No, you won’t find him on any Texas Rangers‘ top-30 prospect list. He doesn’t flash high-90s readings on the radar gun, and he won’t drop a hammer on an unsuspecting hitter with two strikes. He’s probably not destined for the front end of the Rangers’ big league rotation, and yes, it’s true, he won just three games in 23 tries last summer pitching in the (admittedly brutal) home confines of Heritage Field for the High-A California League‘s High Desert Mavericks.
But forget all that, because Collin Wiles has something far better in his favor: he’s earned the respect of his Rangers teammates.
Well-regarded catcher Jose Trevino told me last season—and reiterated over the winter—that Wiles is the most fiercely competitive pitcher he’s seen in the system. Another catching prospect, David Lyon, raved about Wiles’ impressive maturity in handling the infamous crooked innings dealt a pitcher’s way in High Desert. And just moments after the Mavericks clinched the 2016 Cal League championship with a win over the Visalia Rawhide last September 17th—in a game started by Wiles—infield prospect Josh Morgan broke into an ear-to-ear grin when I asked about Collin’s work for High Desert down the stretch.
“Wiles, man,” Morgan beamed as Mavericks fans crowded around us on the field hoping for one last autograph from Josh after the team’s championship-clinching win in what would also be their final game ever. “That dude has the best mindset you could ever think of. This place [High Desert] is not good for pitchers, and for him to do what he did tonight, and to do what he always does here, the whole season really, that’s unreal to me. He’s a grinder. He doesn’t come at you with 95 [mph] and a hammer, but he works with what he has and he makes it work.”
What Wiles did on that night—the September 17, 2016 championship win over the Arizona Diamondbacks‘ affiliate Visalia—is the epitome of what Wiles did all season long: five innings, seven hits, three runs, no walks, two strikeouts, and a no-decision. Sexy? Nope. But effective, competitive, and efficient? Without question. Now, as he starts the sixth year of his pro career, that’s exactly the kind of pitcher Collin Wiles has become: effective, competitive, and efficient, flying under the radar to let all the external prospect excitement land on others as he bides his time in the background.
It all stems from the most formative experience Wiles has had in pro ball to date: getting (figuratively) hit in the mouth the moment he walked into the Texas Rangers’ facility in Surprise, Arizona as an 18-year-old kid ignorantly thinking he was prepared to dominate rookie ball days after being taken 53rd overall in the draft out of Kansas’ Blue Valley West High School.
“My first year in the Arizona League, I always look back on that year as being the most influential season of my professional career,” Wiles told me in a phone conversation last month, opening up about his disappointing 2012 in rookie ball, where he pitched to a 6.87 ERA and a .310 opponents’ batting average in the first 36.2 innings of his career.
“I came in as an 18-year-old kid, I was on top of the world, and I didn’t know what to expect, and, uh, to use interview-friendly language, I got my butt kicked,” he recalled. “Then that first offseason when I went home, everybody I saw was all excited, like, ‘oh, cool, wow, how was it?’ I had to tell them, uh, well, it didn’t go very well. It wasn’t good in any regard. Yeah, I got my innings, but they weren’t very good. And very quickly I learned of the importance of the quality of pitches more so than the quantity of pitches.”
Baseball humbles in that way at any level, really, but especially to a teenager getting cocky for even just a moment after getting drafted. But just like dealing with the reality of allowing three runs in the first inning of a High Desert game thanks to a wind-blown pop fly-turned-home run, you can’t just quit; you still have to figure out a way forward after being humbled in the moment.
It took a few years for Collin Wiles to learn that lesson, but he’s getting it now, thanks to a stellar 2015 spent in Low-A with the Hickory Crawdads, and a better-than-you-realize summer with the Mavericks this past season.
“After a few years, after I got to Hickory, it was finally like, OK, let’s learn,” Wiles remembered about the bigger development path created out of that brutal 2012 summer in rookie ball. “Let’s just learn. It’s time to learn. I’ve had enough of thinking I got it all by myself. Let’s just learn. Then when I went back to Hickory and repeated the second year [in 2015], that’s when it really took off. I got to the point where I finally learned who I am, I learned what makes me successful, and I didn’t have to try to do more. I didn’t come out and blow 95 mph past people, because I’m more of a command guy. And all of that grew out of the Arizona League.”
If the growth started in rookie ball five years ago, though, the Rangers turned the dial up to 11 on poor Collin Wiles with his 2016 assignment to the High Desert Mavericks.
It’s a desolate, wind-swept city not even two hours north of the flashy world of Los Angeles but a hemisphere away in culture, economic opportunities, and future outlook. There’s a biker bar down the street from Heritage Field, and a few gas stations out by the highway. The Mavs had many of their players living in hotels all summer, leery to let them rent their own apartments in the cheap—and dangerous—sections of the nearly-bankrupt desert town. Drive into Adelanto from the west and you’ll pass a prison and an immigration detention center before crossing Highway 395 to pull up at Heritage Field, which itself sits just east of a now-defunct military base that all but wrote Adelanto’s death certificate when it closed a few years back.
You can’t enter Adelanto from any direction without passing massive city welcome signs, though. The signs are unforgettable monstrosities sitting on the side of the road, almost comical in both their size, and their message: “Welcome to the City of Adelanto: The city with unlimited possibilities.”
“You know how the signs say ‘unlimited possibilities,'” Trevino peppered at me one time last summer before a Mavs game. “Like, really? Unlimited possibilities? I like to add to it. Every time I drive by, I say, ‘OK, unlimited possibilities — but very limited resources.'”
