THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of top prospects for the 2023 MLB draft have spent years in the youth sports industrial complex, participating in a decade or more of regular events and leagues. It’s a familiar refrain for many of us: AAU basketball, travel teams, little league, etc., a system that costs tens of thousands of dollars and countless long weekends. It can all be worth it, though, for the dream of one day getting a Division I scholarship, becoming a draft pick and eventually making it to the big leagues.

That wasn’t Arjun Nimmala’s path.

Growing up, Nimmala and his family would take trips from his hometown of Valrico, Florida, to India to visit relatives. They stayed in the southern city of Vijayawada, visiting for a few weeks each time. He’d play cricket with friends. He was a batsman — when he tried bowling (akin to being a pitcher, but with a stiff throwing arm) it didn’t go well. Nimmala’s scouting report on his bowling: “I’m horrible, I don’t get the form right. I’m just a hitter.”

Until he was 12, these trips were a regular part of Nimmala’s life, and cricket was one of his most frequent pastimes. When I asked if he was good enough to be, say, the equivalent of a Division I athlete at cricket, he paused, then agreed. “If I really practiced to the point that the others did, I think I would’ve been pretty good at cricket,” he said.

Nimmala’s cricket future is a hypothetical now — he gave it up, along with soccer and basketball, to focus on baseball when he started high school in 2019. Just four years later, earlier this spring, I ranked him as the third-best baseball player on Earth born in 2005.

The 17-year-old shortstop is right there at the top of this year’s MLB draft class, a near lock to go in the first round next month. I went to see him play in April in a regular-season game for Strawberry Crest High School outside of Tampa, Florida, and there were a couple dozen scouts there, just like at every game this spring, including two general managers, one of those picking inside of the top five picks. One scout who saw him weeks before me said Nimmala had “the most impressive pregame [combinations of] infield [practice] and batting practice I’ve ever seen from a high school player.”

How Nimmala got there says plenty about the draft pipeline — but even more about Nimmala.

THE SCOUT’S VIEW of Nimmala is pretty simple. His batting practice is incredibly impressive, with scouts projecting anywhere from 25 to 35 homers annually from his raw power. Defensively he’s solid at shortstop, though some scouts worry that he’ll continue getting stronger, lose a step and be forced to move to third base. He has all the traits needed to project to hit for average — hitting mechanics, bat speed, loose hands, intelligence for the game — but his in-game performances against top competition have been more good than great.

One easy explanation is that he’s nearly a year younger than most of the other players in his draft class. Being young for the class is one of the strongest empirical indicators of future success for high school position players, which is why Nimmala allows scouts and executives to imagine almost any outcome, with names like Javier Baez and Carlos Correa tossed around by evaluators.

The other influencing factor is relative inexperience: Nimmala missed all of those showcases full of middle schoolers and their dog-eat-dog travel parents in search of that elusive D-I offer — because as a freshman in high school, he and his family still weren’t aware any of it existed.

“My parents are from India and they had no clue about the recruiting process,” he said. “We didn’t even know there was a certain thing called college commitments. We didn’t even know a D-I player. It was so new and out of the blue for us.”

Despite that, Nimmala committed to Florida State as a freshman in high school, months after playing his first travel ball game. His family discovered what college commitments were essentially just as he was getting his first offer. (The Nimmalas are now old pros at the process — Arjun’s younger brother Akhil committed to UCF this spring.)

Jimmy Belanger is the Florida State coach who first spotted Nimmala; he’s now the pitching coach at Clemson. He described a pretty normal recruiting process — FSU showed interest soon after first scouting him, the family took a tour of the school, primarily focused on academics, and Nimmala committed within a few months of first contact — but the process of discovering him was more unusual.

Belanger was new to the job and to recruiting in Florida. He asked Nimmala’s travel ball coach Jimmy Osting before a game if they had anyone interesting on the team and Osting mentioned the new kid at shortstop. “Nimmala immediately stood out,” Belanger said. “At that age — he was 14 at the time — he didn’t have physical tools necessarily, nobody really does at that age. But the ease and fluidity in all of his actions, the projection to his frame — you knew the tools were going to come. I immediately called our other coach in the area to come see him the next day.”

Because Nimmala was new on the scene, rival schools like Miami and Florida didn’t know about him yet. Belanger saw Nimmala in a more secluded field at the tournament, but when he brought his colleague the next day, it was at a four-field complex with a number of rival coaches around.

