June 1, 2016 at 12:00 PM
Aaron Wilkerson has already beaten the odds by making it to Triple-A. Being an older pitcher with the “indy leaguer” tag and a lack of standout, pure stuff, he has faced an uphill battle to establish a foothold at each level as he has moved through the system.
But so far, Wilkerson has been able to do just that. In Portland this season, he has pitched to a 1.83 ERA in eight starts with 48 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings. In a total of 15 career Double-A starts, Wilkerson has a 2.22 ERA with just under a strikeout per inning and a WHIP under one.
A native of Waco, Texas, Wilkerson went undrafted after two years at Panola College, a Junior College in his home state, and Cumberland University, a smaller NAIA school in Tennessee. After graduating in 2011 from Cumberland, he played for three different independent teams before signing with the Red Sox in 2014 and reporting to Lowell at age 25. Given the number of stops he has had on the way to Pawtucket, it is unsurprising that he has impressed with the ability to move between levels without missing a beat.
“It’s the same game I’ve played in Portland and since I was five years old,” he said.
Having shown, perhaps inarguably, that he has indeed conquered the Eastern League, Triple-A represents the latest hurdle for the 6-foot-3 right-hander. His first start in Pawtucket was mediocre, as he failed to make it through five innings, giving up three runs on seven hits and three walks while striking out five.
But in his second crack at the level this past Saturday, Wilkerson dominated, finishing the day with just the one run allowed on a home run in the first, going 6 2/3 innings, allowing three hits and two walks to go along with nine strikeouts. After allowing a solo home run and another single in the first, he kept a weak Indianapolis lineup hitless until two outs in the sixth.
“He had a sneaky fastball, utilized a mix, and was aggressive towards the hitters,” Pawtucket manager Kevin Boles said after the outing. “He gave up the home run early on. I thought he was terrific though.”
On the home run at-bat, Wilkerson fell behind early, but then battled back to make it a full count. After a seven-pitch at-bat, Wilkerson relented on a 91-mph fastball that ended up just over the fence in right-center.
That pitch was one of the harder fastballs he threw on the day, as he mostly sat 88-90 mph with the pitch. Although his velocity is not eye-popping, he relied on the heater quite heavily throughout the outing, getting both called and swinging strikes with it.
The amount of called strikes was notable, demonstrating the strong command he had all night. As he put it, the hitters were not looking to “ambush” fastballs early in counts until later in the game, so he took advantage by stealing strike calls with it early on. Wilkerson threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 25 batters faced in the outing, the majority on fastballs.
Although he featured a four-pitch mix, including a curveball, slider, and changeup, he used the secondary pitches sparingly in comparison to his fastball.
“He commanded the zone [with the fastball]. It was sneaky,” Boles said. “There’s some late deception there, and I just thought command of the zone [made him effective]. He got the guys swinging too. I thought he got them swinging early in the counts. It’s a credit to him for inducing contact early and being able to get some length.”
Although he maintains that he is just playing the same game he always had, Wilkerson did note differences in the hitters at the higher level.
“They’re more selective,” Wilkerson said of Triple-A hitters. “They lay off a lot of good pitches, and they hit mistake pitches really well.”
The selectivity of the advanced hitters was something he was able to use to his advantage of in the game though, especially early.
“In certain situations, yeah,” he said of his ability to take advantage by getting called strikes early in counts. “There’s a fine line between getting ahead and being predictable too, so it’s a good thing to mix it up every now and then, which I thought we did a really good job doing tonight.”
Despite the strong outing, Boles admitted that there was a possibility Wilkerson would again be sent down after the game. But although the PawSox have needed to shuffle the pieces of their rotation over the past week to accommodate the end to Eduardo Rodriguez’s rehab assignment and dinged-up players, Wilkerson has managed to avoid that fate so far, only being placed on the temporarily inactive list to make room for another starter until his turn comes up again on Thursday. Such is life for a former indy leaguer who has had to fight for every inch he has earned.
“It keeps me hungry, knowing where I’ve come from and how far I’ve come. It keeps me humble and I thank God I’m where I’m at,” he said.
“It’s a game, and I just want to be ready when I’m called upon.”
Photo credit: Aaron Wilkerson by Kelly O'Connor
Matt Huegel is managing editor for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattHuegel.