There have been a dozen individual offensive seasons by a full-time catcher in MLB history with 30 HR, a .300 average, and 150 OPS+. Half of them came from Mike Piazza and three were by Roy Campanella. Joe Torre and Javy Lopez also achieved the feat – as did Rick Wilkins in 1993. Combining his offensive prowess and his league-leading caught stealing rate, Wilkins’ 6.6 bWAR in 1993 is the most by any Cubs catcher in team history, including Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett.
Wilkins was then in his third big-league season; aged just 26, he appeared headed for a productive prime. It didn’t work out that way, although he appeared in the majors as late as 2001. Out of his 81 homers at the top level, 30 came during his banner year.
Richard David Wilkins was born on June 4, 1967, in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Ray and Pat Wilkins.1 Rick’s father Ray played baseball at South Georgia State College and later worked for CSX Transportation.2 He has two younger sisters, Trisha, who was born with cerebral palsy, and Aimee.3
Rick grew up a Yankees fan and his two favorite players were backstops Thurman Munson and Johnny Bench.4 His father was his baseball coach and moved him behind the plate at age nine. Of his first catching experience, Rick said, “I remember the first day, I was really, really exhausted and I was beat up. But I loved being involved with every pitch. I loved seeing the whole field in front of me and seeing plays develop. I started catching then and I’ve been doing it ever since.”5
Wilkins attended high school at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, the same school that would later be attended by future big leaguers Chipper Jones, Austin Slater, and DJ Stewart. There, he was a part of teams that won two district championships and made it to the final four in the state in 1984 and 1985.6 A multi-sport star, Rick was an all-state athlete in baseball and wrestling and all-city as a football player.7
Wilkins began his collegiate athletic career at Furman University as a two-sport athlete playing football and baseball. During the first semester of his freshman year, he was a reserve linebacker on a Paladins football team that made it to the 1985 Division 1-AA National Championship game.8 Following the season, Furman football coach Dick Sheridan was hired by North Carolina State University. His replacement, Jimmy Satterfield, wanted Wilkins to focus only on football – but despite good size for the gridiron at 6-feet-2 and 210 pounds, Rick was not interested in that. Thus, he transferred to Florida Community College at Jacksonville (today named Florida State College at Jacksonville), where his collegiate baseball career began.9
The Chicago Cubs drafted Wilkins in the 23rd round of the June 1986 amateur draft following his first season at FCC-Jacksonville. He did not sign, though, until May 28, 1987, the same day the Blue Wave were eliminated in the semifinals of the NJCAA World Series. During his final year of junior college baseball, Wilkins hit .266 with four home runs and 48 RBI in 56 games. Once Wilkins was signed, Cubs scouting director Scott Reid stated, “He’s one of the top catching prospects in the country… He has the tools to be a front-line catcher in the major leagues and has good power.”10 Shortly thereafter the 20-year-old joined the Geneva Cubs of the New York-Pennsylvania League (short-season Class A), where he posted a .251/.397/.399 batting line with more walks (58) than strikeouts (40) in 75 games played.
The lefty-hitting Wilkins played in 1988 for the Peoria Chiefs (Class A) under manager Jim Tracy and in 1989 he joined the Winston-Salem Spirits (also A ball). His performance at that level was good enough to be named to Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect List, ranking 70th, before the 1990 season. That year he played for the Charlotte Knights (AA), hitting a team-high 17 homers and producing 71 RBIs. However, he had an underwhelming .685 OPS.
