LAKE ELSINORE, Calif — The Lake Elsinore Storm have been one of the most interesting teams to follow in the Padres’ system in 2019. Armed with a rotation that features arguably the best pitching prospect in MacKenzie Gore plus Luis Patiño, the Storm lead the Cal League in ERA, as of press time.
The bullpen has been especially dominant, armed with a collection of mid-round college pitchers that have exceeded expectations. One of those pitchers is Steven Wilson, who was arguably the most dominant pitcher in the Cal League before a recent promotion to El Paso, where he has not allowed an earned run in eight innings in the hitter-friendly PCL. Between the two stops, Wilson is 2-0, with a 0.73 ERA.
In Wilson’s half-season in the California League, Wilson ranked second in the Cal League (with a minimum of 20 innings pitched) in SwStr% of 21.2 and his K/BB ratio 10.75 ranked third. Wilson’s dominance started when he embraced his transition to the bullpen in the early outing of the season.
“After my first outing, I cut the windup, so I am kind of a true reliever now,” said Steven Wilson prior to a recent Lake Elsinore Storm game. “I think from a mechanical side, I just simplified everything and it allowed me to throw more strikes and then my mindset is to attack hitters and get ahead early. The biggest help has been that I have been able to get ahead in counts and that will just lead to more strikeouts.”
If there is one blemish on Wilson’s resume in 2019, it is a ten-game suspension that he served in early June for having a foreign substance on his glove at a game at The Diamond in Lake Elsinore. Wilson was promoted shortly after returning, so the incident has not put a damper on an excellent season.
The Path to the MLB Draft
Wilson grew up in Colorado and pitched at Dakota Ridge High on Littleton, Colorado. He was drafted out of high school by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 35th round but opted to go to college and continue his career. When it came time to select a college, he made the decision to find somewhere where he could pitch in warmer weather year-round.
“I was tired of shoveling snow off of my high school field,” said Wilson. “I was talking to some schools in California — I had actually never heard of Santa Clara until the recruiting process. It ended up being between [Santa Clara University] and UNLV and in the end, I chose Santa Clara. I really liked the staff there. The pitching coach [Gabe Ribas] is actually the pitching coordinator with the Dodgers now. He and I have a great relationship, so that is how I ended up there.”
At Santa Clara, Wilson redshirted during his first year on campus, then started 37 games for the Broncos over the next three years. Shortly after his junior season, Wilson was forced to have Tommy John surgery which would force him to miss his senior season. Initially, Wilson thought his baseball career was over.
“When I got the surgery, I went through a little bit of a phase where I thought about just being done. I had my degree [Wilson graduated from Santa Clara with a Bachelor’s in Economics] and I thought about calling it quits and working. Part of me got the surgery so that when I am older, I can play catch with my kid and not have issues.
“But the further I got ahead in the rehab process, I was like ‘no, I definitely want to keep playing.’ When I started throwing, I wasn’t in pain every day. So [during the rehab process] I started talking to a bunch of Division II schools; part of me wanted to move on from Santa Clara. I had been there for five years.”
“I was about to go to Colorado Mesa University, a good Division II school. I had flown back home to Colorado and drove out and visited their school and had gotten a scholarship offer from the coach that I had known a long time. Then we got a new coach at Santa Clara.”
That coach, Rusty Filter, brought an impressive resume to the WCC school in Northern California. Filter, a San Diego State alum, was the pitching coach under Tony Gwynn at SDSU. He helped mold Stephen Strasburg into the number one pick in the 2009 MLB Draft. He also was the pitching coach at Stanford and coached Cal Quantrill collegially. After speaking with Filter, Wilson decided to stay on for a rare sixth year, after redshirting during his Tommy John rehab.
“Filter came over from Stanford and right when he got hired, he told me he really wanted me to stay. We talked and he offered me a scholarship so I ended up staying at Santa Clara. I really wanted to finish off my baseball career; if that was the last year [I played baseball] I wanted to end on a good note and getting part of grad school paid for also helped and that motivated me.”
“[I was] only present at the end of [Wilson’s] rehabilitation,” said Santa Clara head coach Rusty Filter. “Steven spent many determined hours in the training room getting himself in the best shape possible to compete at the highest level possible as a sixth year player for us. He always showed up ready to get his work in, so that he could be ready for game one.”
Wilson had his best season as a senior, pitching to a 3.07 ERA while striking out 58 batters in 44 innings, while bouncing back and forth between the starting rotation and the bullpen.
“Although Steven was a starter, his pitch count and inning count made him more of an opener for us,” said Filter. Coming off of Tommy John surgery, we wanted to make sure we gradually got him back to full strength. In his first start, he threw only one inning. We bounced him back and forth from a starting role and to the bullpen trying to find what works best for him and the team. His fastball combined with is power breaking ball makes him a real threat out of the bullpen at the next level.”
Wilson’s healthy arm and success out of the bullpen led him to being drafted a second time — this time by the San Diego Padres in the eighth round of the 2018 draft. Wilson was an easy sign; as a six-year senior he agreed to a $5,000 bonus.
“As a six-year senior, you don’t have a lot of leverage,” said Wilson. “You aren’t going to ask for a lot of money; you just want an opportunity to play and that’s where I was at. I just wanted to play professional baseball — that was always my dream and I had actually turned it down twice. I’ve always wanted to get there and so I was lucky enough to get drafted by the Padres and it’s been a great experience so far.
Dominating in pro ball
Wilson made the Lake Elsinore Storm out of spring training and opened up the year with a scoreless outing against Inland Empire on April 6th. He walked two batters in that game; He didn’t walk another batter until May 14th — a span of 18 innings. In those 18 innings, Wilson racked 30 strikeouts while allowing just three earned runs.
“[Wilson’s] four-seamer just seems to spin more than everybody else’s and he just throws it by a lot of hitters,” said Lake Elsinore Storm manager Tony Tarasco.
Wilson’s dominance is in part due to the development of a cutter that he worked on after making his professional debut last season.
“This off-season — because my four-seamer is kind of flat — I added a little bit of a cutter as something I could use off of the four-seam,” said Wilson. “I’ve thrown it away to righties and in to lefties and that’s been good for me. I’ve gotten swing-and-misses on that. It adds a little something to the hitters’ mind that a pitch might bend while still going hard, so the cutter has definitely helped.”
Wilson’s command has been the most impressive part of his 2019 campaign. Between Lake Elsinore and El Paso, Wilson has walked just six batters in 36 innings. The reason for his excellent command could be tied to his recovery from Tommy John surgery. He feels like his command has never been better.
“My command has been better since having the surgery, 100 percent. A lot of that could be that during the recovery period, you are throwing fastballs for the first five months. So you are just throwing the four-seam and you get used to throwing that without any of your other pitches.”
“But I think the bigger part of that is just that my arm has felt healthy. Throughout college, I had some issues and [my elbow] was torn for longer than I thought it was. I was trying to throw through pain, and your command is never great [in that situation]. So now that my arm is feeling good and that I am coming off of that second year from Tommy John surgery, [my elbow] just feels a lot better. So I would say that would help.”
Wilson also utilized the Rapsodo device that has helped give pitchers more data on spin rate, velocity, and other data to help them improve. Wilson used the device this off-season while developing and refining his cutter.
“The Rapsodo is a really easy visual tool for data,” said Wilson. I used it a lot when I was developing the cutter in the off-season; just trying to get that spin right. I tried to make sure it was spinning like a four-seamer but still moved.
The 24-year-old may not appear on many top prospects lists but his dominance in the Cal League and early success out of the bullpen in Triple-A could make him a dark horse candidate to pitch in San Diego this season, given the club’s struggles this year. For now, Wilson will continue to put in the work while he waits for an opportunity to make it to the big leagues.
“This has been my first time being in a bullpen for a whole season. [I’m] getting used to that role and what I need to get ready to prepare for the game and just getting more confident with my pitches. I think I know myself more as a pitcher now than I ever have in my life.”