Justin Wilson was selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Fresno State. After being selected, Justin led Fresno State to the NCAA National Championship, including a great performance in the final game where he allowed five hits in eight innings, leading Fresno State to a 6-1 win. Justin has been pitching for the Lynchburg Hillcats the entire 2009 season, his first in the pros.
I interviewed Justin last Thursday, a day after his outing against Wilmington, and we discussed the draft, the College World Series, and his progress in his first season with the Pirates. Here is what he had to say:
Tim: You were taken last year by the Pirates in the fifth round. Did you know the Pirates were interested in you? How did it feel to go off the board to the Pirates?
Justin: Well of course it was a very exciting day. I was happy with where I went, and happy to go to the Pirates. I feel like I’m with a great organization, especially with this year, I’ve had a lot of fun and we’ve had some success, so that’s been great. The draft day, when my name came up I was ecstatic. Then just signed and started my way through.
Tim: With the draft you waited to sign until close to the deadline. How did you weight your decision? What finally made you to decide to sign with the Pirates?
Justin: I thought the Pirates were a great organization for me to go in to. I really enjoyed working with all of the people in the front office that I spoke with during the draft time. Once I finally signed the contract I’ve been happy since. Mainly I wanted some rest coming out of college. I threw a lot of innings in college, and that was part of the reason why I hadn’t signed. I got my rest and I was ready to start my pro career.
Tim: You were teammates with Tanner Scheppers last year, who didn’t sign, went on, and he’s currently unsigned with Texas this year. Did you guys have any contact at all while you were both draft picks with the Pirates?
Justin: Yeah, we talked. We both congratulated each other. When you’re both in negotiations you don’t usually talk too much about it. He’s a great guy, I wish the best for him and hope it ends up working out for him in the end. I’m sure we wish we’d want him here with the Pirates because he’s a great pitcher, but we’ve got what we have and we’re moving forward. I hope the best for him.
Tim: You had a lot of success with the College World Series run. Describe that final game, pitching the clinching game.
Justin: The College World Series was a time I’ll never forget, it was awesome. It was a big stage, and it was playoff baseball, just like we’re in right now. It’s comparable, but pro ball is a lot more in depth than college baseball. Now we’re back in the race, it’s going to be a good series.
Tim: You’ve now pitched in the playoffs, you pitched game one yesterday. How much of a step is it from the College World Series to the Carolina League playoffs?
Justin: I’ve learned a lot throughout the entire year, working with the pitching coach, and just learned a lot from the other guys on the team. I learned a lot about myself just finding my way through the first year. It’s an entirely different game up here. You’ve gotta attack hitters a certain way. College baseball, guys can put up big numbers with a metal bat, and you don’t have that here. You’ve gotta stop the bleeding when you can, and you’ve gotta get out of innings when you can, and if you’ve gotta give up one run while your team scores two, it works that way. It’s an exciting time that we’re all having right now.
Tim: What’s the biggest thing they’ve had you working on this year, with your first full season in the system?
Justin: Consistency in the strike zone has been my flaw throughout my career. Just to be able to keep the ball in the strike zone and attack hitters. When I do that I don’t really give up a lot of hits, a lot of hard hit balls, and if I stay ahead of the count I get out of the innings with a low pitch count. Consistency and command of the strike zone is big for me.
Tim: You’ve had a lot of success the last two months. Since late July you’ve really cut down on your walks. Is there anything you’re doing different now towards the end of the season that you weren’t doing in the first half to achieve that success?
Justin: I’ve just tried to build off every start, stay consistent. Just started attacking hitters more, getting back in to my own, getting after the hitter, throwing strike one, and putting guys away when I have the chance. That’s real big for me, so I’ve gotta continue with that throughout the entire year.
Tim: You’ll be heading to the Florida Instructional League in a few weeks. What’s the biggest thing you’re going to be working on there?
Justin: I’ll probably be working on a two seam fastball, since I’ve been throwing all four seam this year. I’ll work on commanding the strike zone some more, and probably working on my breaking pitches, and just keep working on my changeup. Just keep up with the confidence, and keep moving forward with what I’ve had in the past month.
Tim: What are your plans going in to next year?
Justin: I just want to continue, keep building. Hopefully move up a level. I want to just keep building off what I’ve done later in the season and move forward. Just learn about myself more, learn what I can do, what I need to work on, and just build off every start.
Wilson’s biggest problem has been command of the strike zone. It’s not that he’s wild. It’s that he has so much movement on his pitches that he struggles to control them. Take a look at the video recaps I’ve done on him to get a feel for that movement, especially with his curveball.
Wilson missed the 2008 season after signing so late, so the 2009 season marked his debut. Some have questioned whether he should have started with Lynchburg, or whether he should have been eased in at West Virginia.
Wilson struggled the first three months of the season, with a 6.58 ERA, and a 47:28 K/BB ratio in 53.1 IP. The biggest problem was his home run total, having allowed ten in that stretch. Wilson rebounded in the final two months of the season, posting a 2.73 ERA and a 47:27 K/BB ratio in 62.2 IP. He also cut down on the homers, allowing just four in this time span.
The issue of control still remains, although it’s something that Wilson is continuing to work on. Wilson throws a big looping curveball, a sharp slider with more command than the curve, a changeup, and a four seam fastball. The addition of a two seam fastball will be a nice complement to his other pitches, adding
another pitch with movement. His fastball right now is a good mix with his other pitches, consistently sitting at 92-93 MPH in his last start against Salem.
Like Rudy Owens, Wilson will be working on the two seam fastball in the Florida Instructional League, so I’m not sure whether the Pirates would want him working on controlling the pitch in Lynchburg or Altoona. Wilson should see Altoona next year, maybe even from the start of the season thanks to his success at the end of the year with Lynchburg. If Wilson can improve his control and command, he could be a special pitcher: a left handed starter with a good frame, a low 90s fastball, and two good breaking pitches.
Like this interview? I’ll have a new interview with a Pittsburgh Pirates prospect each day this week. Check back tomorrow for my interview with Matt Hague. Also, be sure to check out my previous interviews with Tony Sanchez, Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, and Hillcats’ manager P.J. Forbes.