Balancing Books And Baseball
Austin Wilson faces choice of pro ball or Stanford education
Austin Wilson faces a familiar dilemma, one many intelligent, academic-minded high school baseball players—who happen to have first-round talent—have encountered.
Major league franchises and Wilson will have tough decisions to make this summer. The outfielder for Harvard-Westlake High (North Hollywood, Calif.) will likely have to decide between signing a pro contract and attending classes at Stanford. Scouts for major league teams will have to decide whether or not to draft Wilson high enough to try to buy him out of school, or if that's even worth trying.
This type of balancing act happens every summer, but players with the unique blend of athlete and scholar like Wilson don't come around very often.
Wilson passes the eye test with flying colors. He is a physical monster at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, adding 20 pounds since last summer thanks to a dedicated workout regimen. Once a week, Wilson travels to Santa Barbara to train at Peak Performance Project. He's not the only prep prospect using the facility to get stronger. Edison High (Huntington Beach, Calif.) junior shortstop Christian Lopes and Union High (Fullerton, Calif.) senior outfielder Michael Lorenzen also work out there. Wilson has also benefited from picking the brains of big leaguers such as Ryan Braun, Carlos Quentin and Delmon Young, who train there in the offseason.
"If you have his body, it'll create interest," an American League scout said. "He's lean, mean and ripped."
Wilson has come a long way since coach Matt LaCour's staff took over the Harvard-Westlake baseball program. LaCour immediately noticed Wilson when he first stepped on the field as a 6-foot-2, wiry freshman.
"We didn't know anything about him, but gosh he looked like an athlete," LaCour said. "He showed raw power right away and had a big-time arm early. He's been progressing up the slope and isn't anywhere near reaching his plateau yet."
Wilson's pro body produces excellent raw tools. He has big, raw power, possibly a 70 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale. He has a very strong arm that flashes plus, but doesn't have a lot of whip to it. At the Southern California Invitational Showcase, Wilson showed plus speed, running a 6.78 60-yard dash. But the AL scout says his increased size has made him a strong average runner and fringe average from home to first as he takes a couple of steps to get going out of the box.
With his size and Stanford commitment, Wilson attracts comparisons to former Cardinal outfielders John Mayberry, Jr., and Michael Taylor from associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Dean Stotz. He says Wilson is a mix between the two.
"Taylor is a little bit of a better runner," Stotz said. "Junior is the leanest. Taylor is the biggest and strongest. Austin is between the two. He's as athletic as they come. When he hits them, they don't return. He has dynamic power. Junior had more power than Taylor, but Austin has more power than both of them."
Wilson has been playing baseball since an early age, but only participated in neighborhood leagues.
"I didn't do the travel thing," Wilson said. "I didn't know what it was until I was 13 or 14. Once I got to middle school I concentrated more on baseball. I'm glad I took this path and didn't get there too fast and get burned out. It's been a progression for me."
While scouts like Wilson's body and tools, they would like to see a little more polish and pitch recognition. His raw power is impressive, but what's usable may be a bit below the raw grade.
"He still needs some adjustments," the scout said. "He's not stiff, but he's not loosey goosey."
Wilson has seen a lot of offspeed pitches this season and scouts see a need for improved pitch recognition, but it doesn't really show in his stats. Through 17 games he was hitting .566 with two home runs and 31 runs scored as the Wolverines' leadoff hitter. He also was 16-for-16 in stolen bases.
Wilson's qualities go well beyond the five tools seen on a field. Speaking to prospects one-on-one is a big part of the scouting process and that's when another dimension of Wilson emerges. He's articulate and blows listeners away with his intelligence and manners. He evokes the likes of Curtis Granderson, a physically gifted athlete who could be mistaken for an ambassador.
"I've had a lot people tell me that I'm more articulate, more confident," Wilson said. "If you want to do well at Harvard-Westlake you have to have business savvy."
The Stanford tag on Wilson makes his signability for the draft a glaring question mark. Wilson's family background also makes a strong case for taking the education path.
His father, Alan, graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his mother, Ina Coleman, graduated from Stanford. They met in Harvard Business School. Alan is now a financial advisor while Ina works for a non-profit. On top of that, Wilson attends Harvard-Westlake, a prestigious private school known for its academics that serves seventh through 12th graders. Its alumni boast some big names including actors Shirley Temple, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as well as former astronaut Sally Ride.
"Your parents put you there to get a great education," Wilson said. "Ninth through 11th was rough. I was bombarded with work. There were nights I'd get home from a baseball game and still have two hours of homework. Looking back, I can't believe I got through it. It prepared me for baseball too. It'll help with all aspects of life."
And if Harvard-Westlake prepared him for the next few years at Stanford, Wilson thinks the last year has prepared him for life in the minor leagues. At the Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis, Wilson slid into second base and jammed his back. A couple of weeks later, around the start of Tournament of Stars, he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his lower back. The doctor told him he could play through it with some pain or sit out. Wilson viewed the summer as the most important of his life and decided he couldn't miss the opportunities.
"I had to suck it up," he said. "It was tough. It was a nagging pain every day. It was a good test to see if I could do the minors. I had the Tournament of Stars, then (a Perfect Game event) in Georgia. I was away from my parents. I didn't do well at the TOS. I just had to suck it up and go to the next thing."
Wilson hasn't decided on what he'll major in if he ends up at Stanford because "the realm of opportunity is insane." Whichever path he chooses, rest assured, Wilson won't take it lightly. He is dedicated to his craft on and off the field and isn't afraid to make sacrifices to make himself a better player, student and person.
"I've put myself in a dream position," Wilson said. "It's a win-win. Playing pro ball is my dream, but I can also play for a good program at one of the top universities in the world."