One of Chris Winkel’s favorite places to fish at UConn is Swan Lake. Yeah, that one. The one dubbed “Chem Lake” by students, the one covered with regular algae blooms, the one that seemingly only gets used recreationally when it’s frozen four inches deep, the one that basically qualifies as a lake in name only.
“Yeah, we’ve pulled a couple bass out of there,” Chris laughed. “My buddy Kenny Bergmann, he pulled a 15-pound bright orange Koi fish out of there one time.”
Chris has been fishing for as long as he’s been playing baseball. Growing up in Orange, he and his friends went to their favorite spot, Lake Wepawaug, almost every week after Chris discovered it his freshman year. His brother, freshman Patrick Winkel, fishes too, albeit not quite as often.
The lazy days spent in the sun and the water worked their way into the brothers’ approach at the diamond.
Chris: “I think there’s comparisons [between baseball and fishing], it’s almost therapeutic in a way. Like being out on a lake and the quiet and the serenity, can be therapeutic and flush out a bad day.”
Patrick: “Like a mental reset.”
Chris: “Yeah a mental reset, the same thing can be with baseball. You can have a lot going on, then you go to practice or a game and just focus on baseball.”
Chris brought that same attitude to J.O. Christian Field in his first two years with UConn. He’s tall with long, blond hair and enters the batter’s box to a groovy keyboard and piano tune.
Chris leaves most of the flair behind when he enters the batter's box, approaching the game like any other player, but there is one he brings with him.
Like most baseball players, Chris is superstitious, and every time he steps into the batter’s box, he does the same thing. He looks down, takes his foot and wipes away any spare markings he finds there.
“To me in my head, that’s kinda like flushing away what’s happened already and starting anew between every pitch,” Chris mused.
Chris arrived on campus in 2016 and was thrust into into a big role as a young player, starting in 45 games fresh out of high school. He didn’t struggle, but he experienced some growing pains: A .225 batting average and a .238 on-base percentage aren’t amazing marks.
But he kept at it and was a solid offensive threat for the Huskies by his second year as a starter—his batting average improved over .40 from his first year at UConn. This, Chris credits to a more intelligent approach at the plate.
“Using experience I gained during my freshman year, I was able to approach my at-bats with a more polished plan that allowed me to square up the ball more often,” Chris said.
This new approach also helped him to a .378 slugging percentage and a .335 on-base percentage from 2017 to 2018, hitting for power more and getting on base way more often than his freshman year.
His greatest value to the team, however, comes on the defensive side of the ball. Chris played outfield during most of his time at Amity High School, but was converted to first base in 2017 when he started up at UConn.
He’s the prototypical size for the position, standing at 6-foot-5, which allows him to range up and grab errant throws to first with ease. This made him the less-heralded third member of UConn’s impressive middle infield last year, completing the final part of a dozen acrobatic double plays started by Michael Woodworth, John Toppa or Conor Moriarty.
Chris has come far off the field as well since his freshman year. He’s the team’s representative to the UConn Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC) and was named one of the Huskies’ team captains along with Mason Feole and John Toppa.
Now he’ll get to rejoin Patrick in UConn’s quest for the college world series.
Patrick doesn’t subscribe to quite the same type of lifestyle as his brother—fishing, beach music, flow on the head—but he doesn’t swing too far in the other direction either. At least not as he tries not to laugh out loud as Chris recounts a story from his brother’s days in Orange Little League:
Chris: “I wanna say you were between the ages of six to eight, you were young, elementary school, where it was nearly impossible to get Pat to take off his crocs.”
Pat: “Yeah, you’re not wrong.”
Chris: “No matter what we were doing, we’d be going to a baseball game, he’d have his uniform on, and he would attempt to go out on the field in Crocs.”
Pat: “I don’t know if that happened, I don’t think that happened.”
Chris: “That’s a fact. He’d be playing basketball in the driveway in Crocs, he was gonna roll his ankle.”
Thankfully, Patrick ditched the Crocs at around middle school. If he was still wearing them when Amity High School coach Sal Coppola saw him for the first time, he wouldn’t have compared Patrick to a Connecticut baseball legend.