“We quickly agreed this kid was special, so then we both made sure not to make it obvious who we were watching because the other coaches were there to see other teams,” he said. “We took turns talking to rival coaches and making sure their backs were turned toward the field Nimmala was on.”

By the time the other schools caught up, it was too late. “He became famous to colleges about a year later when he went to a national showcase,” Belanger said. “By then, the tools were obvious.”

THIS OFFSEASON, Nimmala trained with New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, whose agent is also advising Nimmala ahead of the draft — and who happens to be Nimmala’s favorite player. Lindor was born in Puerto Rico but also went to high school in central Florida and committed to Florida State, so there are some parallels. But for Nimmala, it’s more about the vibe: “He’s my favorite player and not because I’ve been practicing with him … he was my lock screen before I even met him,” Nimmala said. “He loves to play the game with fun and passion and he still carries that with him. That’s why they call him Mr. Smile. And that’s kind of what I model my game after.”

Last year’s fifth overall pick, Nationals outfielder Elijah Green, Rays outfielder Josh Lowe and Rangers first baseman Nate Lowe, Josh’s brother, also joined Nimmala and Lindor in the workouts. And Lindor had some pointers for Nimmala defensively, aimed at saving his arm for a grueling 162-game season: “He wanted me to move my feet around more and be really agile and quick to the ball and stay low when I throw. And those are the kind of things I worked on and got better at this season.”

It’s all a far cry from summers in India, which have been on pause since 2018, partly because of the pandemic but mostly because baseball has become a year-round focus for him. Nimmala has played a full summer of games for the past few years, which he says also has taught him about a pro mentality and schedule to training. (It doesn’t hurt that the head coach at Strawberry Crest, Eric Beattie, was a second round pick by the Detroit Tigers in the 2004 draft.) Focusing on building functional baseball strength and flexibility without losing sight of mechanical work and live reps has become a full-time job. Nimmala told me in April that it was the last day of his intensive International Baccalaureate course schedule, so his days until the draft would be more like a pro schedule, focused even more on training (with some studying for tests mixed in).

In a short time, Nimmala went from being late to learn about the recruiting process to one of the earliest commitments in his class to training with his favorite MLB player. Now add GMs showing up to games and millions of dollars on the line, it had to have felt like everything was heating up this spring.

“That’s true. It did get so much hotter,” Nimmala said. “But the thing is I felt like I was really geared for that … I felt like I was ready for the pressure because I put in all that work, not to just bail in front of them for me to do good for myself. So all, all the tension, all the pressure, of course it got worse and there was more of it, but I just tried to stay off that as much as I can.”

And playing in front of the heavy-hitter execs and GMs coming to every game? “In the preseason … I would be thinking about that a lot and I was like, ‘Oh shoot, this dude’s coming, this dude’s coming.’ What I realized is that I should really not be thinking about that they’re here. … I want to impress them and do as well as I can, but I’m playing for my team and for myself, not for them​​.”

I expected that once he committed to FSU as a freshman, something that objectively put him in the top 50 or so players in the country for his age group, Nimmala would have considered himself a future professional. But when I asked him when he felt like pro ball was a reasonable thing to dream about, the answer was surprising.

“Last summer, my last travel ball year,” he said. “I realized I was pretty good because I heard draft talk and it’s hard to keep away from that because things just get to you and people talk. Then I realized that there was a decent amount of attention, and that’s kind of when I realized that I had a good chance.”

There were dozens of scouts, and sometimes more than a hundred, at most of his summer events. Nimmala was playing with the best players in the country; in some cases every player on the field was going to play pro ball. And yet he considered himself a potential pro prospect at the latest time he could possibly think that. I asked a number of scouts and coaches if Nimmala was being falsely humble. Every single one of them laughed and said some version of “nope, that’s who Arjun is.”

AS AN ELITE prospect with a unique background, Nimmala is plenty notable already. But after chatting with him for 45 minutes I was amazed at how composed and natural he was as a 17-year-old talking with a stranger during a pivotal time in his life. I mixed a couple of tricky questions in — how would you evaluate your brother as a player? how do you handle facing competition well below your level? how do you handle failure on the field? — that even veteran pros might have some trouble with, and he quickly and naturally found an honest and/or correct answer for all of them. I asked the most impressive hitter he has played with and he immediately named the consensus best hitter in the class, Walker Jenkins. When I asked the pitcher he was most impressed with, he said the guy with probably the best raw stuff in the class whom he faced last summer: Charlee Soto.

