The Wilson Way: A's top prospect armed with All-Star dad's unique approach

June 16th, 2024

Most fathers hope to pass down their finest traits to their offspring. For former Major League All-Star shortstop Jack Wilson, that was putting bat on ball. A lot.

Wilson played parts of a dozen years in the big leagues and retired with a miniscule 11.6 career strikeout percentage. That’s not quite Luis Arraez territory, but the mark of the one-time Pirate, Mariner and Brave might seem tough for anyone to beat. His only son -- Jacob Wilson, the A’s top prospect (No. 53 on the overall Top 100) and the No. 6 pick in last year's Draft -- might be up to the task.

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Currently on the injured list with a minor knee ailment, Wilson showed he might be a match for his father when he left Grand Canyon University with an absurdly low 4.4 percent K rate that would make even Arraez jealous. Wilson has just 229 professional plate appearances under his belt, but while racing to Triple-A in his first full season, he’s whiffed just 10 percent of the time. If the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it’s clear Jacob will swing at and hit it.

“Once I got to high school, I mainly focused on baseball,” Jacob said in a conversation with Jack on a recent episode of the MLB Pipeline Podcast. “That’s when my dad came up to me -- he was a coach -- he was like, ‘We hate strikeouts. Strikeouts really don’t do anything. We’re going to try to put the ball in play, other things can happen.’

“It was him really teaching me how to put the ball in play, put the ball in play with two strikes, choke up, stay short to the ball. He always hated strikeouts when he was playing and that just adapted to me when I really started getting to the age where I got serious about baseball.”

To teach his only son the Wilson Way, he used every new-fangled and advanced teaching implements he could find, including: Playing stickball in the backyard.

“We played an amazing amount of stickball back in the day, me and Jake, all the way through,” Jack said, adding that they even went to it when Jacob’s swing didn’t feel quite right at the start of his college career. "And I never let up on him.”

“I never won,” Jacob said.

“You never won,” Jack laughed. “We had tennis balls and we were chucking them at each other and a lot of that hand-eye coordination of what he does at the plate. It was when he was 12-13 years old and I’m firing from the 45-foot mound. It might be 95 [mph], tennis ball, here it comes and you have this small broomstick and you’re trying to hit it. That’s how me and my brother played our entire lives. We played stickball in the backyard.

“[Jacob] was able to put the ball in play off me when I’m trying to throw as hard as I can, and my arm was still good. So he would battle, and as he got older, I couldn’t really get it by him anymore.”

Most pitchers can’t, either. Wilson ended college with a .361/.419/.558 line. He hit .412 as a junior and struck out five times all season. After 22 games with Double-A Midland to start his first full season this year, Wilson was hitting .455 and got moved up to Triple-A, where his average "fell" to .375 over his first six games. He’s expected back in a couple of weeks and it would surprise no one to see him continuing to hit his way to the big leagues soon.

Jack, as always, will be there every step of the way, even if he’s not quite as ever-present as he once was. He was Jacob’s head coach at Thousand Oaks High School in California and then followed him to Arizona, not only serving as an assistant coach at GCU, but also getting his college degree in the process. There never was a time that Jacob needed to tell his dad to back off, with a natural feel for when help was needed and when he should let his kid figure things out on his own.

“It’s definitely different not having him on the field,” Jacob said. “He used to be there every game at Grand Canyon, whether we’re on the road or at home, he was always there. In pro ball, it’s a little different, but I’m super blessed to be able to call [my parents] after games and every now and then they get to come out.

“From the start, our relationship has been really good. To be able to have that support system after games, to have that resource, is huge for me because he’s been where I’ve been. He knows how it feels to go 0-for-4, 0-for-5 and have those games, and he’s done a great job realizing that if I have a tough game, he gives me some time after games to cool down a little bit. Then he could bring up something to talk about -- what I need to fix, what I need to work on. He’s the first one to text me after every game. He’s been great to have as a resource and as a dad.”

Jack has enjoyed every moment of his son’s progress, though he admits that while he’s cool as a cucumber when he’s in the dugout or in the stadium, watching Jacob play from afar is a different matter completely.

“I'm a nervous wreck, so I actually can't watch it live,” Jack said. “I let his at-bat happen and then I'll go back and watch after it's done. It's been a lot of fun just because really, for me, the special part is the conversations after the game that we have.”

Some of the best advice Jack has been able to give his son is after a game when Jacob is frustrated with his performance. Jacob was happy about a recent win but feeling unsettled with a 2-for-5 performance that included just one well-struck ball and a swinging bunt, and Jack couldn’t help but laugh while giving his son some perspective.

“I’m like, ‘Man, you don’t understand big picture, there are going to be plenty of days where you feel great and it’s not going to work out,’” Jack said. “And you felt amazing. And you smoked everything right at somebody. So these days are the days where you just [have to say], ‘That was awesome because I didn’t feel right, I still was able to get on base, score some runs for my team.’ That’s huge because in this game, we’re not always going to be great. Some days, we’re going to have to make do with our 'B' game.

“I love that he’s frustrated being 2-for-5 because I know how much he wants to be great at something. It’s conversations like that … I’ve been there, I’ve done that … trying to give him some perspective sometimes and kind of reel him in.”

He’s also an important resource for a young hitter who very much does not want to change who he is in the box. The lesson that Jack’s father taught him -- to stay on top of the ball and hit line drives -- is now Jacob’s philosophy, too, and it flies in the face of a modern game that places so much emphasis on getting the ball in the air.

“You look around, there’s a lot of talk about launch angle and big leaguers are doing it,” Jacob said. “There are some guys I see in the Minor Leagues doing it. I like staying in my lane. I’ve always had this certain swing path. … That’s something that’s always been successful for me.”

He uses the fact that people questioned his ability to impact the baseball at the next level as motivation -- in the weight room during the offseason and in the batter’s box. And when some ask about his lack of selectivity, seeing pitches and drawing walks, dad comes in and gets a little protective.

“We’re talking about a guy that has [211] at-bats in professional baseball,” Jack said. “I told him when I had my [211th] at-bat, I was in Johnson City Rookie ball. You have your [211th] at-bat and you’re in Triple-A.

“At what point has he ever felt, ‘Oh, I’m going to get comfortable.’ He continues to progress; I think that comes with time, I think the comfortability of the strike zone, with seeing really the best pitching up until the Major Leagues that you’re going to see. Let’s let him learn, let him learn the strike zone, with this different type of pitching. [Last year] he was facing WAC pitching. Now he’s facing Triple-A pitching. It’s going to take time for him to get that comfort zone where he’s building his professional hit tool. It’s going to change as he goes forward.”