In 2011, Tyler Wilson had a decision to make.
The Orioles' right-hander was, at the time, an elite pitcher at the University of Virginia. During his 91-game Cavaliers career, Wilson was 27-7 with a 2.85 ERA, striking out 267 batters in 249.1 innings. He was a key contributor to Virginia's run to the College World Series in 2011, going 10-0 with a 2.24 ERA. That came after Wilson turned down the Cincinnati Reds -- who selected him in the 2010 amateur draft -- to return for his senior year of college.
As effective as Wilson was on the field, though, he was just as devoted in the classroom. Wilson was an honor roll student and member of the dean's list who graduated with a degree in biology in 2011. His passion for medicine, in particular, led him to seriously consider enrolling in medical school.
"From a young age, I just kind of took a liking to it," Wilson said. "I enjoyed helping people, and that was the most tangible, measurable way, I felt like, to help somebody. And so that's why I pursued it."
Wilson's athletic career gave him firsthand insight into how he could make a difference in the medical arena.
"I really was intrigued by orthopedics, surgery in specific, just with Tommy Johns and labrums being kind of a big thing in baseball these days," Wilson said. "I felt like it was a way to kind of be involved in the game still while helping people kind of come back from injuries. I've seen it affect so many people close to me that it's just something that I wanted to try and figure out a way to be good at it."
When the Orioles selected Wilson in the 10th round of the 2011 draft, though, he knew which career path was best for his immediate future.
"I felt like, coming out of school, the window for [baseball] was a lot smaller than med school," Wilson said. "Med school's not going anywhere. So if that becomes something that I decide to pursue at a later date, then I'll be excited to do that. But baseball wasn't something I could wait around and come back to, so I figured I'd take advantage of it while I had the chance."
So far, Wilson, 26, has indeed taken advantage. Despite receiving little national acclaim as a minor leaguer -- never appearing on
Baseball America's or
Baseball Prospectus' top-10 O's prospects lists -- Wilson steadily worked his way up through the Orioles' system, succeeding at every level. In 2014, the Orioles named him their Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year after he went 14-8 with a 3.67 ERA during 28 games, split between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk.
Wilson made his major league debut the following year, pitching a scoreless inning of relief against the Seattle Mariners in Baltimore May 20. He spent much of that 2015 season bouncing between the minors and majors, ultimately making nine appearances (five starts) with the Orioles and posting a 3.50 ERA.
Wilson entered spring training in 2016 as a long shot to make the Birds' Opening Day roster. But his strong Grapefruit League performance (a 2.35 ERA during seven games), combined with an injury to right-hander Kevin Gausman and the release of veteran righty Miguel Gonzalez, opened the door. Wilson broke camp with the Birds as a long reliever, and after three effective outings from the bullpen, he joined the starting rotation April 23.
Wilson's first extended audition as a big league starter has been a work in progress. On the plus side, he has kept the Orioles in the game more often than not. During five starts in May, although he went 1-4, Wilson worked at least six innings each time and delivered four quality starts. He's provided some semblance of consistency to an O's starting staff that has struggled to work deep into games.
On the other hand, Wilson hasn't missed a lot of bats thus far. He didn't top four strikeouts in a game during any of his first eight starts and was averaging 4.6 strikeouts per nine innings, as of June 13. In general, pitchers with strikeout rates that low often have trouble sustaining major league success.
Still, Wilson has developed a reputation as an overachiever, a pitcher who finds a way to get outs and stay competitive despite lacking a blazing fastball or swing-and-miss stuff.
"I think my key to success is just throwing strikes, working ahead, managing the game," Wilson said. "There's a lot of little intricacies that go on from pitch to pitch that being cognizant of and knowing how to execute in those given situations is the best way to succeed. It might not look the same as a guy like [Clayton] Kershaw or a guy like [Jake] Arrieta, per se, but the bottom line is getting outs and giving your team a chance to win."
For Wilson, the difference between succeeding or failing in the majors comes down to the ability to adapt.
"Up here, mistakes are exposed, and the margin for error is significantly smaller than in the minor leagues," Wilson said. "On top of that, hitters really adjust from at-bat to at-bat and even pitch to pitch sometimes. You might have a game plan to attack a guy a certain way, but they make an adjustment within the framework of the at-bat, and you have to read that and adapt alongside with them. If they're going to change their approach, then you have to find a new way to beat them.
"The game's just constantly evolving, and I'm trying to learn as much as I can. It's a long process. Even guys that have 20-year big league careers, their games are constantly evolving within themselves. So I'm just trying to learn as much as I can and get better each time."
Wilson's father, Philip Wilson, had experience in pro baseball himself, spending three years pitching in the San Diego Padres' system from 1979-1981. Though the elder Wilson never made the majors -- topping out at Single-A -- he's been an invaluable coach and mentor for his son.
"My dad was a pitcher as well, and he's been my pitching coach for a long time," Wilson said. "His influence on me has just been through a wide range of support and just challenging me to be the best that I can be and to never be content in anything.
"In life, nobody's ever really going to give you anything, so he's always challenged me to go out and pursue the things that I want to accomplish with zeal and fervency and just to never give in. He's been my biggest advocate and supporter, him and my mom and my family, and so I just try and take what they give me and use it as motivation."
For now, Wilson appears to have plenty of baseball ahead of him in his career. But he hasn't given up on his hopes of attending medical school someday.
"Yeah, eventually," Wilson said. "I think it's something that, if the time is right, I would love to pursue it. It's obviously a huge commitment, and I would take it very seriously. But we'd have to reevaluate once baseball kind of closes its door and see where we're at in life and then go from there."
Issue 222: June 2016