Jacob Wilson came of age in baseball when the dictates of analytics removed the shame of striking out if it meant hitting more home runs.
The Grand Canyon shortstop considers himself a throwback to the time when striking out equated to failure.
“Striking out,” he said, “is not OK.”
His numbers illustrate his mantra. The 21-year-old junior has been the toughest player in NCAA Division I to strike out for two years — 12 times in 478 plate appearances, an average of once every 40. Overall, one of every five plate appearances in Division I resulted in a strikeout the last two seasons.
“It's super important, something I take pride in,” Wilson said. “My strategy is to put in a competitive at-bat. Put the ball in play, be a hard strikeout and don't be an easy out. That's something my dad always tells me.”
Wilson's accomplishment harkens back to another era — Joe DiMaggio struck out 13 times over 622 plate appearances in 1941 and Yogi Berra whiffed 12 times over 656 in 1950.
Wilson's dad is Grand Canyon assistant Jack Wilson, who retired in 2012 after playing most of his 12-year major league career with Pittsburgh. The elder Wilson struck out once every nine plate appearances in the big leagues, about half the normal rate.
Jacob Wilson is well on his way to a pro career of his own. He's fifth in the nation with a .425 batting average, and he's a projected top-10 overall pick in July's amateur draft because of his talent as a contact hitter and outstanding range and strong arm at short.
Wilson has struck out just five times in 203 plate appearances this season, the best figure in Division I since North Carolina A&T's Marquis Riley struck out four times in 207 plate appearances in 2011. In Division II, Valdosta State's Jakob Sessa has not struck out in 150 plate appearances this season.
Wilson has never been tougher than in the past month. He’ll go into the Western Athletic Conference Tournament on Wednesday having not struck out in 21 games. During the streak he has swung at 120 pitches and missed just once, according to Synergy Baseball, and has put the ball in play in 80 of 86 plate appearances (he walked four times and was hit by pitch twice). That includes putting the ball in play 25 of 26 times, and driving in 19 runs, when up with runners in scoring position.
The most recent player comparable to Wilson is Ernie Clement. He struck out once every 27 plate appearances over three years at Virginia and was the nation's toughest to strike out in 2017 and in the top five the two previous seasons. Clement is now with the Toronto Blue Jays' Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo, and he said watched Wilson on television during spring training in Arizona.
Clement spent much of 2022 with the Cleveland Guardians, who relied on a small-ball style to reach the AL divisional series, and he said Wilson's game would make him a high-value player.
“In the playoffs you win games with good defense, baserunning and timely hitting, so when you’re striking out with the bases loaded, that’s not doing anybody any good,” Clement said. “It’s starting to play a big role in today’s game and making a little comeback.”
Wilson and Clement both said they played a lot of table tennis growing up to develop the hand-eye coordination necessary to have an exceedingly low strikeout rate. Wilson had no idea those games in the basement with his dad would be so helpful to his development.
“My dad and I are very competitive individuals,” Wilson said, “and we always find a fun and competitive way to do everything. I was fortunate to have my dad teaching me my hand-eye coordination and how to enhance it to be a better player.”
Wilson chokes up on the bat — more with two strikes — and aligns his stance to produce a compact swing that has made him Grand Canyon's career leader in hits and RBIs.
He said he doesn't pay much attention to metrics, perhaps because one of the rare knocks against him is his below-average exit velocity.
“I’ve seen a lot of people talk about my average exit velocity," he said. "End of day, I'm hitting above .400 and helping my team win, which is my ultimate goal. Everyone can say their own opinions on that, but for me I don’t care too much about those categories.”
There's no argument, though, about Wilson's status as one of the college game's greatest contact hitters. He's a career .364 hitter, and he's struck out just 31 times in 683 plate appearances over 152 games.
“When my dad played, striking out wasn’t OK, and he really taught me how to play that type of game,” Wilson said. “It’s gotten me where I am today. Not striking out is something I take pride in. I strive each and every year to win that statistical category. That’s something I’m going to stick with, and I’m really blessed to be taught that by my mentors."