After a disappointing season that ended in a 74-87 record, the Detroit Tigers, led by new GM Al Avila, looked to retool the entire roster over the offseason. Early in the process, the Tigers added veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez to a shaky bullpen, then swung a deal for Cameron Maybin to solidify center field.
Detroit’s rotation was bolstered by signing Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey, and Mark Lowe was added to strengthen a previously underwhelming bullpen. Justin Upton, a supreme slugger and former All-Star, inked a deal in January, and was the “big move” along with the signing of Zimmermann.
The best move Avila and the Tigers made though, was trading for left-handed Justin Wilson.
There was an obvious need for a left-handed reliever in the Tigers’ bullpen, but Wilson is much more than just a fill-in. By trading RHPs Luis Cessa and Chad Green to the New York Yankees, the Tigers got the 4th best left-handed relief pitcher in baseball in 2015 by fWAR, a guy who was as valuable as All-Stars like Mark Melancon and Craig Kimbrel.
Wilson is different however, in that he does it primarily with one pitch: a dynamic fastball. Pumping out a mid-90s 4-seam fastballs about 68% of the time in 2015, Wilson found success with a nearly 30% K%.
In a bullpen with studs Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, Wilson’s progression was overlooked, and perhaps more importantly for the Tigers, his production was undervalued. Wilson’s fastball has always been his bread and butter, and its K% has increased each year since his first full season in 2013, largely because of an increase in vertical movement.
|Wilson, J.||K%||SwStr%||Vertical Movement (in.)|
Higher vertical movement allows Wilson’s pitch to resist gravity more, creating the “zip” or “hop” you see on some fastballs. From the following image taken from this article, we can clearly see a relationship between a fastball’s break and its miss rate.
(Note: “miss-rate” isn’t equivalent to K%)
Although “break” in this case is defined as total break length rather than horizontal or vertical movement, we can still infer the same results. Of all pitchers, with at least 500 4-seam fastballs in 2015, Wilson had the 10th highest vertical movement.
With greater vertical movement above the 7-inch range and a 3% jump in SwStr%, Wilson’s fastball enjoyed a well-deserved spike in Ks. However, despite all the success Wilson had throwing 4-seamers, the LD% on his fastball jumped nearly 10% in 2015.
So while hitters had little success against Wilson’s fastball, they managed to square up line drives nearly 30% of the time, which supported a .304 BABIP/.206 AVG. Given that most signs point toward Wilson’s fastball being incredibly difficult to hit, I assume there was some lack of command, despite a career best BB%.
Batters were swinging more often, and again, we see they had some trouble making contact. The 5% increase in Zone% amounts to roughly 37 more strikes over the 707 fastballs Wilson threw in 2015. The key though is where those strikes end up, so we’ll look at the following zone breakdowns for Wilson’s fastball.
Obviously, the thing that jumps out first is the 61 pitches right down the middle in 2015 (on the right) compared to just 29 in 2014 (on the left), but there was also a greater tendency to work on the left (inside to RHB) side of the plate in 2015.
Now take a look at Wilson’s line drives the past two seasons:
From these zone breakdowns, (2014 on the left and 2015 on the right), the increase in Wilson’s line drives is very clear. For good measure, I’ll include the percentage of grooved pitches, or the % of pitches middle-middle.
In 2014, Wilson grooved his fastball around 5% of the time all season, but in 2015, he only tossed it down the middle less than 5% in one full month. If we presume hitters were taking advantage of his poor location, we should find a source for the inconsistency. The inference I made here was that Wilson lost the “feel” of the pitch.
In 2013 and 2014, the difference in horizontal release points between Wilson’s fastball, sinker, and cutter, (his three fastballs), was at most 0.09 feet (1.08 inches). In 2015 though, that discrepancy grew to 0.19 feet (2.28 inches). This increase may not seem like much, but given that the 4-seam fastball’s changing release point was the main culprit, the end result could have been magnified and led to a propensity to give up line drives.
Fine tuning command is never a simple task, but if Wilson can harness his improving fastball and lower its BABIP, hitters’ production should dwindle even further below a 73 wRC+.
Despite the large amount of line drives given up on his 4-seam fastball, Wilson was the 23rd best among all qualified relievers in 2015 (PITCH f/x per 100 pitches).
His 2-seam fastball/sinker was 10th best, and his curveball was 12th best among the same group, although note that Wilson did only throw 63 sinkers and 44 curves. His cutter, however, did not fare as well, ranked 34th, but it is only one year removed from being ranked 15th and still has very similar movement and release point.
Over the past couple years, as he has leaned on his fastball more, Wilson has played into reverse platoon splits, limiting RHB to a considerably lower wOBA than LHB in both 2014 and 2015. In a quick Q&A seen here, Wilson says he lacks a “strikeout pitch,” and says he’s considering working on “more of a slider” or a “harder curveball” for 2016.
Recent reports indicate that Wilson has brought a slider to camp that was inspired in part by former teammate Andrew Miller. Though it is still a work in progress, the slider could pay big dividends in getting LHB out. Closing the gap in his splits against LHB and RHB should cement Wilson among the top 5 left-handed relievers in the game.
We can’t discount the players the Tigers gave up in this trade, but neither Luis Cessa nor Chad Green are high profile prospects, and neither projects to turn in a season quite like Justin Wilson’s 2015.
Though Cessa has been a starter in the minors, he’s working as a reliever this spring. This spring could help him get the most out of his decidedly average stuff. He does make up for a lack of strikeout potential with great control, but he struggled quite badly in AAA, despite registering a solid FIP for both the Mets’ and Tigers’ affiliates.
Green could also benefit from a move to the bullpen, but his command and movement are equally unimpressive, and at almost 25, he hasn’t seen AAA yet. Both could see the majors and find some success, but since they project to be organizational depth, (Green more than Cessa), Detroit’s acquisition of Wilson look like a steal.
Any relief pitcher will be hard pressed to provide as much on-field value as a starting pitcher or every-day player, but the price Detroit had to pay was minuscule to acquire three years of a borderline elite talent like Justin Wilson. This deal may have been lost in the shuffle of busy teams and big story-lines, but for a team in dire need of a cost-effective, left-handed reliever, the Tigers made out like bank robbers by obtaining Wilson.
Statistics provided by: baseballprospectus.com, baseballsavant.com, FanGraphs.com, BrooksBaseball.net
Images thanks to: freep.com. MLB.com, Getty Images, thegreedypinstripes.com