After starring at Cheshire High School in the 1980s, Brad Ausmus stuck around the majors for 17 years. Now the manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ausmus hit a career .251 while racking up 12,839 putouts, third all-time among catchers.
Patrick is comparable to Ausmus defensively, Coppola said, but the younger Winkel has a better bat.
In his four years as a starter at Amity, Patrick hit over .500 twice, .493 last spring with 10 doubles, six home runs, 22 RBIs and 27 walks. He was named Gatorade Player of the Year in 2018, following in the footsteps of another Connecticut baseball great, Dodgers outfielder A.J. Pollock.
Oh yeah, and he’s a lefty catcher, one of the rarest players in the baseball world. He excels at it defensively, framing and blocking pitches with the best of them while possessing a pro-level arm from behind the plate—his throws to second base hover at a constant three-four feet above the center infield, curling into second base with a gunshot.
This has earned Patrick high praise from the UConn coaching staff even through just one offseason with him. They see his lively bat and defensive skills as an important piece of UConn’s success this year.
“He's got a calmness to him that you need behind the plate; you gotta stay under control," hitting coach Jeff Hourigan said of the freshman.
Not bad for a guy who ended up playing the position by accident, as his team didn’t have one when he was nine years old.
“He tried it, and he enjoyed it,” the Winkels’ dad, Jim, told Hearst Media. “Frankly, it’s a good position for him, given the strengths of his game—good arm, soft hands, and the fact that he’s a left-handed bat.”
These skills led him all over the country the summer of his senior year at Amity. Patrick took part in the Area Code Games in Long Beach, California, the Perfect Game National Super 25 National Tournament in Florida and the Tournament of Stars in North Carolina, with MLB draft scouts following him around like so many baby ducks.
Among them were representatives of the New York Yankees, the team who eventually drafted him to their storied club… in the 31st round. It’s pretty far down from the fifth, where some projected him to go in the beginning of the season, but that was due to a variety of factors, and most didn’t have to do with his actual play on the field.
First, it’s tough to evaluate catchers straight out of high school because they haven’t had the chance to actually catch anything more than high school talent. That should be rectified this season when Winkel will get a chance to catch Mason Feole and Jake Wallace, both projected to go in the top rounds of the 2019 MLB Draft.
Second, Yankees pitchers were definitely aware of his brother’s enrollment at UConn, and the weight that carried with Patrick.
Patrick didn’t set out to go to UConn as soon as his brother committed in 2015, it just kind of happened. As he started to go to games, UConn coaches had better access to him, and he started to buy into what they were trying to do as a problem.
“More than anything it was the fact that I was so comfortable and familiar and bought into what they were trying to do here, that was the deciding factor,” Patrick said, “It wasn’t necessarily the fact that, ‘My brother’s here, so I have to go here.’”
Patrick made the varsity team as a freshman, and helped his team to Class LL state titles in his freshman and sophomore years with the team along with his brother.
But Chris sat out his senior season with an injured hand, so the two really only had one full season together—continuing their mutual career cut short was an added bonus of deciding to attend UConn and forgo the majors.
Baseball wasn’t the sole focus of either Winkel brother growing up. Chris lettered in basketball at Amity, while Patrick played in a more limited role. Both brothers kinda just “migrated to baseball together,” in their own words.
The brothers attribute their discipline in training and in the weight room to a good group of friends on Amity baseball in Orange, who collectively helped them reach this point in their careers.
“We had a group of really good friends around us who were kinda all interested in the same thing, getting better and pushing each other,” Chris said. “Our friends liked to go to the gym and liked to go to the batting cages, and liked to go to the baseball field even though we didn’t have a game.”
At UConn, the Winkels’ group of good friends is pushing each other towards an even loftier goal. After the last year ended one game away from the Super Regionals, the entire team has hive-minded towards exactly one thing: the College World Series.
“This is a goal that coach Penders always sets and he says we won’t be satisfied until we get there—is we wanna make it all the way to Omaha,” Chris said. “I think it’s really cool that I get to represent my home state at the poster university, and we don’t really have any [pro] sports teams in Connecticut, UConn is it, so I wanna get to the national stage in baseball.”
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.