Name: Chris Wilkes
DOB: September 26, 1989
Wilkes was known for his arm – it just wasn't baseball that made him such a highly regarded prospect. He was an All-State selection out of Dr. Phillips high school with a commitment to Ole Miss. A drop back passer with a rocket arm, Wilkes went 4-1 with a 2.27 ERA across 46.1 innings but was known more for the 1,360 yards and 16 touchdowns he had in football.
In fact, the Padres drafted him without ever seeing him pitch in a game. They had only seen him workout and trusted in the scouting staff and development team to lead him to the next step.
"It was old school scouting," former Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "We never really saw him pitch in a game, and he really didn't pitch that much in school. Everything we learned from him was based off of workouts. Our scouts, after talking with him, thought he had more of an interest in becoming a professional baseball pitcher than a quarterback in the SEC, and we were able to get it done."
Teaching him had been relatively easy coming into 2009.
Wilkes went 7-1 in his professional debut, sporting a 3.21 ERA across 15 games and 10 starts. In 61.2 innings he walked just five while fanning 45 for a 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Just as impressive – a 3.55-to-1 groundout-to-fly out ratio. That equates to 78 percent of balls hit into play landing on the ground for a fielder to scoop up.
His 2.49 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was sixth best in the league among pitchers with more than 40 innings of work.
The 2010 season was the next step of that building block. His first assignment, however, proved to be too much for the youngster. Its affects lasted all year and challenged Wilkes mentally.
"I talked to him before he left," Eugene pitching coach Bronswell Patrick said. "I told him, ‘Do what you did down here last year. Don't try and change anything.' It didn't happen that way. It is easier said than done.
"He went up there and the same thing that happened to Pedro Hernandez in Eugene happened to Wilkes in Elsinore. He was leaving pitches out over the plate and they weren't missing. They were getting hit hard. He started shying away from pitching to contact. He struggled."
Wilkes was sent from extended spring to the High-A Lake Elsinore squad. The right-hander worked in three games, giving up six runs on nine hits and four walks across 5.1 innings. He matched the amount of homers he allowed during the entire 2008 season – a span of 61.2 frames.
"There was no way, Grady included, anybody thought he'd be a California League pitcher, but when they had injuries out there and we didn't have the draft yet, they had to just send him there," Eugene manager Greg Riddoch said. "OK, who's an emergency guy and when they had to use him he got lit up real big. But he was no way ready for that. Everybody knew that, and nobody puts any credence in what happened out there. Except that mentally it affected him a little bit because he got shell-shocked, but he's a pretty good looking prospect."
Wilkes was sent back to extended and continued to struggle. His command was off and his ability to hit the corners was awry. It seemed that the Florida native was scared of contact.
"He came back to extended and was a totally different pitcher because he still wasn't pitching to contact," Patrick said. "He wasn't real sure of himself throwing a good quality pitch. It was more like aiming this pitch to keep him from hitting it. I said, ‘Just relax. Forget what happened in Lake Elsinore. You have to bounce back and be the pitcher I saw last year.' I worked with him a lot trying to get him back on track. He has been back on track. There have been times when he hasn't had his best stuff and still gave us five innings while only giving up one run. It is not going to be the first time that happens. I tell him each time, ‘You showed me something by not having your best stuff and competing the way you did.'"
After his first start in Eugene, Wilkes settled down and began to take the control back. He allowed five earned runs in that first outing but would give up just three runs across his next 20.2 innings. He posted a 1-2 mark with a 2.84 ERA before leaving a July 17 outing.
"My forearm towards my elbow was a little tight," Wilkes said. The concern, however, is that it might actually be his UCL that has been affected.
While he maintained a low ERA, Wilkes did get his pitch count up and was hit around more than ever before. The opposition hit .356 off him with runners on base. Luckily, he held the leadoff batter to an inning to just four hits in 24 at-bats. His ground ball rate also dropped significantly from the previous year, lending credence to the fact that his ball was elevated and catching more of the plate.
Wilkes is a control pitcher that relies on location and the movement of his two-seam fastball to see success. He throws in the high-80s and tops out at 90 mph but gets terrific sink on a heavy fastball. Hitters often drive the ball into the dirt or make weak contact when he is on. If his pitches flatten out – mostly from poor mechanics – Wilkes can get hit and hit hard.
He has a plus changeup that he uses in any count and at any time. Thrown with the same arm speed as his fastball, the ball drops off the tables and messes with a hitter's timing. Expecting fastball, they commit too early and are out on their front foot. If they do make contact, the hitter often pulls the ball weakly on the ground.
Working on his slider remains a focal point. He introduced the pitch to his repertoire in 2008 and it remains a work in progress. It is erratic with its break and control. Improving on that pitch will provide a necessary third offering to keep hitters on their toes.
Wilkes is relatively clean mechanically. He can get a little slow in his motion and that causes his arm to drag behind his body. When he keeps his tempo more upbeat, the right-hander is more fluid and maintains his balance point. His work in the stretch is a less mechanical and full of effort. He struggles to find a consistent release point and his rhythm isn't in sync.
"He is a competitor and wants the ball," Patrick said. "He still has that football mentality. ‘Give me the ball. I want it. I am not backing down from anybody.'
"He is a guy that has his head on straight, wants to win and competes. We have to keep drilling in his head to trust his stuff and he will be fine."
Having faced challenge in 2009 and bounced back before injury, Wilkes figures to be better served for the future.
"He's 19 years old; big, tall, strong kid," Riddoch said. "When he's on, he's got command of his pitches. He just needs experience. He's going to be a good pitcher."
Conclusion: Wilkes suffered his first taste of failure and it took him time to respond positively. As he matures, that trait should become easier. He was fearless in 2008 and that was due to his success. When presented with difficult situations, Wilkes did not show the ability to quickly bounce back. He has two quality pitches he must trust in and needs the third to reach his potential.
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