Watch Austin Wilson do anything on the field and you’re struck by his athleticism. Six-foot-five, 244 pounds of muscle, he glides across center field in the Sunken Diamond on defense. During batting practice, no bat makes a more satisfying sound than his.
But with parents that hold multiple degrees from MIT, Harvard and Stanford, obviously the Stanford center fielder is more than a collection of high-end body parts. In fact, his makeup could go a long way toward smoothing out the wrinkles in his game as he proceeds to the professional leagues. It has already helped.
There’s the inevitable question from anyone that takes a long look at Wilson’s statistics. Where are the home runs? He’s hit five this year, which seems like a small number from such a big man.
“I don’t care about that crap,” said Wilson to me when I brought it up.
When pushed, he thought it was just the number of at-bats. Because of a stress reaction in his elbow, Wilson was limited to 118 at-bats this year for Stanford, which ranked ninth on the team. And, considering he’s more worried about winning games, the fact that his .475 slugging percentage was third on the team should prove he’s no weakling.
Power is down around college baseball, of course. Kris Bryant notwithstanding, the new BBCOR bats have taken some of the sting out of the ball. On purpose, but the fact remains. And yet Wilson just came off a summer season in the Cape Cod League that saw him use a wooden bat to hit .312 with a .623 slugging percentage and six home runs in 77 at-bats. Is the college bat worse than wood? Others have said it before. Wilson says maybe, but there’s more nuance to it — “With the BBCOR bats, you can kind of get jammed and get a hit, as opposed to wood where the bat breaks off at the handle. But when you screw up a ball with wood I think it goes farther then the BBCORs do.”
Every hitter has their own battles as they try to get the most production out of their inherent skills. Usually, for a hitter, that’s about working on your swing and your ability to recognize pitches. But ask Wilson about the coaching he’s received on his game, and he might surprise you with his answers. He credits Matt LaCour at Harvard Westlake for much of his approach, and LaCour’s former assistant Junior Brignac for helping him play better defense in the outfield.
College has mostly been about facing great pitching, and finding consistency: “I wouldn’t say it helped me in terms of mechanics, but just in terms of competition.” Contacted at Harvard Westlake, LaCour agreed that facing more pitching will be huge for Wilson as he heads to the pros. LaCour pointed out that Wilson played less than most kids his age, since he didn’t do travel ball, but that “he obviously takes studying the game seriously” and all those at-bats in the pros will do him wonders.
So it sounds like Wilson’s swing is a personal thing that he’s always working on refining. What sort of things does he think about when he stands into the box? “Simplify it, using my hands. I’m a big strong guy, so if I can use my hands consistently, that helps put good a good trajectory on the ball, with backspin. I’m working on a downward plane so the ball just jumps.”
One anecdote might put this all into focus. After his first effort at Stanford, there was a bit of concern about Wilson’s ability to lay off breaking pitches on the outside part of the plate. A 27.7% strikeout rate was too high for the college game, even for a power hitter. Wilson worked hard to better that part of his game on a day-to-day basis, shrinking his strikeout rate to 16.7% last year. But then his elbow injury was a blessing in disguise: When Wilson couldn’t swing, he took the initiative to stand in on bullpen sessions and watch Stanford’s staff spin what they had.
It’s a page out of The Book of Hitting by Manny Ramirez — the slugger used to take pitches in batting practice, as the story goes — but it was a great piece of practice for Wilson, and it was a no-brainer for him. “I knew I had to somehow keep my baseball skills up, so I stood in on bullpens,” he said with what was almost a shrug. It was “about the eye, and see the spinning on pitches, and obviously breaking balls are a component of that. That helped me read pitches better.” Wilson’s strikeout rate shrunk down all the way to 13.1% this year.
Makeup is not only about a player taking the initiative to improve on their own. Some component is how the player deals with the ups and downs of baseball. Ask Wilson about why he was so good on the Cape his second time around, and you hear that he didn’t get too excited about it: “I didn’t know what to expect the first time — it was my first time swinging wood consistently, but it felt pretty good the second time around.” Ditto when you ask him about the hubub that surrounds him as the draft approaches: “In high school I had to go through that process already and that was more nerve-wracking back then because I was 17 and a lot of people were coming to watch me play. Now I’m just used to it. And I’ve accepted failure because in baseball you fail seven out of ten times.”
Wilson has no regrets when it comes to his past, either. “I’ve come to Stanford, and there’s no money value that can compensate for the Stanford degree,” he told me. And he used his time on the farm well, focusing on simplicity and consistency in his game. Even when his prodigious athleticism couldn’t shine due to injury, he spent his time learning and improving in any way that he could. Here’s a bet that approach will serve him well in the big leagues.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.