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," 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."
It turns out teaching him has been easy.
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.
Wilkes has been a dream for the Padres. The right-hander has quickly adapted to exactly what the Padres preach:
Throw first-pitch strikes – v
Keep walks to a minimum – v
Three pitches or less each at-bat – v
Use the changeup 20 percent of the time - v
"He was special to watch," AZL Padres manager Jose Flores said. "You look at him and Osuna, you know what you're going to get. You put those two guys out there and you know exactly what you're going to get.
"What I like about Wilkes is that he challenges. He's not afraid to throw it. He doesn't walk many people. Again, he doesn't have any overpowering stuff. The thing that impresses me about him, for an 18-year-old to establish the changeup the way he has and throw it at any time in the count, whether you're down 2-0 or down 3-1 or 0-0, he's not afraid to throw it and he throws it for strikes at this point in his career. It's only going to get better as he gets going."
The Padres weren't sure what they were getting with Wilkes and have been pleasantly surprised. His strike throwing ability has been inspiring. His ability to take lessons learned and apply it on the field has been mystical.
"Chris – I know early in the season we started him out as a reliever and then we moved him into the rotation," AZL Padres pitching coach Bronswell Patrick said. "He just took off because he was able to go out, hit his spots, change speeds, he picked up that slider, and kept that slider down and away from right-handed hitters after throwing a good fastball inside and those hitters were rolling over on it.
"Chris got a ton of ground balls, by throwing that good slider down and away and using his sinker when he had to. Those guys were just trying to lift it and they couldn't lift it. They were rolling over on it and it showed in the numbers he put up down here in rookie ball."
Wilkes came into the system without a usable changeup but immediately bought in. He knew he would need such a pitch to be competitive and worked laboriously to make the changeup not only a usable pitch but also one that could produce positive results.
As the season wore on, it became apparent that his changeup was moving into the plus category. His confidence in the slip never wavered and it showed, becoming an instrumental pitch in getting hitters to roll over and hit weak grounders.
"He has been a tremendous surprise – a guy that we did not have a lot of information on, a guy that came to us late," Fuson said. "He has a special knack for 18. I think he is loving it. He is learning a lot of baseball. He is leveraging the ball downhill. He is really digging this whole changeup thing. We have not done much with his breaking ball, which is fine. He has been good."
The Florida native works his fastball in the 88-90 mph range with projection. Given his frame and easy motion, the Padres believe he can add velocity to it without taking away from its effectiveness.
His two-seam has natural sink and tailing action away from a right-hander. His ability to command it to both sides of the plate is the ultimate difference maker.
Wilkes is working on bringing up his breaking ball to an acceptable level. Right now, it does not have consistent action and gets a little big on its route home. It has made strides over the year and could become a plus pitch. He has shown a propensity to throw it in game situations – a key component to improving it.
"Chris got it down by just challenging hitters," Patrick said. "Chris picked up a slider and he started using the slider, because like you said in high school, he was mainly fastball/changeup type guy. He picked up that slider and started using that slider."
Wilkes has a smooth delivery and stands tall through his motion, giving him a nice downward plane to take advantage of his size. He brings his glove over the top of his head to keep his balance and key points in sync through the motion and comes out at a near three-quarters arm angle.
He varies his leg kicks out of the stretch and kept runners tight to first. He and his catchers snared 5-of-13 base runners attempting to steal.
"He's the kind of guy that doesn't show any fear," Flores said. "He shows emotion. If you get him hey, he's right back at it the next inning, or the next outing. For an 18-year-old, it was pleasant."
Conclusion: Wilkes is the poster boy for what the Padres preach – work ahead in the count, get quick outs, use the fastball and changeup effectively.
He still needs to work on a third pitch that will keep right-handed hitters guessing. Once that is accomplished, Wilkes could move reasonably quick – strange for a high school arm in the Padres system.
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