Five years ago, Aaron Wilkerson was stocking the frozen foods section of a local supermarket in his hometown of Waco, Texas. He had completed a notable career at Cumberland University in Tennessee, including at one point pitching an NAIA record 54 consecutive scoreless innings. But Aaron injured his arm while at school, was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery and was subsequently passed over in the draft.
After his arm healed up, Wilkerson made his way to the independent leagues. Stints with the Florence (KY) Freedom, Fort Worth Cats, and Grand Prairie AirHogs wound up paying off with a chance at pitching in affiliated ball when the Boston Red Sox signed him to a minor league deal in 2014. Two years later in July 2016 he was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers as a part of the return for Aaron Hill. Wilkerson received his first major league call-up last week at age 28 and debuted with a scoreless inning out of the bullpen against Miami.
This afternoon, Aaron Wilkerson will make the first start of his MLB career against the Pittsburgh Pirates. So what should we expect to see from the well-traveled right-hander?
Wilkerson has a pretty typical starting pitcher’s build. He stands at 6’3” tall and tips the scales at 190 lbs. He has a quick, controlled delivery that he repeats with consistency, releasing the ball from an over-the-top arm slot. There’s some deception in his delivery that makes the ball difficult for batters to pick up, which helps his fastball seem a bit harder than he actually throws it.
Wilkerson is a four-pitch starter, working batters with a four-seam fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. He’s got an average fastball that generally sits in the 88-92 MPH range and can touch 93 MPH at times. As mentioned above, his deceptive delivery makes it look like he’s throwing harder from the batter’s perspective. His 12-6 curveball sits in the 73-76 MPH range and features a ton of vertical movement, and he does a good job of keeping the pitch low in the zone. The slider generally runs up there between 83-86 MPH, but is an offering he’s still working to develop consistency with. The pitch can lack bite and times and he’s had issues leaving it up in the zone in the past. Finally, Wilkerson also mixes in an 83-85 MPH changeup. He does a good job maintaining the same arm speed as with his fastball, but his change doesn’t feature a ton of movement.
Wilkerson is a good control and command pitcher; he walked only 6.4% of the batters he faced in AA this season, and his Called Strikes Above Average rate of 3.81% ranked 7th-best among all AA pitchers with at least 100 innings. Wilkerson’s average stuff can play up because of the control he has over the strike zone. He likes to use his secondary pitches down in the zone, and then uses his deceptive fastball to draw swings-and-misses on elevated offerings.
For an older pitcher who lacks premium stuff like Wilkerson, it typically takes an awful lot of minor league success in order to earn a ticket to the big leagues. Fortunately, that’s all that Aaron has experienced since joining the professional ranks. He posted a 3.13 ERA with 200 strikeouts in 184.0 innings of independent ball before inking his first affiliated contract with the Red Sox. He’s compiled a 3.16 ERA across 476.0 innings during his rise from high-A ball to the big leagues, posting marks of 9.3 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9. In his first full season as a member of the Brewers’ organization, he was one of the top pitchers at the AA level.
This year for the Biloxi Shuckers, Wilkerson made 24 starts and pitched 142.1 innings. He held opponents to a 3.16 ERA, and the estimators thought he was even better than that; FIP pegged him at 3.00, while his Deserved Run Average was even lower at 2.32. According to DRA- of 57, Wilkerson’s performance was 43% better than the average pitcher at his minor league level this season. He struck out 25.4% of the batters that faced and posted a K:BB ratio of 3.97. Wilkerson generates roughly an average amount of ground balls, inducing them at a 45.8% clip in 2017, and he held opponents to just a .223 batting average against.
Overall, the total profile for Aaron Wilkerson looks like that of a back-end starter or swingman type at the big league level. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff and leans heavily on his strong command. As we saw at times with Zach Davies earlier in the year, that can be a volatile profile if the command isn’t on point in every outing. The organization obviously likes Wilkerson, first trading for him and then giving him an opportunity to join the big league club this September over several other pitchers (like Taylor Jungmann) that were already on the 40 man roster. Wilkerson may get the opportunity to make another start down the stretch for the Brewers in 2017 has put himself in position to be a contributor going forward. He’s capable of providing length out of the bullpen and could serve as an emergency starter in that capacity. Depending on any outside additions, Wilkerson could also compete for the #5 starter spot in camp next spring.
He’s certainly come a long way since stocking shelves at his local HEB.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus