As of August 21st, MLB’s leaguewide slugging percentage in 2014 sits at .385. The last time the league slugged at that level was in 1992, when .377 was the number. Just for perspective, the peak came in 2000 at .437 and the valley occurred in 1968 at .340. Quick math shows where on the continuum we reside today; therefore, amateur power is at a premium. Whether it’s a polished, explosive bat like that of Florida prep shortstop Brendan Rodgers—ranked the no. 2 overall player in the United States by Perfect Game—or the raw slug ability of Luken Baker—who, despite being the no. 3 right-handed pitcher in Texas according to PG, has gained arguably more attention by winning several home run derbies on a large stages this summer—power gets noticed.
So it seems likely that more truly unpolished big bats could soon enter the pro ranks, simply based on their rare and coveted skill. So I thought I’d connect with a former player who fit the mold of “raw” early in his career, and get inside his head about the growth he experienced and the pitfalls he encountered.
Bemberg Ehrhardt High School (SC) star Preston Wilson was the Mets’ first round pick in 1992. It was evident right away that he had the bat and the strength to merit a ninth-overall selection. The home runs never seemed to run dry, 83 total in 402 games below Double-A. But as an 18- and 19-year-old, he learned quickly that he hadn’t come close to figuring it all out, despite a depth of knowledge about the game—learned from his adopted father, Mookie Wilson—that was far greater than many of his peers had.
“I just remember always wanting to work. Baseball is this whole world of information; it’s not just talent, it’s information. The work is not always on the field, sometimes it’s who you talk to and the information you gather. I remember being in the minor leagues and every time I saw someone that I respected or I liked from watching when I was younger or that I knew anything about the way they went about the game or their philosophies, I would ask them questions,” he recalls. “I remember going to George Hendrick, who was coaching for the Cardinals at the time, in Savannah, Georgia and saying, ‘Is there anything that you can let me know that I am doing wrong or might be able to do better? Anything I can make an adjustment with? After the series, send me a note after we’re done playing you guys.’ I started with that and it kind of went on from there, because every time I saw somebody (like Hendrick) I would do it. I would say probably 90 percent of the time, I got some type of answer back.”
“Everything doesn’t fit your body type or your philosophy or your swing, but as a player you need to be able to be open and listen and learn. I also remember being in the cage all of the time just trying to understand myself. Because when you’re young the biggest thing is understanding what you’re capable of and, even bigger, understanding what you’re not capable of. Where are the holes in your swing? What do you need to fix? What do you need to make better? That comes with just work and understanding yourself,” Wilson said.
So after 108 minor-league homers in parts of six seasons, he found himself in the big leagues with the Mets and then the Marlins, following a trade involving Mike Piazza. There were a pair of occasions on his journey when he gained the solid footing in the belief that he truly belonged at the highest level.
“It went on for me at two stages, let’s start with Double-A (Binghamton, NY, 1997). In Double-A, there was a time that I went there and I realized that I could compete. I realized that these are guys that are close to the major leagues; therefore I am close to the major leagues. I knew that I could compete with those guys. I saw my talent compared with theirs and I really knew that I could play,” Wilson said. “I knew that when I stepped on the field, that I was one of the better players. It got recognized by them as well, shortly after I went down. I hit like 19 home runs in the second half of Double-A.”
“The second time was when I got to the big leagues and I’m on the field and I’m playing for the Mets, my first callup. I think I went 3-for-4 my first game, 3-for-4 my second game, then all of a sudden there was just a calm that happened. I felt like the work that I put in mattered. Attention to detail that was paid mattered, and I felt that I could compete in the major leagues,” Wilson said. “Now I didn’t get a hit for a couple of games after that, but I felt my talent could compete at the major-league level. So it was like two stages. First it was the minor leagues, the getting there, I felt like I could get there from Double-A. Then once I played in the big leagues, I felt like, ‘I’ve got a chance to stay here.’”
