Kenny Wilson opted not to take the offer to head to the University of Florida after being selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the second round of the 2008 draft, but has continued the learning process throughout his entire professional career.
The 22-year-old has encountered some hitches in his baseball education along the way though, mostly due to the fact that he spent his first four seasons in the minor leagues plagued with injuries; a problem that he is hoping will remain a thing of the past.
After tearing his labrum with the Dunedin Blue Jays, bringing his season last year to an early end, Wilson was sent by the Toronto organisation to the Australian Baseball League to play for the Canberra Cavalry. He had what can certainly be considered a successful season with the Cavalry, yet at the end of spring training this year he was sent back to the Class-A Lansing Lugnuts for the third time in his career.
Lansing manager John Tamargo, Jr. has slotted the outfielder into the leadoff spot in the order and has been impressed with what Wilson has been able to accomplish so far. If the Tampa native can continue the improvements that he's making this season with the first-place Lugnuts, the rookie skipper thinks that there is no ceiling for the outfielder.
"He's a major league player," Tamargo said. "With that speed, he's got a really good arm, he runs the bases well; plays really well in the outfield. He's a major league player; he's just got to be more consistent on a daily basis with getting on base, with his strike-zone judgment, not giving so many at-bats away per se, but getting up there and understanding his job.
"He's got to grind it out, whether it's 10 pitches, fouling balls off, doing things like that so that the guys behind him can see the pitcher. The pitcher has to throw a lot of pitches to him to show his whole arsenal basically. That's what your job is from the top of the order and when he gets that part of it on a daily basis, the sky's the limit."
MAKING THE BEST
The sky may be the limit for Wilson's future, but he certainly felt a regression when he headed back to Lansing this season out of spring training.
"I didn't think that I would break camp with Lansing," he said. "I thought it would be Dunedin but this is where I am and I'm looking at it like, I'm 22 years old, I was drafted as a high school senior and I'm getting a chance to start over from the beginning."
Keeping an extremely positive mindset with the Lugnuts, Wilson seems happy to be able to have the chance to wipe the slate clean with his team this season.
"It does [seem like a fresh start]," Wilson said. "It really does. That's how I'm looking at it mentally so I don't feel like I'm going backwards. I'm just looking at it like the Blue Jays are giving me an opportunity to start over again."
The centre fielder has made vast improvements in his mental game throughout his time in Toronto's system, helping him to keep that positive attitude no matter where he finds himself, while also not allowing himself to overthink any part of the game.
"When I was 19 years old, if I had a good [batting practice], I'd feel like I'd have a great game," Wilson said. "That wasn't always the case and then I'd be like, 'What the heck?' Or vice versa, I'd have a bad [batting practice] and I'd have a bad game.
"I know that all the stuff that we do before the game leads up to the game but once the game starts that all goes out the window and it's just concentrating on competing and getting a good pitch to hit and being ready for every pitch, on defense and while hitting. But as far as my mental game goes, I think it's gotten a lot better."
Wilson's mental game has improved not only because of the aging process, but also because of his teammates. One teammate in particular, Kevin Pillar, who happens to be leading the Lugnuts in average, on-base percentage, total bases, runs driven in and stolen bases, has been a big influence.
"I think being older, having experience and being around Kevin Pillar [have all helped]," Wilson said. "I know he's doing extremely well this year but even when he's not - which hasn't happened a lot this season - still he doesn't get too high; he doesn't get too low. I've looked up to him a lot this year and he's really helped me a lot."
Hearing of Wilson's appreciation, Pillar is incredibly grateful for the kind words from his friend, and happy that he is able to make an impact on the lives of others.
"It's more important than anything that I do on the field," Pillar said. "Hearing that stuff, knowing that guys look up to you or guys consider you a good teammate or a good friend, because outside of baseball that's the stuff that really matters, that you're a good person. That's something I try to be is a good person, good leader, good friend; a good teammate."
The 23-year-out outfielder has been impressed with what his friend and teammate has already been able to accomplish this year, and how far he's come even just since April.
"Kenny's got all the tools in the world but at the start of the season he had no mind," Pillar said. "Now that he's learning the mental side of the game, he's made huge improvements. He's playing a lot better baseball and I know he's going to get to where he wants to be next year."
Tamargo has also seen vast improvements in Wilson's game, both this year and since he first saw him as his hitting coach two seasons ago.
THE DRIVE TO IMPROVE
"He's made big strides this year, really big strides," the first-year manager said. "Kenny has learned what his tool is, his speed, his ability to get on base, steal bases and score runs hitting from the top of the lineup. We've had many a conversation this year and he's maturing as a baseball player, as a person and he understands now finally that's what he's supposed to do.
"He's not trying to hit home runs or do anything like that. His job is to get on base and steal bases. His average is down but he's swung the bat really well from what I've seen because I had him two years ago here and he's made tremendous strides in that area. Hopefully it just springboards it for him for the rest of the year."
Wilson's biggest tool, his speed, is something that he and Pillar have in common. While the older outfielder leads the team with 35 stolen bases and Wilson is close behind with 31, they still know that there is room for improvement.
After watching speedster Billy Hamilton get over the century mark in swiped bags during the first half of the season with the Bakersfield Blaze, the two Lugnuts decided that they want to slightly alter their approach on the basepaths, using Hamilton's aggressiveness as motivation.
"We look at Billy Hamilton's numbers and we're like, 'Are you serious?'" Wilson said. "We looked at it at the all-star break and we said, 'Dude, we've just got to be more aggressive.' We know we can do it; we've just got to be more aggressive. When we get the opportunity, we've just got to jump on it and just do that."
Added Pillar: "It's unreal, the fact that he does it. We know that we're never going to steal 100 bases like he has in the first half, but the one thing we did, we sat down together and we watched him on Youtube. The biggest thing that we took from it is that he's not afraid to go. We've been extremely successful stealing bases this year.
"I've stolen 35 but I've only been caught six times. That means I've only run 41 times, so it's just to not be afraid to go because I think that's the biggest thing Billy Hamilton has going for him, aside from his speed, is that he's just not afraid. He just goes. He puts the pressure on the pitcher and the catcher to make good throws and good tags. So we sat down and we decided that in the second half of the season that we were going to be a lot more aggressive."
With a new game plan for the rest of the season and the continuing improvements for Wilson, he took time to reflect on what the ABL helped him with, and how it has influenced his play all year.
"It definitely got my confidence up," he said. "I think I did a pretty good job of production in that lineup with the team that I was on. I helped produce a lot of the runs and it just helped me get my confidence up, just knowing that I can do this.
"Confidence was always a big thing that I was always questioning with myself was my talent, when I got drafted and I didn't succeed right off the bat. I was questioning, like, 'Dang, did I really make the right decision?' or 'What's going to happen with me?' But going there and doing what I did definitely helped me with my confidence."