For the 1991 season, it was not a foregone conclusion that Wilkins would be promoted to the Cubs’ Class AAA affiliate in Iowa. The Cubs had a solid group of catchers ahead of him in the pecking order, including three with big-league success in Joe Girardi, Damon Berryhill, and Hector Villanueva. Erik Pappas, the incumbent starting catcher for Iowa, was also coming off a productive 1990 season at the highest level of the minor leagues. As spring training concluded and minor-league players were being assigned levels, I-Cubs manager Jim Essian – a former major-league catcher of 12 seasons – argued for Wilkins to join his club. He stated, “Let me teach him to be a catcher. Let him be my personal project.” Essian got his way and Wilkins continued his progression through the minors.11
On May 22, 1991, Essian replaced interim manager Joe Altobelli, who managed one game after Don Zimmer was fired, as manager of the big club in Chicago. Just two weeks after Essian’s move to Chicago, Wilkins was called up to the majors. At the time of his promotion, the Cubs needed offensive production at the catcher position. Girardi was on the disabled list after appearing in just three games; Berryhill and Villanueva were hitting .174 and .212, respectively. After going hitless in his first two games, Wilkins recorded his first three hits, including a double and a walk, on June 8 in a 4-3 win at Wrigley Field over the Los Angeles Dodgers. On June 25 at Three Rivers Stadium against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he hit his first career home run off Bob Kipper. He homered in three of the next four games.
Wilkins stayed with the Cubs for the remainder of his rookie season, appearing in 86 of the team’s final 110 games and hitting .222/.307/.355. His 54 starts and 235 plate appearances led all Cubs catchers that season, as did his 39% caught stealing percentage.
In 1992, the Cubs started the season with three catchers on the roster: Wilkins, Girardi, and Villanueva. After the Cubs’ 12th game and nearly two weeks since his last start, Wilkins returned to Iowa. There he produced offensively; his .277/.362/.471 over 47 games was the best batting line of his career to that point. Later, he cited this demotion as a turning point in his career, stating, “I think that experience helped me to become a better ballplayer. It definitely helped me mentally. It changed my mental approach to the game in the respect that I learned how important it is to concentrate to my utmost on every pitch.”12 When he was recalled to the Cubs on June 19, he continued to hit well as he split time with Girardi behind the plate. By the end of the season, Wilkins was the team’s primary catcher, starting 27 of their final 33 games and finishing with an impressive .270/.344/.414 batting line, for a 112 OPS+, while playing good defense.
Following the season, Girardi was left unprotected in the expansion draft and was selected by the Colorado Rockies. Wilkins was in line to be the Cubs’ primary catcher. Chicago Tribune sportswriter Jerome Holtzman wrote of Wilkins in a March 14, 1993 column, “Barring injury or a severe slump, neither of which is anticipated, he could come to the plate 500 times during the long season ahead.” Holtzman added, “He has a strong and accurate arm, but his percentage against would-be base stealers last season was 37 percent; 45 to 48 percent is the desired ratio.” Looking back, Holtzman was quite prophetic as Wilkins came to the plate exactly 500 times and threw out 46% of would-be base stealers.13
Despite his substantial numbers in 1993, Wilkins did not make the National League All-Star team. This was in large part because of a slow start. In mid-April, when his batting average dropped to .053, the Cubs stopped posting his average on the scoreboard, instead displaying, “Rick Wilkins, No. 2.”14 On May 12, it would have been hard to believe Wilkins could end up one of the most productive catchers in the league, as his .164/.265/.247 batting line was far from the league leaders. From that point until the end of the season, however, Wilkins went on a tear, hitting .330/.398/.622 with 28 home runs.
During the season, Cubs manager Jim Lefebvre was quoted as saying, “He’s a real budding young star… He’s big and strong, he’s got a great arm, he’s got power, he blocks the ball well, and he’s aggressive because of that football mentality. He’s really matured as a leader behind the plate… We’re talking about a left-handed hitting catcher with power. He has a chance to be a premier player in the game.”15
Wilkins and agent Scott Boras agreed with Lefebvre’s assessment; following the season, they approached the Cubs in the hopes of signing a multi-year contract extension. He was seeking a deal comparable to the three-year/$4.2 million deal Mike Piazza, who had also hit .300 with 30 homers, had signed coming off his award as NL Rookie of the Year. However, Wilkins had not yet reached the service time requirements to enter arbitration and had little bargaining power. The Cubs would not engage in multi-year extension talks and exercised their right to sign Wilkins to a $350,000 contract for the 1994 season.16
In the strike-shortened 1994 season, he got off to another slow start – but this time, he was unable to bounce back to make up for it. While he always hit right-handed pitching better than southpaws, he really struggled with lefties in 1994, producing a .154/.267/.269 line and fanning in 26 of 61 plate appearances. If there was a silver lining offensively for Wilkins, it was that he turned things around over the last 21 games, slashing .282/.370/.493 with three homers. The solid play the before the strike raised his average to .227 and he totaled seven home runs as he played in 100 of the team’s 113 games. His 10-homer pace was a steep drop-off from his 30-homer season the previous campaign and, as a result, he produced an 83 OPS+, 17 percent less than league average.
