Prospect Wisler has skills that belie his age
LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. -- The robust wind that whips across the Ortega Mountains cuts through the valley below, slowing only slightly as it blows through the concourse at The Diamond, the home of the Padres' Class A California League affiliate.
At the right time, on the right day, the gust is so strong that fastballs that aren't buried in the strike zone, and even those that are can easily end up peppering Diamond Drive, the street that leads to this gem of a ballpark in Riverside County.
It also makes carrying on a conversation difficult.
"As a freshman," Bob Wisler said, leaning in closer to make sure he was heard, "Matt only threw 73 mph."
Bob Wisler, from Bryan, Ohio, was in town recently, squeezing in a little work while also getting a chance to watch his son, Padres prospect Matt, pitch. It's a good thing Bob made the trip when he did, as the 20-year-old right-hander was promoted to Double-A San Antonio last week after posting a 2.03 ERA in six starts.
"It's time to go. He earned it," said Randy Smith, the Padres' vice president of player development and international scouting, of the team's seventh-round pick in 2011 out of Bryan High and San Diego's eighth-ranked prospect, per MLB.com.
In his first start for the Missions, on Sunday, Wisler allowed three runs in five innings and struck out six, getting the victory over Midland.
It was a notable promotion for Wisler, who tamed batters in the hitter-friendly California League -- hearty winds or no -- with an advanced feel for pitching that belies his age, a sneaky bulldog demeanor and, this is most important, an arsenal of pitches that he's honed for years; pitches he developed early because he had no other choice.
"He was throwing 73 mph, so that's why he learned five pitches and five speeds," Bob Wisler said. "He had to learn how to be crafty and be composed. He had to learn how to do it another way."
Fastball command became paramount. Wisler eventually learned how to throw a slider, a curveball and a changeup. If he couldn't throw the ball by hitters, he was certainly going to keep them guessing.
"I had to work on pitch location -- staying down in the zone, mixing different pitches," said Wisler, who now throws a fastball that runs in the mid-90s. "I always kept working on those. That was a key for me. Instead of just being able to throw a fastball [at that age] and getting by on it, I had to use my other pitches. That still helps me now."
Lake Elsinore backstop Austin Hedges has caught Wisler more than anyone in his young career -- last year with Fort Wayne and earlier this season with Lake Elsinore. He can't say enough good things about Wisler, about his approach, ability and repeatable delivery, which consistently gets outs.
"He was pretty good last year, and he's pretty good this year," Hedges said. "I think he's just even more consistent with all of his mechanics, all of his pitches. Everything is repeatable. He just doesn't take any pitches off. It's pretty impressive.
"Guys are really off balance with him, because he can get you out with so many different pitches in a lot of different locations. He does a good job working both sides of the plate -- going up and down, in and out. You can't really get settled in and pick a pitch to hit."
This is precisely what Lake Elsinore manager Shawn Wooten, a former big league catcher, saw from the dugout. Wanting a better look at what was giving opposing hitters fits, Wooten decided to stand in the box during one of Wisler's bullpen sessions.
"It's something I like to do," Wooten said. "You can see some from the dugout, but this helps me and it gives me another perspective. He was doing what he was trying to do."
Wisler has, most agree, the intangibles to be a good big league pitcher, but you wouldn't know it to look at him -- he's 6-foot-3 and generously listed at 195 pounds -- or even talk to him, as he's soft-spoken and polite, and has a certain Midwest sensibility.
But when Wisler pitches …
"He's pretty calm out there, but he's got that bulldog inside of him," Hedges said. "He's not the guy who is going to have these crazy antics or start pumping his fists. He just goes out there expecting himself to get every hitter out. When something doesn't work, he digs even deeper and still finds a way."
Better still, Wisler doesn't claim to have all the answers about pitching. He's been a sponge with his pitching coaches along the way. His coach in Fort Wayne last season, Willie Blair, now bullpen coach for the Padres, helped Wisler sharpen his slider.
"From last year to this year, my confidence is so much better," Wisler said. "I know I'm going to get guys out. I trust myself more. I feel better from the stretch. I'm learning how to pitch to guys more. I learned a lot last year about facing guys, seeing what they can hit, what they can't hit."
Wisler's rapid rise hasn't fazed him in the least, even if others have been moved by what they've seen from him this season. Not bad for a former soft-tosser from Bryan, Ohio, a city known for two notable exports -- Dum Dum lollipops and the Etch A Sketch.
"Those are our two claims to fame," Wisler said.
Maybe not for long, though.