Zach Gilles Hopes Strong Season Leads to Professional Opportunities
By: Mitchell Speltz
Zach Gilles is the definition of a veteran, collegiate baseball player. An outfielder from Chippewa Falls, Wis., will be heading into his fifth season at Central Michigan University after gaining an extra year of eligibility from the COVID-19 Pandemic. He is also currently in his fourth season in the Northwoods League.
Gilles played with his hometown Eau Claire Express the past three summers and planned on joining them again for the 2020 season. However, when he got the call the Express were not going to have a season, he looked for a new summer home and quickly found one in Mankato.
“Once Dale (Varsho) told me they weren’t going to have a season, I contacted my coach at CMU and he set me up here. About two days later I was here at my host family’s house,” Gilles said. His success as a member of the Express has translated to a MoonDog uniform as he’s pacing the Minnesota-Iowa Pod in batting average (.378) and on-base percentage (.521).
“I love it here; I like the way the whole program is run and how the coaches handle everything on the field,” Gilles added.
He’s also shown great ability as a defender committing just one error across four seasons at Central Michigan, earning him a career fielding percentage of .997. But despite consistent success in the Northwoods League and as a division one baseball player, he has often been overlooked by major league scouts.
One part of his game that is missing is his power swing. Gilles has hit only two home runs in his career at Central Michigan and zero in the Northwoods League. The power potential of a player has been a top priority of scouts in this era of baseball with less of an emphasis on contact, which has hurt Gilles as a prospect. The current state of Major League Baseball has seen a rapid rise in home runs with 2019 setting the new record of total long-balls in a season with 6,776 – breaking the previous mark by over 600.
Despite the lack of home run power, Gilles has still shown the ability to provide a strong OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging). OPS has recently been considered a more regarded statistic in baseball compared to batting average because it illustrates a hitter’s overall productivity at the plate. Gilles’s best season at Central Michigan came as a junior in 2019 where he had a batting average of .351, reaching base at a .448 clip with a slugging percentage of .431. – Equaling an OPS of .879, which is considered above average. Gilles achieved a high slugging percentage despite not hitting a home run that season but showed extra-base ability by collecting seven doubles and six triples in 2019.
MoonDogs manager, Matt Wollenzin, came to his defense saying, “Opponents look at his numbers and know he’s a good hitter but assume he lacks power and is just an on-base guy. I think he has one of the cleanest swings I’ve seen in the league and is a very advanced hitter from an approach standpoint.”
Wollenzin has experienced what it’s like to coach Gilles and face him as an opponent. “He’s extremely annoying to play against. You look at him and think, “this guy can’t beat us,” but he can beat you in a lot of different ways. He brings a pesky at-bat every time, he might be the best bunter I’ve ever seen and always uses that to his advantage.”
The Mankato skipper continued by saying, “He’s a very coachable player but when he’s hitting close to .400 it’s hard to say anything to him. If anything, he’s been a coach to me and I try to pick his brain as much I can because he’s such a smart player and his attention to detail is tremendous.”
As Gilles continues to play the best baseball of his career, he looks to use the rest of his Northwoods League campaign and his final year of eligibility to propel his game to the next level. Scouts have told him his draft potential is contingent on how he performs his senior year at Central Michigan. “I look forward to going back, play some more ball, and set a good example for the younger guys. I want to win and be a strong team player and hopefully, it all works itself out for me,” said Gilles.
If the opportunity is there, Gilles wants to continue his baseball career at the next level into the minor leagues. But if he falls just short of his aspirations, he has his next plan set into place. Gilles will be finishing his degree in Bio-Medical Science in the fall at Central Michigan and plans to attend pharmacy school at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee in the fall of 2021.
The Mankato MoonDogs are a member of the finest developmental league for elite college baseball players, the Northwoods League. The Northwoods League is the proven leader in the development of elite college baseball players. Having completed its’ 26th season, the Northwoods League is the largest organized baseball league in the world with 22 teams, drawing significantly more fans, in a friendly ballpark experience, than any league of its kind. A valuable training ground for coaches, umpires and front office staff, over 230 Northwoods League players have advanced to Major League Baseball, including three-time All-Star and 2016 Roberto Clemente Award winner Curtis Granderson, three-time Cy Young Award winner and World Series Champion Max Scherzer (WAS), two-time World Series Champions Ben Zobrist (CHC) and Brandon Crawford (SFG) and World Series Champion Chris Sale (BOS). As well as 2019 Rookie of the Year and Home Run Derby Champion Pete Alonso (NYM) and MLB All-Star Jordan Zimmermann (DET). All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League website. All league games are viewable live via the Northwoods League portal. For more information, visit www.mankatomoondogs.com or download the new Northwoods League Mobile App on the Apple App Store or on Google Play and set the MoonDogs as your favorite team.