Frisco, Texas —— Sometimes you have to go through hell to get to heaven.
If Texas Rangers pitching prospect Collin Wiles went through hell a year ago—a rotation role starting half his games in the best hitter’s environment in all of professional baseball—then Double-A Frisco ought to feel like a little piece of heaven. Not only because he’s finally free of the wind-swept desert disaster that was Adelanto, California, but also because he’s in the vaunted Texas League now, just a few miles down the road from the Rangers’ big league confines and light years closer to everything he’s ever wanted since he was a kid.
“The first day we were [in Frisco], walking out of the tunnel for our first workout, they had music going, and they had the boards up, and the video boards were going, and it really hit me,” Wiles told Baseball Census. “It was like, ‘whoa, this isn’t A-ball any more. I’m not anonymous any more.’ That’s really when it hit me. But since that day, I’ve really just tried to keep my head down, and keep working. The end goal will take care of itself if the work goes in at the start.”
It’s no surprise that the right-handed pitcher can snap back into business mode in the span of a few sentences; when you pitch the way Collin Wiles does, you sort of have to be all business, all the time. Never a flamethrower and forever a pitch-to-contact righty once thought to be ticketed for long relief or low leverage roles on account of his lack of wipeout stuff, something is clicking for the former compensation round (2012) draft pick from Blue Valley West High School in Kansas. Across 18 games (17 starts) this year, Wiles is 7-5 with a 3.63 ERA and only 17 walks allowed in 96.2 innings pitched.
His consistent work to date earned him a spot in the Texas League All-Star Game last month, too, which he promptly followed up with seven no-run innings in his first start of the second half. He’s had a blow-up every now and then, as is the case with most any pitcher at this level, but Wiles’ remarkable consistency in churning out competitive outings remains a hallmark carried over from his High Desert days a year ago.
“He handles himself like a big leaguer,” Texas Rangers catching prospect Jose Trevino said of his longtime battery-mate. “That’s all it is. He comes out, does his work, and gives us a chance to win ball games. Nothing’s changed [from High Desert]. He just knows himself, and that’s what it’s all about. You stick to what you know, you trust the process, and things work themselves, and he’s doing that.”
It’s not just catchers who are noticing what’s happening with Wiles, either. When a pitcher goes through a command surge like he’s seen this year—just 1.58 BB/9 as of July 12, tying his career best rate from Low-A Hickory in 2014—position players across the diamond reap the benefits.
“You’ll see guys who have 100 mph stuff and it’s ball one, ball two, but Collin, he dots it up,” Frisco outfielder Scott Heineman marveled. “When I’m playing center field, I get the best look. It’s incredible. ‘Hosey’ [Trevino] sets it up, and it’s right there. To play behind a guy who goes strike one, strike two, he doesn’t keep you out there very long, he doesn’t walk guys, it’s incredible. If you’re going to beat him, you have to swing the bat to beat him.”
Now, to be fair, teams have on occasion swung the bat to beat Wiles. He’s allowed 107 hits in those 96.2 innings this season (9.96 H/9), and he’s given up 14 home runs in that span (1.30 HR/9), too. But those numbers become far more livable with pinpoint control that limits free passes. You can survive a solo home run; you can’t always survive a three-run shot.
“There’s been a lot more focus within my command, so that 0-0 pitch now is no longer a get-me-over pitch, but I’m trying to make a pitch,” Wiles said about his improved ability to hit the glove. “And on 0-1, I’m trying to make a pitch. And then when I get 0-2 and 1-2, I’m very confident in the command that I have with the slider, and the curveball. Really, the fastball too. I’ve struck out a lot of guys going backwards, mixing in a slider and changing speeds early and then freezing them with fastballs, and that plays up a lot in that second and third at-bat of the game.”
“If I see a guy three times, but I can pitch him three different ways, that really plays into what I want to do,” Wiles continued. “And in that third at-bat, even for some guys in that second at-bat, I can mix in a lot of stuff that’ll get them thinking. There are a lot of times that I’ll double-up on a guy with one pitch early in the count, because I want to put something in the back of their minds, and then late in the count when they think it’s coming again, I can freeze them with something else.”