Trevino isn’t wrong, and Adelanto has long been teetering on the brink of complete financial collapse. Really, there’s only one unlimited commodity in this town: the wind. It blows all the time, and at Heritage Field, it blows out. Straight out. It’s the worst kind of unrelenting, unlimited wind, too; it’s that allow a pop up blooper to shallow right field and watch it carry over the right-center field fence kind of wind.
The Quakes had re-tied the game by the top of the eighth.
“That’s the desert, baby,” Trevino said haltingly the day after that wild game, clenching his teeth and holding back what I can only imagine he really wanted to say about the God-forsaken place. “We, uh, we love the desert. We embrace the desert. You’ve gotta embrace the desert.”
So that’s the environment the Texas Rangers decided would be ideal for Wiles in 2016.
“We got to Adelanto after spring training and we were told ‘yes, this is the most unfair environment to pitch in anywhere in professional baseball, so eliminate that as an excuse. That is no longer an excuse,'” the pitcher recalled of his early days in the desert. “And then it becomes, well, what’s going to make us successful? What’s going to make me personally successful? Let’s go do that. And when you focus on those short-term things, it takes away the negative attention and outside noise, and it keeps you locked in to what you should be doing.”
And that’s the environment Wiles had conquered by the end of it all, claiming a Cal League championship ring for himself and his Texas Rangers teammates with that Game Three championship series start against Visalia. Of course, even allowing for Trevino’s “limited resources” quip, the desert pushed hard enough to have its way with Wiles early on last summer, and he floundered in a few April starts for the Mavs. The past is prologue, though, and the Kansas native wasn’t about to forget all the learned lessons he’d brought with him to Adelanto.
“I got my butt kicked early on, there’s no way around that, my ERA was 6.00 or 7.00 in that first month,” Wiles recalled about his first few outings in Adelanto. “But you look at it, and it’s like ‘OK, that’s really just one or two pitches a game where if I had executed better, that big number is gone.’ And that’s how you have to look at it to be a starter [in High Desert], you have to be tough. You can’t get worn down. If the other team gets you early, but you come back strong for a few innings, it messes with their minds. They’re like, ‘wait, how’s he doing this? We got him early.’ And that gives your offense confidence to have some fun and try to catch them.”
Collin Wiles did that down the stretch for the Texas Rangers’ High-A affiliate, bending at times, but never breaking. Never flashing a sexy stat line, Wiles earned the respect and admiration of his teammates, so much so that he wasn’t just next in line when the championship game came around—he was the pitcher the Mavs wanted to throw the clincher on that muggy September night. But you wouldn’t get all that if you just looked at a few box scores. Maybe you just had to be there in windy, shitty Adelanto, watching Wiles bide his time behind the prospects, letting his work pave the way to become the Mavs’ most trusted starter down the stretch.
And suddenly, when you put Collin Wiles’ summer into context, you understand the point of Adelanto. It’s not a traditional environment, and the fact that Wiles—or any Texas Rangers pitching prospect—survived it speaks volumes about how far he’s come from that formative, rude awakening in 2012.
Just don’t expect him to miss High Desert too much now that he’s moved on to bigger and better things in Frisco.
“I really hope that later on in my career I can look back and laugh at High Desert like I did with the Arizona League,” Wiles mused, smiling. “I hope I say ‘wow, look at all the good things that came from it.’ Because there have been a lot of times when I was on the mound out there looking around, like, ‘what are people talking about? How is this place supposed to be a learning process?’ But looking back from the start of the season, it’s been huge. Mistakes get amplified ten times over in High Desert, and so you have to limit those mistakes to keep moving forward. It’s kind of, ‘OK, we might get beat one game, but let’s not let it happen two straight. Let’s not let it happen in four games over a series.'”
That’s a mature outlook for anybody, big leaguer or prospect, and Collin Wiles will need it when he faces down Texas League hitters with the RoughRiders this summer. With all he’s been through to get to this point, he should figure things out just fine. Don’t take my word for it, though, and you need not even ask Wiles about it. If you really want to know where the pitcher fits heading into this season, ask his teammates.
“He’s a great guy, man, and we were so happy he was the one to pitch this game three [that clinched the title],” Morgan summed up about Wiles in what ended up being the last interview I—or maybe anyone—ever did in Adelanto. “Honestly, he’s one of the strongest guys mentally that I’ve ever seen. He’s a grinder. He just gets outs.”
In that moment, with that final quote on that final night in Adelanto just seconds before announcer ‘Crazy Chris’ Ackerman said goodbye for the final time over the public address system and Mavs general manager Ben Hemmen shut off the stadium lights for the last time in the team’s turbulent history, Josh Morgan said absolutely everything you need to know about Collin Wiles.
Congratulations, Collin Wiles, because you’re done with Adelanto forever. Next, Frisco looms. And with it?
Collin Wiles will be extensively featured in Bobby DeMuro’s forthcoming book We Is Blaze, set for release in digital and print formats on Amazon on April 10, 2017. We Is Blaze details the 2016 seasons of the Bakersfield Blaze and the High Desert Mavericks—Wiles’ team—as each club played out their final summers as dead men walking, days from their joint contraction out of the California League forever. Follow We Is Blaze on Twitter, Facebook, its official website, and its page on this website for information on the book, and links to buy when it’s available.