In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris.
Given the success the Tigers have had with pitchers named Justin and Wilson separately, it made all the sense in the world that they would go for the gold by acquiring a pitcher named Justin Wilson. Presumably they put a little more thought into the deal that sent Chad Green and Luis Cessa to the Yankees in exchange for the left-handed reliever, but I like to think it was as simple as a lazy deployment of the transitive property.
Everyone knows the Tigers bullpen was a weak point during the Dombrowski era and Al Avila went into the offseason with only two real locks for the 2016 pen: Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy. While Wilson and Hardy were good in 2015, they aren’t exactly guys you want to point to as your best two arms. Sure the Tigers had some interesting potential like Bruce Rondon, Drew VerHagen, etc, but they needed relief help this winter, and relief help is something they got. You won’t have to wait long to see the other two new relievers, but today we’ll turn our attention to Justin Wilson.
Wilson pitched his third full season in 2015, delivering 61 innings across 74 appearances to go with a 76 ERA- and 64 FIP-. Last season was clearly his best using fielding independent numbers, although his ERA was better in 2013 thanks to a crazy low BABIP. Given that we’re talking about fewer than 200 career innings, I’m going to keep my focus on the components rather than the results, but at least you have some idea where he stood.
Wilson has always been a low homer guy, giving up between 0.4 and 0.6 HR/9 in each of his three seasons, but the big difference in 2015 was his increase in strikeouts. He punched out 27% of the batters he faced in 2015 compared to about 20% in 2013 and 24% in 2014. On top of that, he walked 8.2% of batters in 2015 after walking 9.5% and 11.7% during his previous seasons.
From that perspective, it’s not surprising that Wilson had such a good season. If you don’t allow dingers, get guys to strike out, and keep the free passes around league average, you’re going to have a solid season. Also, while Wilson might strike you as a LOOGY because of his 61 IP to 74 G ratio, he’s actually faced plenty of righties and has a slight reverse platoon split for his career.
Granted, I would never suggest 200 innings across three seasons is enough data to suggest he is actually a reverse platoon guy, but the fact that he hasn’t displayed a normal split over 200 innings does indicate to me that he’s probably not someone who is going to have a major platoon split.
Wilson is primarily going to throw a fastball around 95-96 and a cutter around 91-92, while also mixing in a few sinkers. You might even see 98-99 when he really needs it. That kind of power from the left side is pretty rare and he’s used it well. One thing you’ll notice is that in 2015, compared to 2014, Wilson kept the ball down and away when facing lefties.
Now that did cost him in the walk department, going from a 8.1% to 12.1% walk rate against lefties, but it also helped in the power department, dropping their ISO from .114 to .056. Small samples all around (86 and 83 PA), but you only have so much information when you’re talking about relievers.
While Wilson kept the strikeouts steady, increased the walks, and cut the power versus lefties, he increased strikeouts, cut walks, and kept the power about even versus righties.
It’s no secret that the Tigers need better innings from their bullpen if they want to compete and Wilson is going to be an important piece of that puzzle. He’s probably not 30-40% better than league average when it comes to ERA or FIP, but if he’s good enough to be in the 20-30% better than average window, that’s a big step forward for the Tigers. If Wilson can put together a 25 K%, 8 BB%, 0.50 HR/9 kind of season, all of which are very much in line with his 2015 season plus a little negative regression, the Tigers will have a really good LHP1 that will allow them to move Blaine Hardy into a LHP2.
The Tigers need the new relief corps to pitch well, but they’ve shown an ability to do so in recent years. The question, as it always is with relievers, is if they can continue to get batters out before they flame out. There are many dominant relievers in baseball, but dominant relief pitching year in and year out is a difficult thing to maintain. If Wilson can keep it going for another year, the Tigers bullpen will be on its way to one of its best seasons in years.