Whether it was the contract dispute, wear and tear, or something else, Wilkins’ 1994 season fell short of the expectations set from the 1993 season. Manager Tom Trebelhorn gave his explanation for Wilkins’ troubles following a series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Sometimes expectations can be heavy burdens. I think Rick’s expectations, our expectations and baseball expectations were pretty high for him. Human nature would say he’s trying too hard, especially when he sees Piazza repeating his performance.”17
After starting 47 of the team’s first 58 games in 1995 but struggling offensively (albeit with a career-high walk rate), Wilkins was traded to the Houston Astros for Luis Gonzalez and Scott Servais. Only two games into his tenure as an Astro, Wilkins exited with a neck injury that required surgery and kept him out for over two months.18 Once it was known that Wilkins would require a stint on the disabled list, Houston general manager Bob Watson spoke publicly about his frustration that Wilkins’ neck injury had not been disclosed by the Cubs.19 Watson eventually filed a grievance with the league, but it was rejected by NL President Leonard Coleman.20 When Wilkins returned, he continued to walk with great frequency and hit well enough to finish with a .203/.351/.322 batting line.
Before the 1996 season, Wilkins went through the arbitration process for the second time. In his first time through the process, he and the Cubs agreed to a contract of $1.475 million for the 1995 season. The talks with the Astros, however, would not be as easy. Houston offered him a 15% salary reduction while Wilkins asked for a 5% increase. The two sides could not reach an agreement; in the end, the arbiter sided with Wilkins.21
Wilkins’ time in Houston would be short-lived. He began the 1996 season as their starting catcher and excelled at the plate with a .999 OPS and four home runs in April. Over the next three months, however, he was unable to keep up that pace. His performance was more in line with his 1995 numbers: a low batting average and an excellent walk rate. On July 26, he was traded to the San Francisco Giants for catcher Kirt Manwaring. The change of scenery worked well for Wilkins. He reached base safely in his first 12 games, including another big moment at Three Rivers Stadium – a pinch-hit grand slam to give the Giants the lead for good over the Pirates on August 13. In 52 games for San Francisco, Wilkins hit .293/.366/.510 with eight home runs and 36 RBIs. His totals for the season were his best since 1993.
The Giants started the 1997 season with two former Cubs teammates as catchers on their roster, Wilkins and Berryhill, but finished the season with only one. Wilkins struggled offensively but threw out 47% of attempted base stealers. On August 1, after the Giants were unable to find a trade partner before the deadline, Wilkins was released.22 Two weeks later, the Seattle Mariners signed Wilkins and he made his debut three weeks after that. He played sparingly for the M’s, competing in only five of their final 20 contests. He was added to the roster for the ALDS and walked in his lone plate appearance.
From 1998 through 2001, Wilkins appeared for five major-league teams but never again played in as many as 25 games in a season. After beginning the 1998 season as the backup catcher for Seattle, Wilkins was traded to the Mets on May 8 for minor-league pitcher Lindsay Gulin. After five appearances he was designated for assignment following the Mets’ trade for Mike Piazza. He cleared waivers and was outrighted to AAA, where he spent the remainder of the season.23 In 1999, he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers and appeared in three games at the major-league level. In 2000, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, appearing in four games during the regular season and then two more as a pinch hitter in the NLCS. Finally, in 2001, in his 12th and final game as a San Diego Padre, Wilkins hit a two-run single as a pinch-hitter in what would be the final plate appearance of his big-league baseball career. He stuck around as a player for one more season with the Joliet Jackhammers of the independent Northern League.