In an era of throwers who routinely flirt with triple digits, the Texas Rangers have themselves a cerebral pitcher, a guy who has taken the time to understand the subtleties of good sequencing, and who has enough in his back pocket (fastball, slider, curve, changeup) to toss out a wild card when he needs it. Wiles won’t light up a radar gun—he’ll sit right around 90 mph—but there’s arm strength there, too, for when he needs it in certain situations. (Wiles told me once that “if you held a gun to [his] head” he could work in the mid-90s, albeit with imprecise command.)
Just don’t conflate a lack of velocity with a lack of intensity.
“He gets intense sometimes,” Trevino said, flashing a grin. “He’ll talk some stuff to the umpires, sometimes to the opposing hitters. But you just let him go, man. You just have to let him do his thing. He’s mature enough where he knows if he’s crossed the line, and he knows how to use that stuff to his advantage. He can see it well enough.”
Trevino paused, and smiled again.
“But yeah, if I see something, he trusts me enough to go out there and say to him, ‘hey, maybe let’s lay back a little bit.’”
And perhaps ironically, Wiles’ pedestrian velocity may actually play up against opposing hitters who are being conditioned over and over to sit dead-red in the upper 90s.
“When we go through scouting reports before a game, if we’ve got a guy who is throwing 95, the first thing we ask is ‘what’s his fastball do? Is it flat?’ And if it’s flat, we’re like, ‘wow, we’re going to have fun hitting off that,’” Heineman offered about facing plus-velocity guys. “But then you get a guy like Collin Wiles, and it’s like ‘what’s he doing out there?’ And the report is ‘oh, he’s got a two-seamer when he comes in and a cutter when he goes away,’ and it’s like, ‘Really? Wow. Damn, man. Ok. I guess we just have to grind through these at-bats.’ Everyone will tell you how frustrating it is.”
It’s that lack of “sexy” velocity that has, in part, contributed to Wiles’ relative anonymity compared to bigger Texas Rangers pitching prospects that litter both the system itself, and Frisco in particular. Take Ariel Jurado, Connor Sadzeck, Yohander Mendez, and Pedro Payano alone, and it’s easy to see why Wiles has been overshadowed. You’d think it’d also be easy to see how he takes it as motivation, but it’s not that simple for the right-handed pitcher.
“I like being underrated,” Wiles said. “I’ve never been caught up in the prospect lists or stuff like that. I’m at the point in my career where I’m not upset that I’m not on a prospect list. I’m not out here trying to prove anybody wrong or anything like that. I’m trying to prove people right. I’m trying to prove the Rangers right for taking me so early. I’m trying to prove my family right for believing that I could do this. I’m trying to prove myself right for thinking I could play at this level. This is the jump everyone talks about, this High-A to Double-A jump, and I’m on a mission to prove people right.”
“And the team we have here is unbelievable,” he continued, referencing the pitching prospects who have passed through Frisco this summer. “It’s fun to be around Sadzeck, and Mendez, and Jurado, and see what they are doing, and see all the praise they get. They are incredible, every single one of them, and they are better people, too, which is a big testament to their character.”
Maybe this is just where Collin Wiles is meant to fit, even during his breakout summer in Frisco: far more on the radar than he was in High Desert, but never the frontline guy to get all the attention. Leave all that stuff to the top 30 guys; Collin Wiles is content doing the little things that aren’t flashy, because those things will give him a chance to play this game a long time.
“I read all the stuff on Twitter about me,” Wiles admitted. “I read that I don’t throw as hard as a lot of the other first-round guys, and that’s fair, but what I’m good at doing and confident in doing is I can locate the baseball where I want, when I want. A weak ground ball to third base is just as effective as an eight-pitch strikeout in my opinion, and it’s going to save me a lot of pitches.”