Drawing A Crowd: Grand Canyon Shortstop Jacob Wilson Follows In His Father’s Footsteps

Image credit: Jacob Wilson (Courtesy Grand Canyon)

Grand Canyon University is receiving more attention from scouts this year than at any point in the 70-year history of the program. The reason for that is simple. Shortstop Jacob Wilson is projected to be the first-ever first-round pick from the Phoenix-based school. 

Tim Salmon, the Angels’ 1989 third-round pick and franchise record-holder for home runs until Mike Trout came along, is Grand Canyon’s most famous alumni. But he is not the program’s highest-drafted player. 

The highest draft picks in GCU history were both second-rounders, shortstop LeRoy McDonald in 1969 and lefthander Kevin Wickander in 1986. The latter pitched six seasons in the major leagues. 

Wilson is a second-team preseason All-America shortstop, and that extra visibility elevates the profile of a GCU baseball program that returned to Division I in 2014.

“There’s definitely a buzz. There’s a lot of excitement,” first-year head coach Greg Wallis said. “You notice the media attention that he’s getting, that we’re getting, and you see more scouts around that you don’t recognize . . . It’s just built an incredible excitement around the program and the upcoming season.”

That Wilson would return to campus for his third season was not a certainty after longtime head coach Andy Stankiewicz left for the head coaching job at Southern California. Wallis, an assistant coach for nine seasons, had also departed for a job as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Ohio State before being brought back to replace Stankiewicz.

Wilson entered his name in the transfer portal and investigated opportunities at other baseball programs, but he ultimately decided to stay where he felt most comfortable. 

It was the return of Wallis as head coach that sealed the deal for Wilson. 

“As soon as he came back, I came back,” Wilson said. “I just wanted to stay where I was. I can continue building GCU’s résumé and playing with my teammates that I’ve bonded with over the last three years.”

What makes Wilson so attractive in this year’s draft is an extreme contact-oriented bat that has drawn plus-plus grades from area scouts. The righthanded hitter hit an impressive .358/.418/.585 with 12 home runs in his sophomore season, followed by a strong summer stint with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. 

It’s the elite contact skills that separate Wilson. Per Synergy, Wilson has swung and missed just 9% of the time in his 96 games with GCU, last year drawing 25 walks while fanning just seven times in 275 plate appearances. 

Wilson’s aversion to striking out comes in part from the influence of his father Jack, a 12-year major league shortstop and now an assistant coach at Grand Canyon. The elder Wilson struck out just 11.6% of the tie.

“My dad also hated striking out,” Wilson said. “That’s something I really gained from him . . . My dad really built that into me as a baseball player.”

Wilson attributes his outstanding bat control and strike-zone awareness to one other game he played growing up.

“I’ve always played a lot of ping pong,” Wilson said, “and a lot of sports that require hand-eye coordination, so I trained that ability my entire life.”

Wilson is still not a finished product, with observers believing he needs to hit with more power to the middle and opposite fields. He also could stand to use his instincts to steal more bases. Improving in both areas are goals for Wilson this season.

As for increasing his power, Wilson can certainly add strength to his 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame, especially since he didn’t work much with weights until he got to Grand Canyon. He’s now working out regularly in the weight room, and his power to all fields is on the rise. Scouts project that he will have above-average raw power in time. 

“As he gets older and stronger,” Wallis said, “those balls are going to start leaving the yard because he makes such consistent contact and hard contact . . . It’s just a matter of time before the opposite-field home runs come as well.”

Stealing bases is another area of Wilson’s game that has been lacking. He has attempted to steal just two times in his college career. To compensate for having no more than average speed, Wilson has been working on improving his fundamentals on the bases.

“I started working with our speed training here to learn the technique,” Wilson said, “because I’ve never really been taught how to steal bases . . . That’s something I really want to lock down­—the fundamentals of stealing bases—because I’m obviously not the fastest player on the field.”

“He’s gotten faster every year,” Wallis added, “and he’s got more of a basestealing mentality this year.”

Having his father on the coaching staff is sure to help Wilson continue to develop. The key lesson that Jacob learned from Jack is about how to handle the ups and downs of the game.

“The one thing that he taught me the most that has really stuck with me is just to never get really frustrated,” Wilson said. “It’s a hard game. It’s a game based around failure. The guys who are best today . . . they move on, they don’t live in the moment.”

Perhaps the most important lesson Wilson has learned from his father can be summed up in one short sentence.

“Stay positive and keep playing baseball and stay within yourself.” 

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