And stay he did, as Wilson worked his way up to a peak run of 113 home runs from 2000-2003, while managing to rein in his aggression. From 1998-2000 his MLB strikeout rate was 28.5 percent, and for the remainder of his career (ending in 2007), he cut it to 22.8 percent. How? Why?
“I think it was mental for me because I had to understand when people weren’t trying to pitch to me. I think the surrounding cast around me got better throughout the years, so I was able to strikeout less. My first couple of years with the Marlins, I was hitting cleanup in my second year and some of my first year as well. So I was the guy in the lineup,” Wilson said, “So when you’re a rookie or a second-year player and you’re a cleanup hitter, there are going to be times when teams are going to come after you. Then there’s going to be time when they look down the lineup and they’re going to think, ‘There’s nobody else in there really that dangerous.’ Mike Lowell hadn’t come into his own yet. I was protecting Cliff Floyd; he was the other big bat. D-Lee hadn’t become Derrek Lee yet. I was one of the only big bats in the lineup and I didn’t understand that they weren’t trying to pitch to me.
“I didn’t learn to lay off of some of those pitches, especially with men in scoring position. I still was able to drive in a lot of runs. I still was able to be productive, but I learned later on in my career that your supporting cast matters as far as how they are going to go after you. It was really learning myself, learning the league and learning my surrounding cast,” Wilson remembered.
Mariners Director of Pro Scouting Tom Allison was a few notches up the ladder from Preston as an infielder in the Mets organization. With his scout’s eye, Tom looked back on what he saw of the young, raw slugger in his system.
“Preston was so athletic and aggressive early in his career. He could take your breath away when he launched balls or struck out, which he did a lot early. However, he was a tremendous worker and kept getting better and better with his strike zone knowledge,” Allison shared via text. “Another thing that allowed him to gather those learning ABs was his good OF play. This guy played hard and smart defense. Easier to allow the bat to develop when the player helps the club on the other side of the ball!”
But Wilson, who prides himself on the fact that his glove rarely, if ever, had him out of the action late in games, knows that it was the explosiveness in his bat that gave him the opportunity to fine tune the other areas of his game.
“I think early on that I was definitely a raw talent because I had something that you couldn’t teach. I had power to all fields and there was no ballpark that was too big for me. I played in Pro Player Stadium down there in Florida, which was a big ballpark. I played in RFK, where the gaps were 395 and 394 respectively. I played in Colorado after they put in the humidor. I played in big parks my whole career so I really think I had raw power,” he said. “I had to learn to be a better hitter and to be a situational hitter. I think I got to the big leagues because I was able to apply a lot of the things that I learned. But with the bat speed and the power that I had to all fields, that was something that was just there. It was worked on and of course you do all of your drills when you are young to maximize the skills that you have, but I wasn’t one of those guys that could just hit .300. When I learned that about myself, I became comfortable with who I was.”
When watching today’s center fielders who can slug the baseball, players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen, Wilson realizes how unique they are historically, as he has covered some of the same patches of green grass.
“I look at these guys and I know what they’re up against. Because when you play center field and you are a power hitter, those two things don’t usually go together. Think about guys from the past, I’ll go back a little bit, like Willie Mays or Ken Griffey, and now Trout, Harper, McCutchen, those guys are so rare to have power and play center field,” Wilson said, “They have added responsibilities because when you’re the center fielder you have to know where every hitter is to be played. You have to know where your left and right fielder should be playing in relation to you. You have to understand what the pitcher’s trying to do to every hitter. Where does he want contact? Where does he want the ball to be hit in the air? You have to be able to anticipate that. So not only with that responsibility, but to carry the load offensively, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen, every year they can be the MVP of their team. I marvel at them. I know they took it to a level that I didn’t reach as far as their ability. So to put that responsibility on themselves and to maintain that caliber of play is awesome.”
An elite athlete. A raw powerful slugger. A successful career. A perspective that may prove a bit beneficial as the game longs for more offense.