MiLB Player Spotlight: Guardians’ Matt ‘Tugboat’ Wilkinson

9:53 PM UTC

Equipped with one of the Minors’ best fastballs and an 80-grade nickname to follow suit, Matt Wilkinson — known as ‘Tugboat’ — has taken the league by storm since his debut with the Hillcats on April 6.

Wilkinson was recently named April’s Minor League Player of the Month in the Carolina League after posting a 3-0 mark with a 0.35 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and 46 strikeouts through his first five starts (25 2/3 innings). The Vancouver, BC native notched a record-setting performance on April 25 with Single-A Lynchburg when he fanned 15 over six hitless frames.

“When I first found out about it, it was definitely a good feeling, but I don’t want to look too far ahead,” Wilkinson told Kevin Millar, Siera Santos and Ryan Dempster on MLB Network’s “Intentional Talk” of being named Player of the Month. “You know, at the end of the day, I gotta pitch again this week. So I’m really just looking towards that.”

The 21-year-old’s effort against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans was reminiscent of his start for Team Canada in the Little League World Series in 2015, when he whiffed 16 over five scoreless innings.

“That was the first time I really thought, ‘Wow, I can do something with baseball,’ as a 12-year-old,” Wilkinson told the panel on “Intentional Talk.” “Playing in the Little League World Series was honestly a dream come true. It’s like Christmas in the summer, I don’t even know how to explain it. I don’t really remember that game, it was just like a blackout feeling. But, definitely one of the coolest moments in my baseball career.”

The near-perfect outing wasn’t just a one-and-done performance by the man referred to as “Tugboat” — a nickname given to him by family friend Phil McNeil after seeing Wilkinson run around the bases at a pace he thought was similar to that of the boat designed to tow larger vessels.

Through his first five starts, the left-hander has posted four scoreless outings and allowed a single run once. He’s held opponents to a .099 average while scattering eight hits and nine walks. Wilkinson notched nine punchouts in two of his April starts and eight in another.

The 6-foot-1, 270-pounder was drafted by Cleveland in the 10th round (No. 308 overall) of last year’s Draft out of Central Arizona Junior College. Wilkinson opted to sign with the Guardians rather than fulfill his commitment to pitch at Arizona State University.

“I thought it was the best option for me,” Wilkinson said. “It was a tough decision for me. My junior college coach ended up going to Arizona State the same year I was going. But at the end of the day, I felt like it was the best decision for me. I didn’t see myself growing as a pitcher at Arizona State so I thought it was the best decision to go, especially with the Cleveland Guardians.”

And while “Tugboat” embraces the moniker, it’s important that his identity doesn’t get lost in it.

“I love it, I love being called Tugboat,” he said. “But, I don’t want people to forget that I’m Matt Wilkinson, too.”