Rick Wilkins’ major-league career spanned 11 seasons and eight teams. His final career batting line of .244/.332/.410 amounted to a 100 OPS+. He provided very good defense throughout his career and finished with a .992 fielding percentage while throwing out 38% of base stealers, seven percentage points higher than the league average while he played. In total, he produced 14.0 bWAR during his career. Most of his big-league experience came as a Cub, where (as of 2022) he remains one of two catchers in team history, along with Gabby Hartnett, to hit 30 home runs in a season.
Following his playing career, he started the Rick Wilkins Family Foundation and the Wilkins Academy of Baseball. Inspired by his sister Trisha’s battle with cerebral palsy, the family foundation raised money for institutions that helped create recreational opportunities for adults with disabilities through events like celebrity golf tournaments and baseball clinics.24 The foundation worked closely with the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida and helped to fund the building of the multi-purpose Hodges Stadium along with scholarships in the department of health, and supported the baseball program under head coach Dusty Rhodes.25 The baseball academy opened in 2009 and was sold in 2014.26
Since 2010, Wilkins has worked in finance for the Principal Financial Group. He and his wife Vandy have a son, Mac, and a daughter, Laney. Mac will begin his baseball career at Florida State College at Jacksonville (previously named Florida Community College at Jacksonville), his father’s alma mater, in 2022.27
In 2015, The Bolles School retired Wilkins’ number 19, making him the third Bulldog to receive such an honor. At the ceremony he said, “Really you aspire to be good enough to maybe go to college and maybe get an education out of it. But to aspire to something greater than that requires breaks along the way, so to be honored today is very special.”28
Last revised: July 24, 2022
This biography was reviewed by Paul Proia and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Dan Schoenholz.
1 Jerome Holtzman, “Cubs’ Wilkins proves that perseverance pays.” Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1993: Section 3 Page 12.
2 Rick Wilkins, email correspondence with Jonas Thoms, March 23, 2022 (hereafter Wilkins e-mail).
3 Charlie Patton, “Charity golf event truly a labor of love.” The Florida Times-Union, November 15, 2002: B-1.
5 Marc Topkin, “Wilkins slugging to the top,” The Tampa Bay Times, August 10, 1993. https://www.tampabay.com/archive/1993/08/10/wilkins-slugging-to-the-top/.
6 Matt Kingston, “Bolles retires Rick Wilkins’ #19,” News4Jax.com, April 3, 2005. https://www.news4jax.com/sports/2015/04/03/bolles-retires-rick-wilkins-19/. See also https://www.bolles.org/athletics/championship-titles.
8 Joe Goddard, “Cubs Bits,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 2, 1987: 92.
9 Tim Luke, “Wilkins’ 24 homers pleasant surprise to Cubs,” Greenville News, August 31, 1993: D-2.
11 Randy Peterson, “Wilkins’ performance with the Cubs proves Essian’s faith was justified,” The Des Moines Register, July 3, 1991: 11.
12 Joseph A. Reaves, “Wilkins learns from demotion,” Chicago Tribune, February 28, 1994: 3-11.
14 David Marran,”Cubs catcher could put his name next to Gabby’s,” Kenosha News, July 25, 1993: D4.
16 Joseph A. Reaves, “Renewal of contract has Wilkins seething,” The Chicago Tribune, March 4, 1994: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1994-03-04-9403040244-story.html.
17 Staff, “Wilkins’ failure underscored by Piazza’s success,” Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1994: 3-5
18 Alan Truex, “Astros summary,” Houston Chronicle, July 10, 1995: 2.
19 Bob Nightingale, “Time to get physical,” The Sporting News, July 17, 1995: 14.
20 Staff, “Molitor joins free agent market,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 2, 1995: C3.
21 Staff, “Wilkins wins arbitration,” Houston Chronicle, February 9, 1996: 4.
22 Mark Gonzalez, “Trade doesn’t please everyone; Giants cut Roa, Wilkins, Johnstone,” The Mercury News, August 2, 1997: 6D.
23 Staff, “NL notebook,” The Palm Beach Post, May 24, 1998: 7C.
24 Susan D. Brandenburg, “Special agency’s party is a big hit.” The Florida Times-Union, January 1, 2005: S-1.
25 Wilkins e-mail.
26 Wilkins e-mail.
27 Wilkins e-mail.