Ryan Vanderhei huddled over his laptop, streaming day three of the 2019 Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft on June 5 with a small contingent of family members in their Goodyear home, when his cell phone buzzed.
On the other end, his adviser, the middle-man of the drafting process, spoke.
“They’re interested with this next pick. Get ready.”
Vanderhei was now on full alert. A 6-foot-6, 185-pound right-handed pitcher from Estrella Foothills High School with a fastball residing in the low 90s, virtually every MLB club had expressed interest in selecting Vanderhei at some juncture of the 40-round draft.
His adviser, the man whose job it was to provide the family with information regarding Vanderhei’s value as a draft prospect, had called to relay the news to his client he had been longing to hear, ever since he began playing baseball as a boy: The Arizona Diamondbacks, his hometown team, were moments away from selecting him.
They made it official shortly after, drafting Vanderhei with their 38th round pick, the 1,142nd overall selection.
“When my name got called, we all celebrated, took pictures,” Vanderhei said. “It was just crazy. It was one of the best moments of my life.”
Vanderhei wrapped up an illustrious three-year varsity career at Estrella Foothills this spring. Over the course of his career, he logged 64.2 innings pitched, struck out 80 batters, walked 56, and surrendered 26 earned runs to the tune of a 2.81 ERA, per MaxPreps. He held opposing hitters to a pedestrian .196 batting average over that span.
The selection made Vanderhei the first player out of Estrella Foothills to be taken in the MLB Draft.
“Going into my freshman year, I was just hoping to make the varsity team, and now to be able to say that I’m the first player ever to get drafted out of Estrella Foothills is just crazy. It’s such a cool feeling. Again, another huge motivator for me to keep pushing harder and harder,” he said.
Last summer, the prospect of getting drafted had not yet presented itself to Vanderhei. He was a big, lanky, right-handed pitcher with an upper-80s fastball — this much scouts knew already. But then, they noticed an uptick in his velocity as he made the rounds throughout the country playing club ball. He was living in the low 90s with more frequency now, music to the ears of big league scouts when exploring a high school arm.
The revelation from big league scouts came when Vanderhei was playing in a tournament in Nashville with his Northeast Baseball club team. Over the next handful of games, more and more scouts began to trickle in to watch Vanderhei.
This officially made him a legit candidate to be drafted the following summer, and soon his starts — whether they were with his club team or school team — were regularly littered with pro scouts. They flocked to the bleachers and backstops, radar guns in hand, whenever he toed the rubber.
“As those teams started reaching out to him, one you think might be an anomaly,” said Robert Vanderhei, his father. “I think our spreadsheet at home had 28 out of the 30 teams that have reached out … It becomes a reality.”
Along with the Diamondbacks, the San Diego Padres showed heavy interest in Vanderhei, dating back to last summer. They invited him out to their facility in Peoria and showed him around their spring home. They loved the Estrella Foothills righty, and the endearment they showed only motivated Vanderhei to work harder.
As special as it was to hear his name called, his emotions were kicked up a notch when it was the Diamondbacks doing the calling. An Arizona native, Vanderhei was born in Tucson. His family moved to Goodyear when he was 5.
All he’s known, he said, is Diamondbacks baseball, so, instinctively, he became a fan. His Little League team, when he was roughly 5 years old, was the Diamondbacks. His idols growing up were guys like Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Montero and Jason Kubel.
“It’s just crazy to think that I got picked by the same team that they were all on,” he said. “It’s just surreal.”
The signing value for a 38th round selection is not worthy enough to pass up a college education for, he believed. Vanderhei committed to the University of Kansas last summer and, despite the offer from the Diamondbacks, he will honor his pledge to the Jayhawks and join them this fall. His selection could have potentially come in a higher round if big league teams felt Vanderhei was more inclined to take their offer than go to college.
But, the general consensus among teams was Vanderhei would wind up at Kansas, so there was no need to waste a pick, per se, on a player who would not sign with them.
“It’s a great opportunity for me. I feel like three or four years there will get me bigger, stronger and give me a better chance to go higher in the draft,” he said.
Vanderhei said as soon as he was drafted, his phone began to blow up with congratulatory text messages. There were hundreds, he said, from family, friends, teammates and coaches.
“It was such a cool feeling. It was a great thing to know because that means people are out there supporting me, looking out for me. It’s a great thing to have. I know the whole community has my back,” he said.
And, yes, he did return those messages — all within the same day.
“If they take the time to reach out to me, I’m going to take the time to reach back out to them for everything they’ve done,” he said.
Vanderhei will spend the summer as a member of the Pacific Union Financial Capitalists, a prolific travel baseball team comprised of prized recruits entering their freshmen seasons as top baseball colleges around the country.
Located in Palo Alto, California, Vanderhei and the Caps will play 40 games this summer against other prominent collegiate summer teams.
Vanderhei expects to be pretty active — whether it be in the starting rotation or out of the bullpen — given how many games the Caps will play.
His role with the Jayhawks also appears to be in limbo, as it was when he signed last June. He’s unsure if he’ll slide into the rotation, or appear out of the pen. He just wants to pitch, he said, and will go to whatever lengths to do so.
“I’ll probably find all that out in the fall when I get there, but it’s all what my coach thinks. I know I’m going to put in my end, so hopefully everything works out in the end,” he said.
The next time Vanderhei will become draft eligible will be at the conclusion of his junior season at Kansas, per MLB Draft rules. The plan is to become bigger and stronger — perhaps see another increase in his fastball velocity — to reposition himself into the higher rounds of the draft.
But regardless of what transpires over the next three or four years, Vanderhei will always be able to proudly say he was selected in the MLB Draft.
And by who else but his home town team.
“This is something that I can have and nobody will ever be able to take that away from me. That means so much to me that the team I have been idolizing since I was a kid thinks that much of me to think they’ll be able to draft me and — I don’t know, it’s just such a crazy feeling,” he said.
“I’m beyond flattered. Hard work pays off; that’s all I can say.”