For Ivan Wilson, the Mets third-round pick in 2013, it just felt like the next step.
“I’m really fittin’ to start this. I knew it was going to be tough," he said when he signed in June 2013 out of Ruston (LA) HS.
It’s easy to see why the Mets spent a third-round pick and over $624,000 to sign Wilson. He’s a chiseled 6’3”, 225 pounds with room to grow. He has above average speed and the arm to play anywhere in the outfield. On Monday night, he made a diving catch in the left-center field gap to bail Andrew Church out of a bases-loaded jam.
“He’s a good athlete. He can go get it," Kingsport manager Jose Leger said.
His first professional season, in 2013, wasn't Wilson's strongest showing. He hit just .219/.321/.300 with one home run in 47 games with the Gulf Coast League Mets. His 65 strikeouts accounted for 35% of his plate appearances.
Wilson is honest about the rough start. “Last year, I struggled, a lot,” he told MMiLB, “I can definitely see: it is not easy. It takes a lot of work.”
He feels he was productive in extended spring training this year. His first mission was to see more pitches and improve pitch recognition. He was used to high school pitchers 83-87 mph fastballs. Now, suddenly, he was facing pitchers who could throw 90 mph regularly and get up to 95mph. The sliders made him say, “oh, my god.”
Mechanically, he was working on a common set of issues for young hitters. “Staying back and not lunging. Keeping my hands inside,” he explained.
Last year, he said, “I was rolling over a lot. Now, I’m staying back, and working the other way. Actually hitting the ball harder the other way.”
Leger’s explanation is more technical. “Sometimes he gets rotational [and his hips open]. When he stays locked in, and keeps his hips inside, then he can do some damage because he got some bat speed and some power. For him, the main thing is keeping the hips closed and letting the hands do the work.”
Wilson spent time this past offseason at home in Ruston hitting off a tee to improve his hands at the plate.
In 2013, Wilson hit one home run in 47 games despite a powerful build. In 2014, he eclipsed that total in his fourth game. And it came on one of those sliders, which he rocketed the other way.
Wilson smiled thinking about that swing. “I just stayed back, like I’ve been working on and hit it that way. It felt really good,” he said.
Leger sees Wilson's progress. “I’ve [been] very pleased with the way he goes about his business," he said. "He’s a quiet kid, but he’s a hard worker. From what I heard, last year he had no clue. And, then you see him playing center, and he had a good idea out there, pretty good baserunner. He’s shown potential to hit for power and last night he went oppo on a curveball… He’s maturing, he looks like he has an idea at the plate… I like the way he’s approaching every AB. “
These adjustments on the field and at the plate pale in comparison to one Wilson made in high school. He became a young father. His son is three years old and lives in Ruston with his mother.
“I had to learn to be a father figure before that time was supposed to come. I had to grow up faster than I wanted to,” Wilson said. He had to learn to think of another being before himself, and to balance his own needs with his offspring's.
Wilson turned 19 on May 26. At the plate, he is still working, especially on taking his good swing into game action. He has struck out nine times and walked once in his first five games this year with Kingsport, so there's work still to be done in plate discipline.
His goals for himself recognize that he is far from a finished product, on the field or off. “I just want to improve overall from last year: defensively, offensively, as a player, myself – my character, as a teammate, I just want to improve," he said.