The Book on Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson threw three shutout innings last night.

Justin Wilson threw three shutout innings last night.

Last night Justin Wilson came on in relief and pitched three perfect innings, striking out two. Wilson’s stuff looked great, with a fastball that was touching 97, and consistently in the mid-90s. He also was flashing a great curveball with a big break that finished consistently down in the zone. Wilson has only pitched nine innings in his major league career, spread out between last September and the start of this season. That means most Pirates fans haven’t had a chance to see him over a long period of time, leaving some questions about his stuff. I’ve followed Wilson since he broke into pro ball, seeing the majority of his starts while he was in Lynchburg, and seeing him at least once a year each year after that. Here is my breakdown of the pros and cons for Wilson.

The Control

The big topic with Wilson is his control. That didn’t show up last night, as he threw three innings with no hits and no walks. But Wilson has a career 4.5 BB/9 ratio in 518.2 innings in the minors. If you’re thinking “maybe last night is a sign that his control problems are behind him”, then you’re going to be extremely frustrated in the future.

Wilson isn’t like a lot of guys with control problems. In some starts the control issues won’t be there, and he will be absolutely dominant. We saw that last night. Then there will be other starts where control is a huge problem, and the outing will turn into a roller coaster ride. A prime example of this came early last season. Wilson combined on a no-hitter early in the season, throwing 107 pitches over 7.1 no-hit innings. In his next start he was removed after throwing 95 pitches in four innings, walking three in the process. And leading up to that no-hitter, Wilson had starts where he walked six in five innings, and five in five innings.

When Wilson has control of his pitches, he looks like a potential ace. But the fact that he’s not consistent with that control limits his upside to more of a 3-5 starter or a late inning reliever.

The Stuff

What you saw last night out of Wilson was legit. He’s got some of the best stuff in the system. As a starter, his fastball sits in the 92-94 range, touching 96. As a reliever he sits in the mid-90s, much like last night. In the past he has touched as high as 99 MPH, although that only happened twice, and hasn’t happened since.

Last night we saw the curveball, and saw why that is his best off-speed pitch. Wilson also throws a slider and a changeup. The slider is more like a cutter. He threw the pitch several times last night, ranging from 87-92. The pitch looked more like a slower version of his fastball, just with more late movement. However, he didn’t command the pitch as well as he did the curveball. Wilson also throws a changeup, which is probably his second best off-speed pitch, and effective when he’s in the rotation.

Overall, Wilson has four pitches that can be average or better. His fastball and curveball are above average or better, with last night being more of the “better”.

Starting vs Relieving

Most pitchers see an improvement when they move from the rotation to the bullpen. Maybe they don’t give up as many hits, or maybe they see an improvement with their command. That’s not the case with Wilson. His fastball does go up a few notches out of the bullpen, sitting in the 94-96 range, rather than 92-94. However, the inconsistent control is still there. Wilson struggles with consistency from appearance to appearance whether he’s in the bullpen or in the rotation. For that reason, there’s no real benefit to keeping him in the bullpen over the long-term. Eventually he’s going to frustrate Pirates fans, kind of in the way that Jonathan Sanchez will probably frustrate Pirates fans at times this year.

That does bring up the topic of why the Pirates didn’t just let Wilson be a starter. The best answer for that is probably due to his track record. Wilson had no track record in the majors. In the minors he had a pretty consistent track record where three things would happen: he’d give up a lot of walks, strike out a lot of hitters, and wouldn’t give up many hits. His biggest weakness, the walks, were countered by the high strikeouts and the low hits. Last year Wilson gave up six hits per nine innings and struck out a batter an inning.

We know the control problems are going to carry over to the majors. But can Wilson strike out a batter an inning and keep such a low batting average against opposing hitters in the majors? That’s a big assumption to just expect those numbers to carry over.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Sanchez has shown that he can have success in the majors, even with control issues. From 2009 to 2011 he had a 4.9 BB/9 ratio in 458 innings. However, he posted a 3.75 ERA in that span, thanks to a 9.5 K/9 and a 7.0 H/9. Like Wilson in the minors, Sanchez was countering the walks with a low average and a lot of strikeouts.

Wilson is in a good situation in the bullpen. He can get major league innings, and work as a multi-inning reliever like last night. If he shows the ability to strike out a lot of hitters and keep the hit count low, the Pirates could consider him for the rotation after the 2013 season.

As for the short-term rotation, that’s probably not going to happen. Even if Wandy Rodriguez goes on the disabled list, Wilson would need to be stretched out. He threw three innings last night. If he’s a spot starter the next time around, he would probably be limited to four innings, with Jeanmar Gomez taking the other innings. In Spring Training, starters didn’t go from three innings to full starts. They went from three to four, then after 1-2 starts at four they went to five, then the regular season. The only way to stretch Wilson out would be to send him down to Triple-A for a few weeks. The Pirates would be better off keeping him in the majors, letting him get experience against major league hitters, and using guys like Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin as immediate rotation depth.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • emjayinTN

    Tim: I liked the article a lot, especially the stats, but I think it falls short by not touching on the resolve that this kid has to be a successful pitcher even though he does not have 4/1 or 5/1 K/W ratio, and has always been a high walk pitcher even before being drafted. He KNOWS how to win. His stats are fairly average, but he is a winner. Take it back to college when the big pitcher for Fresno State was Tanner Scheppers. Scheppers gets injured so who takes the team on his shoulders? Justin Wilson. Throws 112 pitches to beat North Carolina in the division finals of the college world series, then comes back on 3 days rest to throw another 129 in 8 innings to beat Georgia for the College World Series Championship. Think he had dominant stats that year? Nope, 8-5, 4.34 ERA, 116 IP, 99K’s/65W’s, and the Pirates drafted him in the 5th round. The kid is an absolute bulldog who wins consistently in spite of high walk rates and high ERA’s – you know, like a guy who looks awkward at the plate but just hits .300 every year. This kid is a keeper in any capacity.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      That kind of stuff is more a side note for me. It’s impressive that he’s pitched well in some big games, but I don’t credit that as a skill.

      For example, there was a period where it seemed like Josh Fogg would out-pitch an opposing ace every time he took the mound in that type of matchup. But that didn’t really add much to the value of Fogg.

      If Wilson can have success over the long-run, then being a big game pitcher is a bonus if it stays true in the majors. If he can’t have success in the majors, then the big game stuff doesn’t matter.