I sat at a picnic table waiting for his practice to end, and when he was done he sat down and immediately asked what I was working on — the early stages of a piece projecting Shohei Ohtani’s contract — and I spoke off the cuff about the biggest deals in baseball history but forgot to mention Mike Trout‘s extension, which is the biggest contract of all time. Nimmala immediately mentioned it and knew the figures but was kind enough to offer it as something that might be true (he knew it was true).

I like to ask young hitters about how they adjust when facing pitchers who are future pros (i.e. their talent peers), as opposed to high school pitchers who won’t even pitch in college. They almost always say they prefer facing the future pro types because the speed of the pitch matches the speed of their bat. Nimmala described it unlike anyone else has. Facing pro-type pitchers, he said, is what he’s trained for, so he is able to just react: never consciously thinking throughout the at-bat. Against lesser pitching, he said, he has to think “slow down” or “don’t try to pull that 62 mph curveball no matter how juicy it looks.” (He had faced a 62 mph curveball the night before.)

I asked him about what he’s trying to do at the plate, which locations and pitches he likes and where he’s trying to hit them. He spoke of his approach, trying to stay balanced and hit everything up the middle, which is where his batting practice power is most consistent. That was almost word for word what I wrote in my notes after watching his batting practice the day before, and that’s also a pro-style approach to hitting. That approach doesn’t always lead to the best high school numbers: For elite players, due to the huge gap in talent in high school, some situations against non-pro level pitchers calls for a non-pro style swing. Nimmala approached these lesser pitchers in the same way as the elites, hoping to avoid getting into bad habits. It’s how seasoned professional hitters think, but not many 17-year-olds.

But it does lead into the question teams have about Nimmala: How much will he hit? There’s really nothing else to nitpick him over — he might be a big league shortstop with 30-plus homer potential — but hitting, broadly, is the most important thing for a position player. Last summer, his performance with wood bats in games against his peers — though most were a year older than him — was not strong enough to emphatically answer the question. In the first game I saw him in this spring, he barely saw a pitch to hit; in the second, he faced a pro-level pitcher and swung and missed a few times.

To be fair, that was almost exactly what last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Jackson Holliday, did in the second game I scouted him last spring. A number of teams have had Nimmala in for pre-draft workouts and he’s consistently posting the most impressive batting practices and peak exit velos despite being by far the youngest player in attendance, sometimes outslugging 21-year-old college prospects. There’s interest among teams picking in the top 10, with a strong chance he goes in the top 15 picks. I projected him going 13th overall to the Chicago Cubs in my latest mock draft.

Being late to the summer circuit, still having among the highest upsides in his draft class — while also being among the youngest — and training with pros are all great indicators of how much Nimmala can improve. What might be even more important than that obvious, surface observation of Nimmala is that his mental game, from analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of his swing to how he thinks of failure, or leadership, is something that will be a part of him every day of his career. He’s a lead-by-example type who internalizes any hint of failure, which jives with what I’ve seen from him in games.

I described a scenario with a terrible umpire to him, to see how he would view failure that wasn’t really his fault. “I try to think about why I also failed because not all three pitches are going to be bad calls by him. I have to have gotten one pitch in there that I should have hit or something I should have put a bat on … So I’d rather try to get on base for my team even if it means me going outside of what I think is my strike zone than get out … adjust to what the game is and what [the umpire] thinks because he’s also trying to do his best job out there.”

This conversation helps paint a picture of the impressive person and player Nimmala is and could be, but there’s also the precedent-setting aspect of his background. I’m not aware of another second-generation Indian American baseball player of any note to scouts, so I asked him how he thought the subcontinent might respond to his career if he continued succeeding.

“I try to make the Indian culture proud and just do what I can to do my best for them. That’s really it,” he said. Does he want India to watch him in the big leagues? “I hope, to be honest, I hope I play well enough for them to really watch me, like how Japan stopped and watched [Shohei] Ohtani in the WBC. … I hope they pay attention, that’d be so cool. I just want them to watch and be proud of what we Indians can do.”

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MLB Draft 2023: Arjun Nimmala swaps cricket for baseball