Pretty easy to see why Riley Cornelio is the most highly regarded major league pitching prospect from Colorado since Kyle Freeland.
Easy enough that if you watch the prototype righty throw once, you know: 6-foot-3, 200-ish pounds, fastball that sat between 91-94 mph at Pine Creek, twice named Gatorade’s state player of the year. Calm as a bass pond at dawn.
Then you meet him, and even his manners come with a first-round grade. All the “yes, sirs” and “no, sirs” both offer a strong first impression and serve to make you feel old.
“What made this year so special,” Cornelio says about his freshman season at Big 12 powerhouse Texas Christian University, “was the guys I was able to play with."
Ambition, check. Live arm, check. Character, check, check.
“It’s hard to describe just how special it was for me to be around some of these players,” Cornelio says. “That’s the biggest reason that I just loved this last year.”
Truth is, I jumped into our conversation thinking The Gazette’s 2019 Peak Performer of the Year might be one bummed cookie. His first season of college ball with the Horned Frogs got trimmed to 15 games due to the coronavirus pandemic. That tickled, since "the fact you go through the fall with these guys, every waking moment, makes the spring season even more special,” he says. Then just the other day, Tuesday, his summer season in the Coastal Plains League, in North Carolina, got canceled.
Is God mad at baseball or something? It was the Astros and their trash cans, wasn’t it?
No matter. Here comes Riley, all sunshine and seashells. He's talking about his Division I debut back on Valentine's Day, a 5-1 win over Kentucky. How his whole family was in town for the game. How his grandparents blessed him with a grandparent hug in warmups.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says. “Grandma and Grandpa were so happy to be there. Before the game, they’re walking onto the field, kind of like it’s a high school game. ‘I love you Grandma and Grandpa, but I’ve got to get ready for this game.’”
He was ready, alright, throwing two scoreless innings and drawing a game-ending double play to close out the season opener. (It’s not for nothing coach Jim Schlossnagle, who’s helped the TCU program to five College World Series appearances, trusted a freshman to close the season opener.) All told, Cornelio threw 10.1 innings over four games, allowed three hits and one earned run, struck out six, walked seven, ERA of 0.87. TCU rose as high as No. 18 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and beat No. 2 UCLA before the curtains closed on the season.
MLB Pipeline ranked Cornelio as the 46th-best prospect eligible for the 2019 MLB draft, though his desire to attend TCU chased teams away. At age 21 this time next year, he’ll be eligible in 2021. Given the abbreviated college season, any regrets for going the college route? Not a bit.
“I had a lot of raw potential in high school, I think,” he says. “I just don’t think I was going to be anywhere near the caliber of pitcher I will be had I not gotten coaching the from (TCU pitching coach Kirk Saarloos) and throwing against some of these college hitters.”
Knowing what you don’t know seems like a helpful attribute in a game as tough as baseball.
“I was fortunate to not have to learn through the process (of being a pro), with baseball being my job now. There was nothing on the line for me except to learn and get better and be with great guys,” Cornelio says. “TCU was going to give me opportunity after opportunity to see what works for me. Really, in high school, I was just a thrower. I felt like a pitcher when I got to TCU. I felt like that was the big steppingstone.”
For a talent like Cornelio, the first of many.