strankman claims this as the moment of freakish athleticism that sparked the Drago connection.
Poulson proved to be more brawler than boxer, however. The intrigued scouts gathered around as the tall talent unleashed a barrage of wild fastballs from the mound. His mechanics were atrocious. His arm topped out at 91 mph.
Poulson couldn’t find the strike zone, and as it turned out, he was already 24. The scouts shuffled off, but the hot-rod goliath stuck in Strankman’s mind.
Earlier this July, Strankman said he received a tip from a friend about a hard-throwing monstrosity playing for the Healdsburg Prune Packers in northwest California. His source mentioned that the kid had once played for some art school and boy, was he enormous.
Strankman’s thoughts darted to Drago, and the scout soon found himself watching Poulson pitching at the Prune Packers' ancient wooden stadium, Recreation Park.
Many of the guns read “99,” with an outlier clocking Poulson’s fastball at 100 mph. The kid had broken the barrier.
What Poulson did to improve, it turns out, was the same thing he’d done his entire life: master his body as an artist would master a brush. Passan’s telling of Poulson’s past paints the picture of a young man with physical gifts and dedication to honing them.
[Poulson] 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.
This real-world trip included driving 18-wheelers for his family's excavation business. Poulson toiled away, learning to work heavy equipment with the expectation that he’d one day take over the company. His father had different plans, and he told his son that it was now or never if he wanted to pursue a career playing professional sports.
The raw righty chose baseball and started pitching in the Wine Country men’s league, throwing 80-mph-to-low-90-mph fastballs. His speed caught the attention of an umpire, who brought the tall hurler’s presence to the attention of Academy of Art University coach Brian Gwinn.
Gwinn didn’t hesitate to bring Poulson on board, offering him a scholarship and an opportunity to mold his expansive physical skill set into a devastating art.
Poulson’s legend grew in the local baseball community, and he eventually met Joey Gomes, manager of the Prune Packers and brother to Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes. Joey introduced Poulson to pitching coach Caleb Balbuena, who worked with the young man to improve his creaky, robotic form.
“He was the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz,” Balbuena told Passan. “Very stiff and methodical. I didn’t even know there was a baseball team in at the art school when I first met [Poulson]. I’m thinking of Step Up...And then I meet this 6’7”, 240 guy, and I don’t think he’s a dancer.”
Once the Tin Man, Poulson is now throwing triple-digit heat and appears poised to become a force in the minor leagues. After witnessing Poulson throw 18 pitches for the Packers, Strankman convinced the Twins to take a chance on a burgeoning talent. The team responded by offering a $250,000 contract. Poulson, who went undrafted in June, signed it in under 30 minutes.
“I probably don’t realize what this means yet,” Poulson told Passan. “But I’m starting to.”
This Wednesday, Poulson flew down to Elizabethton, Tennessee, to join the Twins’ rookie-level affiliate in the Appalachian League.
The tall right-hander will be playing alongside a crop of strong, young talent in Tennessee, including another 100-mph thrower in Michael Cederoth.
It’s a long way to come for a truck-driving former Tin Man fresh out of art school. Poulson’s mentors think he can handle it.
“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.”
Will Poulson be the next big thing? A real-life Sidd Finch?
That's the gamble the Twins are making, and as usual, it all comes down to whether or not Poulson can keep his UCL intact and his heat over the plate.
Tall is good. Fast is better. But none of it's worth a dime without control. Poulson chose the hurler's life, and like the thousands of other talents clawing to make the league, he's going to have to prove his stuff can outlast the rest.
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